Grief: Part 2 – Grief is Another Way of Remembering

“Grief is another way of remembering,” said my pastor friend who died too young (see previous blog). She said this at my father’s memorial. He died from drinking. For many years all I could remember was the slovenliness of drunkenness. Grieving, like remembering, takes time. It is a process, never fully accomplished.

But slowly I remembered finer memories. Looking at photos helped me to discover what was also there. I see sober Christmases and I can hear telephone conversations when I worked in a mining camp and I had something to say that impressed him. He would call me “son.” I remembered him putting together my green CCM bike with ribbons falling from the handgrips.

I was afraid of my father and I felt hurt and anger much of my life. That was the core of my grief. Grief is often a mush of fear and hurt and anger – all primitive emotions. When I experienced some of this over time, I discovered the tenderness just below. Sorrow needs to be wept out or sobbed out – it can hardly be thought out. Tears help us drain the pain.

If my unconscious carries an unexpressed wound from my past, I will always be black and blue inside. I will not be able to approach life with my eyes looking forward for fear they will trigger the repressed pain. Have you met people who cannot look into your eyes for fear that you will look into theirs?

People have said to me, “It was the way you looked at me. You didn’t take your eyes from mine.” I have learned to see grief and the emotional mush that is behind it.

The grief that I carry stowed away has great power over me. More than ruminating, I become a rumination. Until I feel my grief and allow myself to know it, I will not be free of its grip.

You may know the song, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton as he grieved the accidental death of his young son. He sings, “I must be strong and carry on, ‘Cuz I know I don’t belong, here in heaven.” This grief connects him to the child he loves.

Until I know how to grieve with my heart and my soul, with my voice and my time, I will never know how to love with all my heart either. Jesus gives us a model to follow. And his words are true: “Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

Do This in Remembrance – Emotions and Change

Anyone in therapy knows that remembering provokes change. It causes emotional upheaval and it provokes the necessity of some sort of decision.

Sometimes I ask my client friends, who remember few memories of childhood, to bring in pictures, report cards, childhood drawings, stuffed animals they have saved, anything left over and stored from their childhood. I ask them how they feel about these primitive objects knowing they open some primitive memories and feelings. And their remembering opens up long laid-aside emotions. Sometimes sadness, or joy, or grief, or resentment – emotions bubble up from the emotional underground.

I ask couples to bring in wedding pictures, books they treasured over the years, a favourite sweater from years past, and the action of this stirs up feelings and causes memories to revisit and, sometimes, rekindles embers of forgotten affection.

We store emotions and memories in recesses long forgotten. And it is these emotions and memories that cause us to change. We can’t control the long-layered emotions from our unconscious, but we can decide what we will do with them once we visit with them again.

This is one aspect of wisdom I think – to decide to do something good with painful memories. Perhaps a memory of failing in school or being scorned in athletics or feeling ashamed for simply being. It takes courage to live with hard memories. I admire people who make the decision to do well when they remember.

It seems to me that the “this” in “do this in remembrance” is to decide to do something worthwhile with memories.

Do This in Remembrance — What Matters Most

My son David, when he was 12, had a horrendous stroke that stole his memory and, for a time, his mind. He was in a coma struggling for life and when he “came to” I asked him, “What number is Pavel Bure” (“The Russian Rocket” and the greatest Vancouver Canuck of all time and David’s then idol). David couldn’t speak, his hands were tied to his bed frame, a frozen plastic soother was duct-taped into his mouth, but he knew the number “10.” His hand slowly opened twice. Five fingers, two times. That I won’t forget.

David was there. His memory still worked. His affection was intact. His mind functioned. He knew Pavel Bure’s number.

This is called “emotional memory.” David remembers what emotionally matters to him. He remembers hockey statistics, Bible verses, his friends’ birthdays, his family’s emotions, his Dad’s love for shoulder massages when he is stressed. He doesn’t remember Math 12 or the fundamentalism of his Sunday School days. He remembers emotionally — the things that matter.

And so do you.

I don’t remember friends’ phone numbers now that smart phones have made me dumb. I don’t remember my work address because it is on the footer of my emails. But I do remember Carole’s voice on a phone call when she is just checking in – I remember it with the fragrance, beauty and lilt of our dating years. I remember my teenage daughter coming home late at night on dates with Brent (now her husband and the dad of their two boys) and how we talked about her joy and what most mattered to her. And when David massages my shoulders, I remember when we almost lost him and how I am touched by him.

Schools emphasize “cognitive memory” and this is what we, teachers and professors, often assess. But we don’t normally enter into what our students love and what motivates them to hope and dream. We don’t understand affection, and faith and what is essentially moral, but we evaluate on data accuracy, cognitive carefulness and redundant repetition.

It seems to me that if there is a ribbon in our memory from past to present and present to past (see the last post) it is an emotional ribbon. And it is coloured in Robin Hood green and pumpkin orange and priestly purple and slimming black and smells like fresh baked sourdough with plumping butter poured all over. With a glass of cab sav. Now that I can remember.

Emotional memory tastes as great as it looks and feels even better. Immeasurable really.

Do This in Remembrance — Memory is Odd

I write most things down.

In counselling with couples I draw relational maps so I can remember emotions and how they work back and forth. When I am at home, I make lists of what needs to be done and sometimes I remember to check the list. I am really helped by my iPhone so I can photograph the price of some TV I want to purchase at Costco. Carole and I complete each other’s sentences while we have entirely different memories of the same event. I wish I could remember what I did with the last 10 years and then the 10 years before that. I am glad I write things down.

Memory is odd. We think it is linear like a ribbon, connecting us back to our histories. More likely it is startling and episodic like Instagram photos, highlighting the vivid, often over-coloring the image. You may know the 70s and 80s debate about “recovered memories” vs “false memories.” It turns out that so many of those recovered memories of childhood abuse were false. They never happened. But they were deeply felt to have happened.

Parents, teachers and preachers will tell stories and remember the telling of the story more than the event, and then the hyperbole is believed to be true. It is actually the exaggeration that is remembered. The history is lost.

Families do this a lot. “I remember Candace as being coy even from when she was little.” “Frankie is such a chip of the old block, always in trouble like his dad.” Then it becomes “true” because memory remembers it. History is again reconstructed.

The other day a client-friend asked me, “What do you write down when I am talking?” “Take a look,” I said. He looked at his genogram with all the crisscrossed lines, and my numbered point form of what he said. “Why do you write down exactly what I say?” he asked. “I do this to remember and so that I can understand.” He seemed appreciative: “I don’t think I have ever had anyone listen to me so that they can remember what I said.”

Next post: emotional and social memory. (If I can remember to write it.)

Page 1 of 212