Tell Me About Your Loved One?

2015 October 13
by Dr. Zachary White

It’s the question we never practice answering. It comes to us as if it were a surprise, even though it shouldn’t be.

“What was your mom like?” 

“Tell me about your brother?”

“I didn’t know you had another child, who is that in the picture?”

“Mommy, what was daddy like?”

 All of us live with those we love while also living in absence of those we love. We all are mourning someone.  Every time my children ask me this question—“What was your mom like?”—the answer I give seems incomplete, inadequate, failing, dismal, and utterly false. It’s not that I don’t try, but the person they see in pictures, frozen in time in a now outdated wardrobe, and in long-gone fashion, well…that’s the past. A person in a picture is stuck in time while everyone else around them is featured in 3-D—talking, posting, calling, responding, texting, tweeting, hugging.

It’s not our fault, though. We don’t practice talking about people who are no longer with us, physically.  Talking about absence—how do we do that? Our language betrays us. We get stuck between worlds when we try to talk about someone who is no longer physically with us.  We are trapped by language that doesn’t allow us to communicate how someone in a picture is not confined to the past tense, but very much still affects us now.

Here’s what I’ve learned from trying to bring to life a loved one who is no longer physically present.

  • Don’t feel compelled to represent. This is where we usually start. We try to explain by attempting to fully capture the essence of the person we love. These attempts at representing the whole person usually begin and end with is/was statements.  “She was…” “He was . . .” But representations almost always end in frustration. There’s no way to fully represent the people who are around us on a daily basis, so why would we think we can represent in full the person we love who’s not with us? We want to, that’s why. We so desperately want others to know how this person has influenced our lives, but our desire to completely represent is often a recipe for deep frustration.
  • Use contexts as invitation and source of explanations. Start with specifics, not generalities. Contexts invite memories, and memories can be best communicated when we provide examples.  “Halloween reminds me of a story my best friend used to tell me when we were your age….You never met  him but . . . ” “You know, I used to have trouble with spelling too. My mom helped me by doing this one exercise. Want to try it?” Audiences respond to particulars, not totalizing comments. Start small. Start specific. And then watch as the thread of specific stitches begins to shape a tapestry drawn forth in everyday moments of conversation and activity, not in grand, formal declarations.
  • Highlight personal connections. Instead of saying, “My mom was….”, try starting with, “My mom and I shared a love for writing and creating. We often felt more comfortable expressing ourselves on a keyboard than we did in person. I always knew she understood that part of me.”  Talking about what a loved one means to you will help you better explain why your memories are important rather than focusing your efforts on describing your loved one in generic, abstract terms.  Memories aren’t monuments—insert yourself into your memories and allow others to see you in connection to your loved one so your words and pictures and stories will make sense.  In the process, highlighting our relationship to our memories will also help others better understand us and what is important in our lives.
  • How you talk about your loved one will change as you change. Fresh absence begets different memories than an absence of 15 years. You are changing and so too will your choices about what you believe is important to share. Find comfort in knowing that your loved one is still evolving in your mind as your unfolding experiences shape what you highlight to others.  We are complicated and contradictory, it’s okay for our memories and the way we talk about our loved ones to be complex and dynamic too.  For example, when talking to a spouse, you’ll highlight specific aspects of your loved one differently than if you were talking to a friend. This is okay. No, actually, this is very good. Memories make sense when we adjust what we share in response to the particular audiences we’re talking to.
  • When you feel compelled to explain your loved one, the pressure to find the right words is nearly unbearable. There are no right words. I know, you’re going to search for them anyway. We all think they are out there if we just craft them in the right ways. Words often betray us, especially when we care so deeply about what we are trying to communicate.  It’s the everyday aspects of our loved one, not the big public accomplishments, that we often want others to most appreciate because they mean the most to us—their sarcasm that we so cherished, the sound of their distinct laugh, the tenor of their voice when they were passionately talking about a matter close to them, the special way they were able to make us feel like everything was going to be okay without having to say a word, the comfort of their loving hugs.  Sometimes, these deep memories aren’t meant to be explained in ways others will understand.  They are for us, and that’s okay. Some memories are ours and ours alone.  Not all memories need to be translated for others to understand.

What if I told you that when faced with the inevitable but impossible question—Tell me about your loved one?—the response has very little to do with what you have to say?  You are the most enduring legacy of your loved one.  You are evidence of their imprint that unfolds not in the public moments of life, but in the quiet moments of your everyday life, constantly revealing itself in how you treat others. In sharing a laugh. In kind words to another. In your irreverence. In your fearlessness.  In your fear.  Sometimes, the best answer to this question is simply an awareness that your loved one was too many things to summarize . . . but in knowing you, they are one step closer to knowing your loved one.








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