remembering that they lived

remembering that they lived
“If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.”   – ELIZABETH EDWARDS

This quote by Elizabeth Edwards is just so 100% bang on. Not just for the loss of a child, but any loss. It is a beautiful thing when a person is able to speak to someone about their loss. I can not express the warmth, love and admiration that fills my soul when someone either asks me about my baby boy, Bazil (who died at full term before delivery in 2009), shares a memory or includes his name when addressing our family; who sends me a memory of my Dad (who was my go-to for grief but died suddenly 6 months after our baby) or tells me out of the blue how my Dad would be proud of me. He is not a sad memory, he lives – he is a part of me and always will be. My kids and I like to say that their bodies die, but their spirits live on forever. 

It saddens me how society moulds us to struggle with death and when speaking of death or trying to comfort one who has lost a loved one. Even saying the word ‘died/die/death’ is so hard for so many. In my heaviest grief, I saw people who would turn away when they saw me coming, or only approach me if they saw me smile or laugh. I had a family member act like our baby dying hadn’t even happened when they first saw me, maybe thinking that is what I ‘needed’? To take my mind off it? Or to help me ‘move forward’? Or maybe they were just not comfortable being so uncomfortable. Not sure, but at the time it felt so hurtful and so wrong to not address it. Dig deep if you have to and please don’t pretend you’re cheering someone up by not addressing their loss. You don’t have to stress over something brilliant to say, even just a hug that lasts a little longer will do it. I still remember two friends who sent me emails after my losses in 2009 and they simply wrote, “Thinking of you.” It felt so good to know I wasn’t alone in those moments. (I still have those emails.)

I learned along the way, that there is great importance in validating that a person lived – especially for babies that die full term, that didn’t get a chance to grow and walk and live on this physical earth with us. The first tree lighting ceremony that we were apart of in Dec 2009, we couldn’t make the opening ceremony as it was late at night and I had two other young children as well as grieving the sudden loss of my Dad since Sept and another miscarriage two weeks following his death (as well as the H1N1 virus that took my 5 year old daughter and I in an ambulance to sick kids after a febrile seizure in October). So we thought it was fine that we would go down to the city hall in the following days to see the lit dove trees to find Bazil’s name tag. To my surprise, that evening of the ceremony, once it had begun, I felt such a deep sadness in my soul, because I was not there to see his name on that tree, when they were first lit – being apart of a celebration of his life. I knew instantly it was a mistake and I cried and regretted not going. I almost felt that I wasn’t there for Bazil. We haven’t missed a ceremony since. We know the importance of searching, finding and seeing our little angel’s name written on that card, hanging from the dove. Just as people remind me he lived, his name tag on the dove, on the tree, also reminds me that he lived. That he is important, he was once alive. That he is my baby and always will be – he is remembered.
As my husband’s Dad was dying of cancer in 2003, we met with an unbelievable man named Stephen Jenkinson, the ‘angel of death’ he called himself then, whose embrace, acceptance and insight on death and the dying was inspiring and life altering. He takes remembering the dead one step further. He said we feed the dead with our memories – remembering; if we wait to be reminded, we are not doing our job. If you don’t remember them, they don’t stay with us. It’s not just about moving on, it’s about remembering how they lived. Stephen spoke about ‘speaking to remember’; Dave kept asking questions and as he was asking he would remember because he was saying it or he would answer his own question as he was hearing himself speak. I remember how amazing it was to watch how speaking to remember really works, how important talking about it is, when so many keep thoughts and feelings bottled up inside.
Dave mentioned that he’s afraid he’s going to forget his Dad, Keith’s, voice and Stephen replied with “Speak it”, but also asked “Why do you need to remember his voice? For you? For Keith? No, not for Keith”, which, I think, is such a beautiful spin to put on why we remember. He was saying that Keith doesn’t need him to remember his voice, and that’s the important thing – that we do our remembering for the dead, not for us. We are honoring them. Dave asked Stephen if he was to make room for him physically as well, and Steve said “absolutely”. We came home that night and Dave ran upstairs and grabbed the one black top Alto stool that was in my office, brought it downstairs and replaced one of the wood top Alto stools at our island bar and looked at me, very proud, and said “Keith’s place.” He said, “This is where Keith would want to be – in the middle of the action, looking out at everyone, talking while we cook, etc…”.
“Why do you need to remember his voice? For you? For Keith?
No, not for Keith.”
If you stay open to receive all the little signs, and find ways to remember and honour your loved one, you will see all the ways that they are always with us. I like the belief that when you think of a loved one who has died it brings their soul to wherever you are. Both Bazil and my Dad have a strong presence in our home, in our family. As my 11 year old daughter put it this past Christmas when she questioned why someone wouldn’t want us to include Bazil, “…but he’s part of our family”. For us, it’s as simple as that. But it is hard for many to understand or accept because it is unfortunately not how society has raised people, not the norm. Well, it’s our norm, and it’s the norm of many people who have lost, even if they keep it quiet, as it’s deep rooted in all of us. So take a chance and mention their lost loved one. You might just make their day. You’ll make them feel not so alone in their grief. You’ll give them that moment of remembering and feeling closer to their loved one, and that is a gift. I cherish those moments, even if they’re hard and bring tears. Stephen says nothing is opposite, everything is twin. Joy is not the opposite of tears. If you don’t have tears, you don’t know joy. I know it’s in people’s nature to apologise if they say something that makes you cry, but try to remember that those tears help one feel joy (and keep in mind, Stephen would say that what’s important is that those tears help the dead).
To find out more about the Tree of Light or other ceremonies and events, as well as group or one-on-one sessions, contact Bereaved Families of Ontario – Toronto or other BFO organisations in your area.