When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”–line from the movie, Coco
I have always been fascinated by the Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos, in which people publicly remember, honor and connect with those that have died. Having been brought up in an English-American family, the traditions around having any kind of formal way of remembering dead loved ones was completely lacking in my family. When my family experienced deaths, the subject of remembering the people who had died, much less talking about them, was met with trepidation and awkwardness.
Losing your loved one is a tragedy. It is heartbreaking enough that they are no longer physically in your life. As the years pass, finding ways to keep your loved one’s memory alive can bring comfort and a sense that they are still very much a part of your life. They are no longer physically here but your connection with them, to the degree that you are open to it, will change and evolve over time. One of my favorite quotes that I latched onto when my brothers died (you can read more about my experience with loss here) was a quote written on a postcard I received:
“They are not forgotten, those who live on in the hearts of those they leave behind.” I suppose I made it a promise to myself that I would find a way to keep the memory of my brothers alive but how I would do it was not as clear in the beginning years as it is now.
Take a moment to consider how you or your family has handled the subject of remembering those who have died. Was the person never spoken about again? Is the topic all together avoided? Do you feel unsure to bring up the person’s name for fear of making others uncomfortable or sad? Or does your family carry out any kind of rituals that help you to remember and honor your lost loved ones?
To get to the memories, you must pass through the pain.
In the days, weeks, months and even years following the death of a loved one, all memories involving your loved one usually bring enormous pain. Memories make you cry and long for your loved one. Memories only point to the void in your life that losing them has now created. The memories can be unbearable and feel more like a cruel joke. However over time, as the intensity of your grief begins to wane, you may find yourself wanting to remember as much as you can. Many people worry that the clear memories will fade and the essence of their loved one will be harder to feel. It is true that over time, the felt sense of your loved one will naturally become more distant. This makes it all the more important to create rituals or activities that will help you maintain a meaningful connection.
Over the past 20 years since my brothers died, I have found ways to create my own rituals and today I would like to share 10 ways you can remember your loved ones who have died.
10 ways to remember someone who has died:
- Talk about them. Sounds simple but this can be very hard to do. Many grievers do not want to make other people uncomfortable by bringing up their loved one who has died. In reality, most of the time other people are waiting for you to give the go-ahead. By openly talking about your loved one, you give others the permission and relief that they can share their own memories or feelings of grief with you. This also opens the door to other people checking in with you about how you are doing, which can ease some of your loneliness.
- Create a photo album of memories. In the days following my brothers deaths, I poured over all the pictures of them that I could find. The photos of my brothers took on a special quality as I knew that no new memories would be created. The moments that had been captured up until then would be it. I wanted to make sure I protected all of those photos as they preserved the memories in a tangible way and I could go back to visit these memories as many times as I wanted.
- Create a special ritual to do on anniversary dates and birthdays: One way in which my family came together to remember my brothers included big family trips on the 10th and 20th year anniversaries of their deaths. We invited close extended family members to join us in Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, where we could feel supported by the beauty and peace of nature. Over the course of the trip, we put up photos, listened to the music they liked, told stories, cried together and just came together as a family to create a general sense of love and connection in their honor. One of my clients who’s wife had died went to visit places in Mexico where he and his wife enjoyed staying. His wife had a vast collection of small, animal figurines so as he revisited the places they had stayed, he left one small animal figurine in her honor. In this way, he felt as if a part of them would always be together at the places they enjoyed visiting. Other ideas that you could do more easily could be to put up your loved one’s photo and light a candle in their honor for any special dates.
- Include them in your holiday gatherings: The first holidays spent without your loved one will be extra difficult so it is very helpful to be prepared. You may want to find a way to include them in holiday gatherings by placing a photo on the table, giving a toast or saying something special for your loved one around the central mealtime. Some other ideas for remembering your loved one on holidays include making a meal that they liked, putting out flowers or decorations they liked, telling stories around mealtime or taking a memorial hike somewhere that they enjoyed going to break up the day. For many years, my father and I would go on a morning hike on Thanksgiving before going to the bigger family gathering as it helped ease the sadness of spending another holiday without my brothers.
- Go to the gravesite or memorial This can be helpful on special dates or when you are feeling particularly disconnected from your loved one. When you go to the gravesite, you might try talking to your loved one. You may find yourself crying openly or wanting to just be quiet. Whatever you do is fine. Let your heart be in that space with your loved one and it will tell you what it wants to do. For some people, just going to the gravesite is a huge, difficult step so please have patience with yourself as you do anything that feels hard to do.
- Create an altar: Creating an altar that is dedicated to the memory of your loved one can help carve out a special place that you always have to spend time with the memory of your loved one. You can adorn your altar with pictures, candles, inspirational/religious/comforting quotes or figures.
- Listen to music that they liked or that you shared together. Most likely, you and your loved one shared some special songs together. Music has a way of connecting us directly with the heart and our emotions. Let music be a gateway to the memory of your loved one. I remember in the months following my brothers deaths, every time Creedence Clearwater came on the radio, I took it to be some kind of sign that my brothers were saying hello. It was uncanny how often those songs came on the radio! You can make a playlist that helps comfort you or simply listen to a song when the timing feels right for you. When you hear songs spontaneously, perhaps when you least expect it, let yourself smile or cry and take a moment to honor your loved one.
- Create a piece of art that honors your loved one: This could be in the form of a drawing, piece of music, poem, story, painting, clothing, recipe, tattoo, or piece of jewelry. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating art. Its okay to just keep it for yourself but it can also be very powerful to share your creation with close friends or family, especially those who knew and loved the person who died. For the 10 year anniversary of my brothers deaths, I wrote a poem for them and read it to my family at the gravesite before leaving for our big family trip. It felt as if my heart could directly communicate to them and sharing it in the presence of others who knew and loved them made it all the more meaningful.
- Notice how knowing your loved one has changed who you are for the better. Perhaps there are things you are doing in your life that you know are directly related to having gone through their death or by virtue of having known them. In honor of how your loved one made your life more meaningful and joyful, you can volunteer for a cause that helps you to pass it on. Any kind of humanitarian work, donating to a charity or just being a kinder, more loving and caring person can transform your loss into making this world a better place. Personally, I know that becoming a therapist and helping others who are grieving is a homage to the impact that my brothers lives and deaths had on me.
- Reclaim your joy and laughter. You may wonder, especially in the beginning months and years how reclaiming your joy and laughter connects you to your loved one, or how it is even possible to feel those qualities again. Let me ask you this; Have you found it hard to let yourself feel happiness since your loved one died? For many years after my brothers died, I felt that my sense of humor had died with them. Life became very serious. However, over time I found that my ability to laugh connected me with them in a very comforting way. I began to ask myself how my brothers would feel if they knew that I had stopped laughing. You can try this as well. Would your loved one want you to never feel happiness and joy again? Given that we all have just this one life to live and life is relatively short, why not allow yourself to enjoy the rest of yours? The things that bring you joy may change after going through a deep loss and that is completely normal. You may notice that happiness or a sense of gratitude arises in more subtle ways. In time, your appreciation for every day of your life and the people you love may feel heightened. Let your love for the person who died fuel your passion to live life in the most meaningful and loving way you can imagine. When you live in this way, I believe it is the deepest way to honor your loved one who died.
Remembering As The Years Pass
How your loved one lives on in your memory will change over time. Everyone grieves differently and therefore I encourage you to find ways to remember your loved one that feel comfortable and meaningful for you. Again, it may be a long time before you can remember your loved one with feelings of peace, comfort and love. If memories bring up too much pain, please honor your own healing process. In time, you most likely will be able to remember your loved one with less pain but please trust your own timing. Whether or not you carry out any rituals to remember your loved one, they no doubt live on in the very essence of who you are today.
“You will lose everyone you love but the love will return to you in new forms.” -from a story about Kafka and the doll https://www.huffingtonpost.com/may-benatar-phd-lcsw/kafka-and-the-doll_b_981348.html
If you are ready to take the step towards beginning grief counseling, please contact me and I am happy to offer a free 15 minute consultation to address any questions you may have about the counseling process or to book your first session.
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