Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Memories From A Western Perspective

While attending my monthly meeting at Bereaved Families of Ontario — Ottawa, I was again reminded about memories and the principal role they play in bereavement. I am really noticing now when longer-term widow/ers say that they insist on holding on to their memories of their dead spouse, that the memories are "too good" to let go of. Based on my understanding of Buddhist thought, it is this desire to cling to and hang on to those memories that results in suffering (Saṃsāra). In this tradition, freedom from suffering lies in letting go of cravings and desires.

But tonight I want to give the Western perspective a fair shake. While my preference is clearly for an Eastern view in the long term, I realize that everyone grieves in their own way, and we will likely adopt many different perspectives as we progress through our grief journey. In fact, many consider it vital within that first year to spend a lot of time revisiting our memories and "refiling" them, regardless of how much pain this causes. This is where the advice about taking it easy on yourself comes in ;-) Grief work is exhausting. Some of the hardest grief work I did involved making a conscious decision to revisit memory after memory. And I was hungry for advice on the best way to do this. I'm not a glutton for punishment ;-)

I've just finished reading "Understanding Grief" by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, and he explains that the purpose of grief is to change our relationship with our dead spouse from one of presence to one of memory. He has a number of suggestions on how to go about doing this, and I think you will find something that can help you in your own journey [pp 110-112]:

Do you have any kind of relationship with someone when they die? Of course. You have a relationship of memory. This need involves allowing and encouraging yourself to pursue that relationship.

Some people may try to take your memories away. Trying to be helpful, they encourage you to pack all the pictures away, tell you to keep busy, or move out of your house. You also may think avoiding memories would be better for you. And why not? You are living in a culture that teaches you that to move away from your grief is best, instead of toward it. Yes, you still have a relationship with the person in your life who died; however, a change must occur from one of presence to one of memory. Memories that are precious, occasional dreams reflecting the significance of the relationship, and living legacies are examples of some of the things that give testimony to a different form of a continued relationship. Your ultimate healing calls out for this new form of relationship that is firmly rooted in memory.

The process of beginning to embrace your memories often begins with the funeral. The ritual offers you an opportunity to remember the person who died and helps to affirm the value of the life that was lived. The memories you embrace during the time of the funeral set the tone for the changed nature of the relationship. Meaningful rituals encourage the expression of cherished memories and allow for both tears and laughter. Memories that were made in love can be embraced with people who shared in your love for the person who died.

Embracing your memories can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. Remember — don't try to do all of your work of mourning at once. Go slowly and be patient with yourself.

In a culture where most people don't understand the value and function of memories, you may need help in keeping your precious memories alive. You will need to have people around you who understand your need to share them. The following are a few examples of things you can do to keep memories alive while at the same time embracing the reality that the person has died:

  • Talking out or writing out favorite memories you shared with the person who died.

  • Giving yourself permission to retain some special keepsakes that belonged to the person who died.

  • Displaying pictures of the person who died.

  • Visiting places of special significance that stimulate memories of times shared together.

  • Reviewing photo albums at special times such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.

Perhaps one of the best ways to embrace memories is through creating a "Memory Book" which contains special photographs you have selected. Organize them, place them in an album, and write out the memories reflected in the photos. This book can then become a valued collection of memories that you can review whenever it seems appropriate.

I need to mention the reality that memories are not always pleasant. If that applies to you, addressing this need can be made even more difficult. To ignore painful or ambivalent memories is to prevent yourself from healing. You will need someone who can nonjudgmentally explore any painful memories with you. If you repress or deny these memories, you risk carrying an underlying sadness or anger into your future years.

In my experience, remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible. Your future will become open to new experiences only to the extent that past memories have been embraced. Hope for your healing means to embrace memories!

As a reference, you can review all my posts about memories by selecting the memories label link on the left.


Anonymous said...


I am exhausted from reading your blog for the past two hours.I just have some random thoughts to share with you. I am a widower now coimg up to six years in August. It was only clear to me about less than ayear ago that I had not completed my grief journey. I had not completed the critical step of letting go. That was mostly because my wife did not want to talk about her diagnosis or her impending death. She was diagnosed and given 6 months to live which was just about bang on. Anyways I digress. I don't know where you find the time to do so much reading with a young son..you must be a night owl!! I have read several books on grief and after awhile i find that they are pretty much the same or there is not much more I can glean from then. I went back and read virtually all of your posts since you started and was hoping to find some more up close and personal comments about how you were doing..I think for those in this journey and especially for those say in the same timeline..they can say..hey..no kidding me too..yes right on..that is exactly what I am feeling. Anyways I just wanted to make that what I hope is a constructive comment..that if you had some more personal tidbits I think it would help your readers perhaps relate a bit more. I appreciate that you have created the blog and I think if nothing else I am certain it has helped you in your journey. I think I am finally ready to move on but I can look back now and realize that I should have done some more self help earlier on. I wish you all the very best..

Vic said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thank you so much for taking the time to read so much of my blog, and again thank you for posting some of your thoughts.

Yes, I am a night owl, and I do most of my reading on the bus on the way to work and back. Point well taken about my not putting a lot of personal comments on here. I tend to be a pretty private person. I also am not interested in this blog becoming a one-stop-shop place for widow/ers. This is primarily a research blog, and that has been my focus. Other blogs and websites do a much better job at posting people's stories and sharing experiences. My intention has been to do what I am good at, namely research, and especially research that bucks the trend or is controversial. Must be the rebel in me ;-)

Having said that, I will consider sharing a bit more about myself and how I was doing at certain points in my journey. Hopefully tonight's post will be more along these lines.

Thank you very much again for your valuable feedback, and I wish you total peace and happiness.