Articles: Recently Bereaved

Grief Invites Us to Remember

In a story from ancient Greek mythology, Aurora, who was the goddess of the Dawn loses her son in a battle. When she hears the news, she rushes to the King of the gods, Zeus, and says:

“Zeus, even though I am not one of your most powerful goddesses, and even though the loss of my son may seem like a minor thing to you, nevertheless my heart is broken. Please grant me two favors: that my son’s death be honored; and that it never be forgotten.”

Zeus grants her wishes. On the day of her son’s funeral, there is a mighty storm, and everyone stops to acknowledge the death of her son. The next day, when Dawn ushers in another day, everyone notices the world was covered with dew. But those dewdrops were actually her tears for her dead son. From that day on, Aurora would shed tears, and as she remembered and grieved, the whole world would be reminded of her loss.

But here is the most wonderful thing about the story. Even though she shed teardrops every night, Dawn still arose every morning and did her job of ushering in the new day. Her grief did not put her in a helpless position. Instead her tears were a daily expression of her sorrow. When people throughout the world saw the dewdrops, in her tears they saw their OWN sorrows. But then they proceeded to get on with the day that Dawn had ushered in and got on with their lives.

This story reminds us of the importance of our grief and the significance honoring our loved ones with our tears; while also reminding us of the necessity of honoring our loved ones even more by going on with life.

But it also illustrates a very important principle, namely that “grief invites us to remember, not to forget.”

Memories are vitally important, yet often a neglected area of grief. In this culture we are frequently encouraged to try not to think or talk about death and dying, but grief invites us to remember. Hey, don’t take my word for it. If you are a grieving person, ask yourself this question: “Since my loved one died, am I thinking more about the person, or am I thinking less about them?” I think almost unanimously grieving people say that they are thinking about their loved one all the time. It’s like we can’t get them out of our mind.

That is grief inviting us to remember. Sadly we live in a culture that seems to encourage us to forget. The attitude seems to be that if we pretend that everything is normal, somehow we won’t have to face the harsh realities that are part of a life-threatening situation or a death. People somehow decide not to talk about it, and act as if nothing has happened. Many grieving people experience what can be described as a “conspiracy of silence.”

Surely this is the ultimate denial. For something has happened. Circumstances have meant that life has changed, and indeed will never be the same again. How can we come to terms with, and accept the changes that have occurred, ones which we may not like or did not want, but which are reality, nonetheless?

Memories can help us come to terms with a situation in several ways.

  1. Retelling the story can help to make it believable. Often when we hear bad news or some crisis happens, our initial reaction is to say, “I don’t believe it.” Such is the shocking impact that our mind seems unable to absorb it. Every time we hear the story again or remember it in some way, it becomes more real, more believable.
  2. Memories help us put things into perspective. When we are in a difficult situation, we are inclined to think only of that situation. It is constantly on our minds. Often all we can see is our current situation and the misery associated with it. Memories help us see another picture, often a much happier one.

Let me illustrate this important point this way. In the days after my wife died, all I could think about was her death and the circumstances surrounding it. Whenever someone mentioned my wife’s name or the situation, all I could remember was her death and that was devastatingly difficult. These, believe me, were not the happiest or the best memories. That picture cannot be erased; however it can become part of a larger photograph album.

In other words, it is important to remember that the death is not the only picture. There are other snapshots, better images of good times and better days. Although the memories of the death may be difficult, there are also recollections of the life that are so much more beautiful. We come to understand that reliving our memories of the life can help us see that there is much for which to be thankful. There is always more than one way to look at any situation.

We have to put the death in the context of the life. That is what is going to help soften the difficult memories of the death. Helping someone remember the better days does not deny the present reality; it merely serves to put it in a more meaningful and gentler context. Life is difficult right now, but it has not been all bad. Remember when this happened? Do you recall that happy moment, or that humorous incident? These better memories help to put life into perspective, good and bad, happy and sad, enabling the person to come to a better place of reconciling the fact that “that’s life.” Life should not be defined by this one tragic event.

We must let the light of the years shine on the event, rather than letting the event cast its shadow on the years.