I recently met a newly bereaved widow who confided that she was struggling with the curious and overwhelming process of remembering her husband as the young man she first met and courted. Initially I was overjoyed that she would allow herself those precious memories to override the intense pain that typically accompanied thoughts of her beloved husband’s particularly debilitating and arduous illness and subsequent death, after 43 years of marital bliss.
So I was surprised to hear that she found no joy in these distant memories coming of their own volition to dominate her days. Why, she asked, would she be immersed in those carefree but long ago days when the people she and her husband were then are so far removed from the person she is now.
It was confusing, she said, to catch herself humming a Beatle’s tune while recalling a pleasant personal experience with her husband that occurred long ago. The feelings she experienced were ones of happiness and contentment, a sharp contrast to the deep sorrow of her loss.
Many who are mourning the loss of a loved one find that they are initially bombarded with images of the ravages of physical illness recently experienced or the devastating sight of accidental tragedies. These memories play like a player piano, over and over, immersing us in our story of grief. So why were these long past memories so troubling to my new friend?
I have learned that to mourn well and rediscover hope for the future, we must listen to the love stories of our hearts and give them voice. And sometimes, that means we have to look way back — in past tense — to what began this march to the place we are now, before we can move forward. Of course we can recall with blinding accuracy the details of the darkest moments surrounding our loved one’s death. But we must also remember the days of joy and challenge that brought us to this present moment.
My new friend was unwittingly participating in a life review — a natural but systematic recall of all that had made her life so rich. This organic and necessary process would help shape the landscape of her grief journey.
My dear friend Denise, who died of leukemia a year ago this month, is foremost on my mind these days as her death anniversary approaches. I have, through the past 11 months, traversed flashbacks of her illness and funeral, but more recently the majority of my memories are of finer days when she and I would meet for lunch or shopping — those grand adventures, girlfriend-style.
As I reel at the thought that an entire year has flown by since last she and I spoke, I know that remembering her as she was all those years ago allows me to move across our personal time line at my own pace, moving through my grief toward healing. Of course I remember the drain on her life that insidious disease had. But for now, my heart knows that our story of friendship, written in past tense, is more what I need to get me through this first anniversary date.
Many of us wish only to remain in those pleasant memories of days gone by, escaping the present pain of living in loss. And the past certainly has much to teach us. But to move toward the future with hope and healing, we must presently give voice to our memories, whether distant or more recent, and then gently allow them to find their rightful place in our newly unfolding life.
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