What We Remember Lives On
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
She’s been dead 6 months and her 85th birthday was last week. Most people don’t mention my mother’s name anymore. I still bring her name up in conversation when something reminds me of her. But otherwise my grief is mostly silent now. I sit with her alone in my thoughts still trying to understand who she was. More and more I remember sweet moments where she was like a mother lion protecting her young. If there are negative thoughts, they tend to be focused on how imperfect I was in our relationship. I am trying to find them helpful rather than hurtful. I won’t get another mother to show me that I can be better, but I can try to be more loving in other relationships. And I am also remembering how good I was too.
My mother loved birthdays. When we were children she really liked us making a fuss over her. But after we left home and we were distracted with our own lives, her birthdays became filled with anxiety for her children. If we were late in acknowledging her or, God forbid, forgot all together we got demerits. And yes, she kept score. A phone call was never good enough. She had to have something tangible in her hand. It was a sign of our love (so she said) to her.
So this year her birthday was a big deal for me. I suspect it will always be that way. It helped that I planned some time to not be distracted by life on that day. I went out to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law so I could be around people who knew her and wouldn’t dismiss my feelings. It seemed helpful to be proactive and not to just let things happen.
I had made a video last fall for her memorial gathering. Every time I listened to the songs on the first day of putting it together, I cried. By the end of the week I just felt proud of my work. I watch it every couple of weeks and enjoy it but I don’t cry. I watched it on her birthday and cried. It was a cleansing that I needed. Those special days are indeed different. Our cells remember even if we consciously forget. I’m glad for special days that let me go deeper
At the immediate time of a loss we live hour by hour. She’s been dead six hours, we notice. We are amazed that the pain of loss hasn’t devoured us by 24 hours. Then a week goes by. Two weeks. A month. Each is a landmark. We remember the time of day it happened, the day of the week, the weather on that day. It’s all significant and will be part of the movie that plays in our heads until it doesn’t.
Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, special days, _they all have the potential of bringing back a flood of memories—both good and bad. The anticipation of such days is harder than the actual day for some. These days jog my memory and help me to focus. I’ve decided that’s what’s good about them. But I have had to practice the art of remembering--not reliving. I don’t need to relive parts of the story that don’t lift me up.
We want others to remember too. But few do. These days are a set up for being disappointed in other’s lack of caring. But I have to remember, it wasn’t their loss. I have to remember they wouldn’t have remembered my loved ones’ birthdays if they were alive, unless I reminded them. And if I wouldn’t have been upset with them then, why would I be upset with them now. The best I can do is tell them about the upcoming special days, letting them know that I can use some extra support, and hope that they respond in a helpful way. The forgiving part of me knows that. It is only the not-so-forgiving part that wants to resent them.
It is like leading a double life--the life that others want you to live, and the life you actually live. That’s what I love about support groups. There you can be your authentic self. You can be mad. You can cry, You can be cynical, pissy, compassionate, loving and even forgiving. No one is going to judge you for being upset and getting the hard stuff off your chest. It’s so much easier there. Everyone in the room knows.
Birthdays and holidays are public events. These days are more family oriented and come with their own set of problems for those who are grieving. Anniversaries and “special days” are more private and tend to go unnoticed by the rest of the world but can be of much significance for the bereaved.
Parents whose babies die at birth or shortly after are unusually marked by birth and death days. These parents fight for acknowledgement of their child’s brief life. On one hand our culture pretends every life, no matter how long or short the life span is precious and holy, and on the other hand the culture is quick to minimize, intellectualize and justify the loss of this little individual in order to quickly get on with the rest of life. It is difficult for others to comprehend what hard work grief is for those whose future suddenly hits a wall and there has been no preparation for how that devastating impact will affect every part of their lives. I am in awe of how these young families find the grace to be the loving parents they had hoped to be while only being able to hold their babies in their hearts.
My mother had an address book filled with birthdays of everyone she knew. (She wasn’t into death days.) She acknowledged them on their special day, but took them off the list if they didn’t reciprocate. I can go one better. I can acknowledge both birth and death days and just be grateful I remembered.
What we remember lives on.