In my counseling office, when a bereaved person came to talk, I would ask to hear about their loved one. The answers came in many forms –
“Well, he wasn’t perfect, that’s for sure, but he was perfect for me.”
“She was what you’d call a stickler – she wouldn’t sit down at night until things were perfect in the house, and that went for me, too. She had many suggestions for me. I can’t believe how much I miss them.”
“He was the best person I’ve ever known, a real stand-up guy, everybody loved him and looked up to him.”
If I heard the latter, I’d say something like, “I bet he had some foibles, some things that drove you nuts. Can you tell me one or two of those?” If the answer was, “No, there was nothing like that,” I knew we’d be at it awhile, because all humans are imperfect, living or dead. Aren’t our imperfections what make us lovable in the end, or at least make us real?
In absence, what naturally floats to the top at first are the things we love and admire the most – evidence of strong character, loving actions, that quirky smile. But one of the temptations in grieving is to place our loved one on a pedestal, remembering a myth, not the man (or woman). Grieving is hard enough without elevating the person to a level that puts him out of reach, like a statue in a museum.
Better to keep the memory of the whole person, the one who was often late, who got jelly on the remote, who forgot to say thank you and had trouble listening sometimes. You know, the things you now regret ever complaining about.
If you think about the best memories that people share with you, the best eulogies, the best memorial service stories, they spring from intimate knowledge of the things that made the person human. There is usually laughter.
At some point, grieving asks us to sort through our memories and prepare them for transport as we move (reluctantly) toward the “new normal” that we will create for ourselves. Leave the statue behind and pack up all the memories of the vivid, frustrating, dear character that you loved and still do. And don’t forget the laughter. You will keep him alive in all his imperfect glory, for as long as you and your memories last.