Family / Grief / Suicide survivor

Humanizing the dead in grief

Sometimes we get so caught up in rituals and romanticizing people after they die: we get lost in grief and forget they were also humans, too.

In the recent Terrible, Thanks for Asking episode “Motherless Day” I spoke to how I love to think about how I know the realest stuff about my mom – stuff others don’t know. It may not be super profound of me to share: but it’s most definitely the human side of grieving her loss and remembering her as my mom.

Remembering the dead were once alive and close to us can always make us feel more alive and close to them, too. At least I’ve found this to be my experience.

Rituals are important: but so is finding meaning, connection, and remembrance in the day-to-day.

Mom died pre-pandemic, so we held a “Nature Church” service for her in the mountains. It was beautiful, untraditional, and honoring.

However, when Aaron died, it was at the height of the pandemic and pre-vaccines. Combine the pandemic with Aaron’s pride-and-joy – our high-risk Sloanie (who eventually almost died from COVID) – and I was met with a difficult decision…Do I hold a small service in-person to satisfy the needs of everyone else, or do I ensure I do what Aaron had worked so hard to do and keep Sloan protected and healthy while holding a virtual memorial? Aaron and I were the least traditional people ever, so I ultimately went with my gut on what Aaron would want – keeping Sloan safe – and we held a virtual memorial service in his honor.

While Aaron and I never talked about death plans in-depth (Reminder: talk about death with your people! It’s the best gift you can give them.) I knew Aaron thought the funeral business was bad news for a grieving persons finances and cemeteries weren’t great for the environment. So we had talked about not being buried, and wanted our ashes spread together when we died. Or we wanted to be trees…Truly decisive dingbats.

When you pair an untraditional, gravesite-less, virtual memorial with a bunch of grieving, hurt people: you get lots of opinions and judgment. For some: it may not matter what the dead wanted, but what they – the living – need to validate their own grief so they can move forward.

I’ve had people comment on how they didn’t get the experience they wanted, or their relationship with Aaron wasn’t honored publicly enough after he died. (Yes, people share this stuff with the widow! People get weird in the wake of death.)

I share this story of Aaron’s memorial for context. While Aaron was my husband and not my mom, I know, from convos, some of you have faced your own deaths and untraditional memorials + rituals that may create peace for you. These memorials may have honored what the dead wanted, but also came with judgment from the traditionally-minded. Many of you continue to face this judgment and these reminders in the death of your mothers, mother figures, parents, or anyone else that comes to mind for you as we approach Mother’s Day this weekend.

SO! Here’s my hot take on that…

These same traditionally-minded rituals and viewpoints can often be paired with romanticizing the dead: when humanizing them can be SO much more honoring and fulfilling. I LOVE to think of mom obliviously bugging me because she was chewing too loud. Or Aaron sneezing so loudly (ON PURPOSE) I would roll my eyes, then everyone would think I was being a bitch to him…When the problem was Aaron being a lil’ bitch to ME!

I look through my camera roll to find screenshots of mom in her nightshirt, video chatting Kassie and making weird gestures about what Sloan did in PT that day. Or I like to find photos of Aaron asleep in bed, drooling, his phone flat on his face because he fell asleep mid-youtube-video.

These things remind me they were once human. And they were here. Loving and bugging me 24/7.

Life eventually goes on for others, and those of us who live with the void of our loved ones in every second of every day are constantly finding new ways to honor them and grieve. I have a black unsweetened iced tea for mom, or hear a song come on during a workout and run that song for Aaron.

These thoughts are a constant in the back of my mind: like a dull, ever-present buzz.

So – all of this to say – if your mom (or a mother/parent figure) has died and you are missing them this Mother’s Day – take a drive and spill some tea with them. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or some kind of eventful memorializing thing. You don’t need to meet traditional expectations or honor the dead in the way the world expects you to honor them. If they didn’t like flowers, don’t do flowers. If they didn’t like their family, don’t feel obligated to meet up with their family. If they loved a solo hike, take a solo hike. If they liked to feed the ducks, go feed the ducks.

Do what’s right for you. Do what’s right for them.

And, this weekend, a weekend full of joy and life for new mothers – and grief and loss for those who have lost their moms – maybe that’s simply buying a tea to drink, then speaking out loud all the metaphorical tea you wish you could share with the dead, too.

I think it’s okay to wish they were sitting next to you in the passengers seat. Loving you. And also bugging you every step of the way.

Humanize them. Because you’re only human, too.

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