Grief and the Use of Photographs

Family photos are records the way family bibles once were

Posted Mar 03, 2012

The night after a devastating tornado ripped through an Ohio town killing more than twenty people and destroying nearly all its buildings and homes, the evening news showed the destruction and interviewed the victims. One picture in particular seemed to sum up the tragedy and poignancy. There was a girl, perhaps ten, standing upon the rubble of what that morning had been her home. With a teddy bear in the crook of her arm, she picked her way through the pile of boards and plaster. Page by page she recovered pieces of the family photo album.

This girl was doing what others had said they would do in a fire. After saving people and pets, they would rescue the family album. The photographs reveal a lifetime of shared memories; they are a record of what has gone before. Separate but intertwined lives unfold across the pages.

Each time we look at the photographs of friends who have come to visit, relatives who have moved away or died, our memories grow larger. Every time new photographs are added another piece of our lives is given a place of permanence. We are reminded of what we once looked like, the kind of lives we led. Here are the vacations, the visitors, the holidays. Family photos are a record in the way that family bibles once were the ledgers of families' histories.

Often parents show their children relatives that they seldom see or may never have seen. This visualization helps children locate their places in the complex and unfolding narrative. The family photo album provides a sense of continuity between the past and the present. In a significant way it contains a key to understanding our life today. After a death, the album becomes even more important; the importance of photographs looms even larger. To be able to see a person again is a way of remembering the deceased.

Some people fear that being reminded of the past prevents a person from living in the present. This does sometimes happen. I know a woman who keeps an urn with her husband's remains on the mantle above the fireplace. She said that for the first year she found his ashes in her living room a source of comfort. However, now she wanted to move on but was burdened by the urn. As long as the reminder was as immediate as an urn in her house, any attempt to reestablish her life without him felt like an act of disloyalty.

Yet, it is also true that without connections to others life can become meaningless. It has been said that each of us is like a letter in the alphabet—alone we are mere sound but with others we become words, and when the words are put together we have a story.

The wonder of memory is that, when properly used, it gives strength and vitality for living today.

Many small things, such as food, photographs and songs, can be vehicles for solace when they provide links to a loved past. In times of distress some people find the forgotten scent, a song heard together as a way of keeping the past in the present. Healing can be helped by drawing upon the past as a means of living fully in the present.

There is nothing contradictory about using the past to enhance the present. Memory can be an enrichment and is only harmful when it becomes more important than the present. When past and present are accepted as one piece, you are ready to welcome tomorrow.

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