Remembering the Whole Person: Honor and Celebrate the Life of a Loved One

At funerals and memorial services, it is traditional for friends and family members to eulogize their dead loved one. These stories are meant to ease the suffering of those who have been left behind. There are family photos and retellings of stories that are intended to paint a picture of the deceased. A positive happy picture of the deceased. And on that day, when everyone has gathered together to share their loss, it makes sense that the stories will inspire tears and laughter. Or the occasional “who was that person?” and “why is he speaking about my mother?” It is very rare for someone to stand up and tell the room that the dearly departed was rude or selfish or a liar. It’s just not considered to be acceptable behavior. When it does happen, it is likely to make the local news or make the rounds on social media. After the service, as you continue your grief journey, it is important to remember the whole person. While it can be tempting to sugarcoat the memories of our lost loved ones, being honest about their strengths and weaknesses, and remembering the good and the bad, can be an important part of grieving and allow us to move forward.

Ajahn Chah

Be honest about who your loved one was

Remembering the dead is not mere nostalgia, but a profound spiritual practice. To remember them is to keep their spirit alive and find new meaning in their lives.

(Ajahn Chah)

It is important to be honest about the way your loved one was before they passed away. While it may be difficult to speak about the less-than-ideal qualities of the deceased, it is important to remember that this is a part of who they were, and telling the truth about their life can be a powerful way to honor them. Sharing stories of both the good and difficult times can be a way of acknowledging all that they were.

My mother was sometimes difficult. Well, if you did not do things her way, she was difficult. She was a bit dramatic, a bit of a hypochondriac, and could be selfish. She liked to be the center of attention. When she died, five days before my husband died, a friend who knew my mother said, “That makes perfect sense, she was not going to let him take all of the attention.” And then we looked at each other and laughed. Not in a mean-spirited way. But rather in a “what are you going to about it?” type of way.

There is more to us than just our bad qualities. Remembering that your loved one was charismatic, funny, or had a great sense of humor can help lighten the mood and allow you to remember the most positive aspects of their life. Additionally, take time to recognize the values they stood for and the traits they exhibited that you hope to emulate in your own life.

I loved my mother, difficulties and all. She was smart, independent, and well-read. She had a beautiful singing voice. She was amazing at the home arts. Long before we had TV shows and books about home chefs and talented homemakers, my mother was making us cloth napkins and making our clothing and cutting our hair and treating us to homemade meals that rivaled any Michelin-starred restaurant. She was an amazing hostess and loved entertaining. She had impeccable manners. In her later years she became a master gardener. I can look at all her talents and see the positive influences she had on me.

When you say something negative about the dead

Not everyone is open to your truthful acceptance of the negative traits of your dead loved one. It is likely that some of you have already thought “how could she say those things about her dead mother?”

I learned this lesson the hard way. One day, I was doing some gardening in my front yard (see, thanks Mom). A neighbor walked by and said, “I bet you miss having Ed out here to help you.” Without thinking I replied, “You mean to sit on the wall and drink coffee and watch me work?”

That’s how it was. Ed did not like doing yard work. But he did like spending time with me. His way of participating was to come out and keep me company. That was our routine. And it was mostly great. Ok, once in a while when he started giving me directions about where to plant which flower, I might have become a tad grumpy. Also, his thoughts about where to plant the flower were usually right on target. He was always better at aesthetics.

But my neighbor did not know the whole part of why I responded that way I did. And in her mind, I was being mean-spirited toward my dead husband. It was unfortunate that my reply came across as negative, but to me, I was remembering the entirety of our time together in the front yard.

It is important to be mindful of the reactions that your words may have in others. Some people may take offense to any negative words spoken about the deceased, while others may view it as an opportunity to remember the person in their entirety. Now, I am very careful about how I share memories and with whom I share them.

The importance of not glorifying the dead

Speaking negatively about the deceased does not mean that you did not love or appreciate them. Speaking honestly about the person is sometimes the best way to honor them, and it is important to remember that you can still love someone even if you recognize their flaws. Our ability to love one another in all of our imperfections speaks highly of all of us.

Your loved one was a real person with both successes and failures. Glorifying the dead can sometimes do a disservice to those who are remembering them. Allowing yourself to recognize and remember both the good and the bad can be an important part of the grieving process. While it can be difficult to recognize the mistakes made by your loved one, it is important to remember that they were still a person, and they were still important.

If you only remember your deceased as perfect. You are less likely to feel motivated to act on their behalf. I am specifically referring to earning and transferring merit. Remember that your actions in this world, can help your loved one with a more positive rebirth. Acknowledging that perhaps your dead family member has not achieved nirvana is good motivation to do good and to dedicate the fruits of your merit.

Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa

Remember the whole person

Remembering the dead is a great act of loving-kindness.

(Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa)

When remembering a loved one after their death, it is important to remember the whole person. While it can be tempting to sugarcoat their memories, taking the time to speak honestly about both the good and the bad can be an important part of the healing process.

Be mindful of the words you choose, as it may have an effect on the way others remember the deceased. Taking the time to remember a loved one in their entirety is an important part of honoring and celebrating their life.

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