“M” is for Memorializing

As we stand here, at the beginning of the third pandemic year and the fifth pandemic wave, it is sometimes hard to remember how life used to be. For the bereaved, this time has been especially difficult as they may not have had the chance to say goodbye to their loved one or to mourn with family and friends. In pondering the wellness practice for the letter, “M”, I reflected on several words that could work:  meditation, massage, moderation, mindfulness. I chose “memorializing” for this entry because we have been and still are living in a time of unprecedented loss. The loss is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. It affects our relationships, health, and daily lives. It affects the way we plan for activities and the ways we work, play, and learn. The sense of loss can feel pervasive and abiding. This is especially true for those who have lost a loved one in the last two years, as the pandemic has upended the way we say goodbye, the way we mourn, and the way we remember our dear ones.

An area that strikes me as especially poignant during these times is that we cannot memorialize lost loved ones in ways that help to heal the wounds of loss. Culturally, we are accustomed to remembering loved ones in a particular way. Death is often immediately followed by a funeral (if the body or cremains are present) and in some cases, a graveside burial, scattering of ashes, or interment. Memorial services or celebrations of life may be held immediately after death or scheduled for a future time, typically within the year.

Funerals, celebrations of life, and memorials support the bereaved in the immediacy of loss. During these events, the decedent’s life story is shared in a eulogy by clergy or a celebrant. There are tears, hugs, and smiles, as listeners remember their dear one. Often times the bereaved are invited to share their memories at the podium, lectern, or in circle. The gathering is usually followed by a reception where friends and families share food, drink, and more memories. These exchanges are an integral part of meeting acute grief head on. They initiate a process that, over time, can help with healing grief and the myriad of feelings associated with loss. These events help us to find meaning in the life and death of the decedent. Memorials are filled with moments of shared humanity, gratitude, grace, kindness, and compassion. These rituals have been disrupted by the pandemic making grief and healing the grief more complicated.

To further complicate matters, if you care for someone who is medically vulnerable, or are yourself vulnerable (i.e. persons diagnosed with chronic disease, organ donor recipients, cancer patients, people over age 65, etc.) simple activities are now difficult and complex. A small minority of our country’s population is immunocompromised (about 7 million). There are about 1.8 million cancer survivors and 54.1 million persons over age 65. For some of these people, gathering with family or friends for a meal, going to the movies, a concert, football game, school, or work are dictated by an ever-changing set of risk assessments, guidelines, and restrictions. Gathering to honor a loved one’s life has become a high-risk activity for them. There have been times to gather safely as viral transmission wanes but planning a celebration of life takes time and may require travel. If cases and risk of infection are on the rise, as they are now with the omicron variant, the most vulnerable may not be able to participate. This leads to more grieving over the missed opportunity to be with others.

We are living in an era of lost cultural and social norms regarding how we connect and relate with others in daily life. Many have lost the ability to engage in the comfort of physical contact with others. The vulnerable and those who care for them now may find that greeting friends with a hug has been replaced by an elbow bump or a socially distanced bow. Placing a reassuring hand on someone’s shoulder used to be a reflex to offer support and kindness. Now there is a hesitancy, a need to ask permission. So, let’s look to some tools to help us remember our dear ones and find inner peace in the face of these losses.

Psychologist, Kristin Neff reminds us that as mammals we are comforted by certain conditions including:  warmth, rest, food and water, kind words, and nurturing touch. One of the ways Dr. Neff teaches the practice of self-compassion is through supportive self-touch. Her guided meditations are nurturing and provide comforting prompts, like placing your hands on your own heart or giving yourself a hug. These practices can help us to shift acute suffering and soothe us in moments of grieving if we are unable to be with others while remembering our loved one who has passed.

One way to spark a healing process when hugs and memory sharing in group settings cannot happen is to hold a virtual memorial. Yes, the Zoom memorial is possible. I know because I facilitated two of them in 2020. Both were beautiful, poignant, and included candle lighting, flowers, music, toasts, tears, and laughter. Both brought forward the sort of grace that can only come as people observe each other’s gestures and body language as they hear each other’s words. The opportunity for supportive, compassionate touch was missed of course, but love was palpable. If you have suffered a loss and have been unable to hold a memorial in person, you might consider a virtual event. Outdoor memorials are also possible when weather permits. Ask local clergy or a celebrant to assist you in planning and facilitating the event. Another resource to help you find a virtual or outdoor facilitator is with your local hospice social worker or bereavement counselor.

A unique way to memorialize your loved one is via legacy letters. I first learned about legacy letters (also known as ethical wills) by reading Legacy Letters from Your Heart: How to Find Peace of Mind by Leaving a Piece of Your Mind  by author, Beth LaMie. This document is often written when attending to retirement, long-term care, or end-of-life planning, but it can be written any time and updated over time. It can be written in letter, booklet, or book format, or even be recorded as an audio or video to share with your chosen loved ones at a time of your choosing. You may want to share it while you are living. This is a gift to those you love and sharing it with them in person, will be a memory they can cherish. If it is to be shared after death, it needs to be kept with other important documents or given to a family member to hold until the right time.

Unlike the last will and testament that deals with the distribution of earthly belongings, the ethical will is about sharing personal history, goals, achievements, values, and gratitude. It is also a place to share your dreams and hopes for future generations. Ms. LaMie provides a PDF template for writing your ethical will. I offer a workshop called My Legacy Matters that provides prompts to encourage deep reflection, discussion, and/or journaling about topics that could be included in your legacy letter. If your loved one did not leave an ethical will or legacy letter, writing about them in your own style, using Ms. LaMie’s template, or prompts from My Legacy Matters can also provide inspiration and healing for the bereaved.

There are numerous other ways to memorialize or create a legacy for our loved ones. This website provides an extensive list of ideas for remembering a partner, parent, sibling, or friend. You may already have an idea about to memorialize a loved one but hesitate because grief is overwhelming. Most often, time will soften the grief and you will find inspiration and energy for your memorial activities. If much time has passed and your suffering has not softened, please consider counseling. Your loved one would not want you to continue suffering, and unresolved grief can lead to serious depression. Your local hospice likely offers free counseling for anyone experiencing grief after loss. These services are typically available whether or not you used the hospice to care for your loved one.

In closing, it is possible to memorialize your dear one in this very moment. If you want to do that now, just call up a memory of your loved one’s kindness, laughter, generosity, or another trait that you admired. Sit with that for just one minute. Smile. Let that memory uplift you and offer you comfort and peace today.

2 thoughts on ““M” is for Memorializing”

    • I am sitting with Adrian now. His delightful humor and ability to go from story telling to deep empathy in a breath. I know you know about this Jack! <3


Leave a Reply