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What Memories Do We Leave Behind Once We Leave This Life?

Reflections on death, grief, life, and adjusting to a new reality after loss.

28th January 2021. An ordinary day on the calendar and an extraordinary day that has stopped me in my tracks. I want to share a reflection on loss and grief.

I have been struck by so many heartbreaking stories of loss this week—ones that I have experienced personally, that I have heard about from clients and friends, and ones that I learned about from strangers around the world whom I did a psychology training course with this week.

We all know that the greatest certainty of life is death. And for most of us, a great uncertainty is exactly when and how it will happen. Our brain does not like the unknown, however, and it instinctively tries to create familiarity and order.

One way it does this is by developing a map or template of how we see our reality and what to expect. This includes a picture of how our routine goes, a picture of what identity and roles we take on and of our place is in the world, a picture of the trajectory we imagine our life to take, and a picture of who is in our life and the roles they take. We even create templates of people we don’t know and people we are never in touch with.

For instance, I hold a picture in my head of how I imagine my secondary school friends to be even though I have not been in touch with them for 18 years. I remember their characters and their families, I imagine them older, I may know that some of them are married, have children, and have taken particular careers. I imagine them alive. This is my template of them — partly based on memories of the past, partly based on facts in the present, partly based on my imagination.

It can feel shattering when we are hit by the news that someone is gone or no longer physically exists, whether we knew them or not and whether it was an expected or sudden death. When this happens, there is an immediate glitch in our mind and our templates—as though there is a short circuit when a bulb goes off and all the electricity trips. Reality as we knew it is no longer reality as we know it.

The mind goes into disarray and frantically struggles to make sense of this. The loss of someone or something we cared for triggers grief. Grief is a complex process of different emotions, thought patterns, and behaviours, which may last for months and years.

Research by Kübler-Ross and Kessler (2005) has shown us that there are different aspects of grief that we can experience repeatedly and in a back-and-forth way. Shock and denial (this cannot be real, numbness); Anger (this is not fair, who is to blame for this?); Bargaining (pleading that they do not die, feeling helpless and out of control); Sadness (a broken heart, retreating inwards, feeling depressed).

Even if we were not close to the person who died, we may still be affected because we are close to their loved ones. Even if we did not know the person, we may still feel the loss and grief because we can empathise, we may be reminded of our own previous losses, or because it may trigger thoughts and feelings about our own mortality. The experience of loss and grief can ripple across many levels and social circles.

When we are alive, we all take up our own unit of space and time in this world. We all bring our own energy, quirks, character, flaws, and influences and we touch many people’s lives as we create 100s of connections in numerous social networks.

When a person dies, they leave behind a space. This space is by no means empty, but rather it is a space that consists of a rich bed of unique memories that represent what this person was about, what they offered to this world, and how they touched and shaped our lives, be it in helpful or unhelpful ways.

Kaboompicscom/Pexels
Memories in a box
Source: Kaboompicscom/Pexels

For instance, a loved one may leave behind a space that is filled with memories of how they loved music, made the best stew, were always punctual, made mistakes at times and hurt others, and how they loved a lot and got angry a lot. A beloved pet may leave a space that is filled with memories of its beautiful eyes, its energy and playfulness, of times when it got scared and defended itself and when it took ownership of the most comfortable spots on the sofa.

For the people who are mourning, a crucial part of grieving and healing comes when we start to accept that the person is no longer physically with us. As this starts to sink in, it allows us to adjust and to create new templates of a new reality, where we adjust to new roles and a new identity that is based on the updated information that the person is no longer alive.

We also create an updated template of the person where the brain slowly registers that they are no longer physically present and what we have left is a library of both beautiful and painful memories that made up their life. This keeps them alive in our mind, heart, body, family, and history.

When people die, it can naturally lead us to think about our own mortality and what space and memories we will leave behind once we are gone. Would you be leaving behind a memory of someone who made amends even when mistakes were made? Who worked hard to do their best? Who was courageous in the face of lots of suffering? Who learnt how to forgive themselves and others who hurt them? Who was at times selfish and was also kind and served others? Who had an unusual yet unique sense of humour?

Life is a mix of great contradictions, and what we leave behind will be shaped by:

  • the painful and beautiful experiences we go through
  • the people who have loved and hurt us
  • the people we have liked and disliked
  • our drive to achieve things and our ability to be calm and at ease
  • what we give to others and what we receive, ask for, and take

This is what can simultaneously make life so challenging, losing so painful, and living so worthwhile.

I will end with this beautiful quote:

Life is amazing. And then it's awful. And then it's amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it's ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That's just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it's breathtakingly beautiful. —L.R. Knost

References

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York: Scribner.

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