In MemoryOne of the English language’s most famous poems about loss is “Remember” by Christina Rosetti; the sonnet’s final couplet reads
“Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.”
I for one would rather forget that my father died suddenly at age 60 and remember that try as he might, he could not stifle the explosive guffaws when watching the movie Airplane! I would rather forget that my mother’s last hours were spent suffering in a hospital and remember that she would sometimes pick me up from school and stop by the video store so we could indulge ourselves in a classic movie before Dad got home from work.
Many of us have losses that are hard to bear – parents, children, partners, beloved friends and family – people who meant so much to us. On Sunday, we will share some of those memories as we create our ribbons of remembrance – a ritual borne of our need to memorialize.
It seems to be a human trait, to memorialize. We go to gravesites, we build makeshift altars, and on a larger scale, we build memorials – often of granite and marble – to mark the moments of loss. Are we obsessed with loss? I don’t think so… I think exactly the opposite is true. We remember loss because we are obsessed with life.
Of course we mourn loss. When it’s the loss of a closed loved one, it cuts us in intimate ways – the death of my partner in 1998 was like losing a limb. When it’s a little more distant, like the constant barrage of mass shootings and senseless murders – it cuts into our understanding of thriving in global community and leaves an existential feeling of loss.
It’s all so difficult – these memories tied to life and death. We grapple internally with loss, with pain, with the deep well of sorrow that drowns us in cold unsettling grief; yet while much of our personal mourning is private, we publicly memorialize.
Why do we take time to ritualize it? We do, after all – we hold funerals and memorial services, and we come back time and time again to gravesides, to pray, remember, and leave mementos.
Memorializing formally, as ritualist Brigitte Sion says, creates a space where we can claim our right to grief and mourning; we can’t just ‘get over it’ – we need to make space for our memory. And when that space isn’t provided, we find ways to make it.
One of the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced is the NAMES Project. Unlike a large, permanent memorial, like the Wall or the Holocaust Museum or the striking Korean war memorial, that is planned and sanctioned and funded – this quilt, created to remember those lost to HIV/AIDS, it is organic, and surprising, and moveable. Adding to the quilt is a given, for it is also ever-changing. It begins with friends, sitting together, sewing and painting and gluing – and talking. Sharing memories, tears, and Kleenex. And then it’s added to a larger quilt, where more memories are shared as it’s attached to quilt pieces from others; there, our memories become attached to other memories. And then, it is displayed…and others have a chance to remember, to see these lives. And when it is displayed, the names are read. We hear those names – those lost to this horrible disease, those who initially were marginalized even as illness decimated an already marginalized community. I’m sorry to say I have worked on more than one quilt piece – but I am glad that I can remember, and that others can share those memories.
In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”
That connection, that inspiration, helps us overcome the sharpness of loss. Right after my father died, the fact of his death was the overriding thought in my head; I thought first of my father and his death, which led me to think about what losing him meant – no more felling trees with him, no more watching him mow the lawn with his bright orange Astros cap, no more affectionate “Hey, Gracie” when I walked into a room.
But eventually, the loss wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Eventually, it was hearing an Astros game on tv that reminded me of his cap; or watching Airplane! and recalling his all too rare laughter; or seeing a stacked cord of wood and remembering the time we took down a tree that barely made a sound as it fell, calling into question the Zen koan and eliciting my father’s patented wry smile.
And yes, we still have a habit of cooking his favorite dinner, beef roulades, on Christmas eve. We often forget why we do it now – until we sit down to dinner and remember. We connect over our memories, and reconnect as a family.
Loss is never easy, and this is why we will make space on Sunday, as we approach All Souls Day, to memorialize and remember, to honor loved ones, to honor life.