I’m on a mission to make remembering loved ones as inviting, enticing, and joyful as any other activity that currently brings you pleasure. I want all of us who’ve lost a dear friend or family member to embrace our memories and celebrate them. Why? Because doing so will likely make you happier.
Honoring past relationships has proven to have such significant restorative power that noted grief expert J. William Worden developed an entire bereavement-recovery theory about it. He explains, “Death makes you feel out of control. Taking steps to remember leads to empowerment and feeling empowered is absolutely necessary for living a full, happy, and loving life.”
But it’s often challenging to know what steps to take. When someone we love dies, we usually benefit from being passive recipients of support. Between the rituals of burial and the recitation of certain prayers, between the wakes and shiva calls, the bereaved, and those who console them, know their role and take their place. But consider the vacuum that happens later. I’ve never met anyone who’s completely stopped thinking about the person he or she loved; our memories flood in and out and wash over us at anticipated and unexpected times.
Yet for the most part, a year after, five years later, fifteen— the outreach that once provided so much comfort is gone. When it comes to keeping the memory of our loved ones alive, that work is up to us.
I know this firsthand because I lost both my parents by the time I was 31, and since then have also lost my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. Over the years while opportunities for remembering my family only seemed to pop up during the holidays, I came to realize that if my parents and other loved ones were going to continue enriching my life — and for my children to get to know their relatives — it would be up to me to slowly and more consistently integrate memories into our routine.
So I still went to work and watched my kids’ basketball games, but I also created opportunities to share and talk about my mother’s recipes, turn my father’s colorful assortment of neckties into a quilt, and use photographs in atypical ways so I wouldn’t clutter our house with too many frames. All of this took effort, but I noticed it was working; I felt closer to my parents, and my children were developing a stronger connection to their grandparents — even without having known them.
I was also happier.
The more I incorporated memories into my life — as opposed to sectioning them off to a particular time of year — the more I was able to embrace every part of me: the people who have passed, and all that’s good and fulfilling in my present.
Absence and presence can coexist. Oddly and wonderfully, engaging with the past, and bringing memories into the present, is what gives us the greatest strength to move forward.