Not so long ago, my son was invited to a roller skating party. He’s skilled at many sports, but roller skating has not really clicked yet, despite numerous attempts at homeschool get-togethers and birthday parties. In a world that preaches, “Dream it. Do it,” I’m a real countercultural voice when I remind him he won’t be excellent at everything. “Take your father, for example,” I say. He grins and chuckles, remembering.
Every spring, our homeschool co-op in Seattle celebrated the end of the school year with a roller skating party. An army of students of all ages descended on the local rink for the midday activity, a scheduling luxury for moms who enjoyed alternative schooling hours. On Rob’s first year of working from home, he took his lunch hour to join us at the rink.
In 15 years of marriage, I’d never seen Rob on skates before. I watched him lace up his brown skates as I made slow laps with my 5 year old. He looks so tall and big in those little skates, I thought as he stood. Kind of wobbly. Rob gripped the wall tightly as he eased himself onto the rink. This didn’t look promising.
Rob took a couple of warm-up rounds on the rink before he invited our son to skate with him. Surprisingly, the younger seemed to fare better than the elder. Could it be that Rob actually skated steadier while holding on to an 8 year old? The two picked up speed along the straightaway and began curving around the end of the rink. As I turned to look, my son misstepped and leaned into Rob for support. But no support was to be found in my handsome husband on skates. Holding hands tightly, they wobbled and crashed, Rob dragging them both to the floor. 215 pounds of grown man pinned our little boy to the rink.
Our son can laugh about it now, but he cried big tears that day. Rob landed squarely on top of him, and his leg bruised badly and hurt for a couple of days too. Rob may have been our boys’ hero, but his skating skills were nothing to brag about. Rob impressed his children in myriad ways; but that day, his performance was a crashing failure.
It is easy to let Rob off the hook for his poor skating skills. After all, skating ability isn’t a vital requirement for a competent parent or decent human. In grief, though, it is also an easy temptation to filter out anything less than flattering about Rob. To choose to remember only the good. Here’s the danger though. In filtering for memories or qualities we prefer, Rob’s life can easily become the ultimate “big fish” story. In his absence, he can grow larger than life.
If you’ve ever sat through a eulogy that felt incongruous, you know what I’m talking about. In the face of death, we want a prettier picture, a simpler one. Our unmet desires, our old hurts, our deep disappointments bubble up to the surface, and we can often feel compelled to brush them away in favor of remembering something less painful. The finality of death does not offer us any chance for reckoning directly with the one who has died. So our hearts attempt to do it the only way we know how; we gloss over the bad and choose to focus on only the good.
Unfortunately, this kind of memory keeping and storytelling does more harm than good to our progress through grief. Especially for children, this way of recollecting — of minimizing the bad and only highlighting the good — risks a lifetime of damage. John James and Russell Friedman of The Grief Recovery Institute write:
“Once established, exaggerated memories can become dangerous roadblocks to recovery. Since larger-than-life memory pictures are not totally accurate, they make it almost impossible to complete what is emotionally unfinished.”John James and Russell Friedman, When Children Grieve
If we are to grieve well, we must remember the whole person. The truth is, we are all flawed. Deeply. We are formed by our flaws as well as our successes and strengths. When we remember only parts of Rob that make us happy, he ceases to be fully human. He becomes a myth. Rob’s ordinary life becomes extraordinary in the retelling. He grows into a paragon of goodness, truth and beauty to which his children can never attain. The normal admiration a child holds for his parent becomes distorted by this unbalanced remembering. Out of their love, children will strive, consciously or not, toward that ideal the rest of their lives. To their detriment, the one they loved and lost will become a god to them.
Anybody who spends much time with me will learn quickly how much I adore my precious husband. Lend me your ear, and I’ll regale you with tales of his household heroics, his deep affection, his life accomplishments. I love Rob very much. So much that I’m committed to keeping him human, for myself and for our children. This means that I won’t shy away from painful memories of our relationship, times when he let me down, times when he hurt me. Rob was not perfect. He was not always kind, patient, forgiving, or forthright. He failed at times — and sometimes in big ways — in work, in relationships, in parenting. What a tragedy if he could return and would not recognize the picture I’ve painted of him for myself or for our children! Rob’s failings made him no less loveable, no less deeply missed. He was not a saint or a devil. He was simply human, a whole person.
In our nightly memory sharing at the dinner table, in addition to our goofy and happy memories, we sometimes talk about times when Rob lost his cool, when he failed to keep a promise, when he disappointed us. These memories of Rob’s flaws are nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Instead, they offer us opportunities to apologize, to offer forgiveness, to revisit strong emotions. They offer us what James and Friedman call “emotional completion.” When we remember the whole Rob, when we talk about both the good and the bad, we can release deep emotions and make a path through grief to new life. We actually love Rob better that way. In remembering Rob’s whole person, we are modeling for ourselves what true love is — unconditional, not contingent on good behavior.
In the interest of telling you the whole story, I need to share that, in addition to being physically hurt, our son was pretty annoyed the day Rob landed on him. He’d practiced hard to stay upright, and Rob’s big takedown hurt his feelings and his pride. “I was embarrassed and annoyed,” he shared with me. “I had already fallen down a lot.”
Thankfully, our son was able to complete those feelings with Rob while he was alive. As my children grieve and grow, I hope they will recall a wide range of memories of their father. All of the memories — good and hard alike — create the very best picture of who Rob was.
Note: The subject of emotional completion is an important one in grief work. For a fuller understanding, check out The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve.