My mom was an incredible person. Absolutely incredible. She had a “blow out” of a wake, one the funeral home wasn’t prepared for–the line was wrapped around the building and my brothers, dad, and I stood there for 5 hours greeting grievers. She had the kind of wake I think we’d all wish we’d have–with thousands of sobbing friends who all felt like she’d touched them in some profound way.
And a year and a half after she died, when our family home burned to the ground, our community raised over 100K. That was her legacy: thousands of people working to save her kin even after she was gone.
It’s been hard not to simplify her to these stats as the time goes by. Or any isolated stories for that matter. She wasn’t her high school years or her decade long battle with breast cancer, a hard hug or a taskmaster running 6 miles a day. She had 49 years on this planet–filled with joys, laughter, mistakes, hard times, and heartbreak.
And she was all of it.
When she died, I boasted zero regret. I had been there, chauffeuring her around in her last months, even holding her hand in her final moments. I had left everything on the table, or so I’d thought.
It took me almost 3.5 years to understand that that probably wasn’t true. Degradation and death are ugly and painful. To claim otherwise is likely fiction, but we do it to cope. I certainly did. I found ways to feel secure by boiling down the messy truth into a coherent, Spielberg-worthy script. One that family and friends would eat up: a sensical, life-affirming story of a mother and daughter separated by premature death.
But that isn’t the real story. [Spoiler alert: the real one is better.]
It’s narrative fallacy. The oversimplification of a series of events or, in this case, a person’s whole life. An overextension of certain details. Editing out what doesn’t “fit.” Refining until the elements left are only the ones that suit you. Denying truth. Summarizing a complex idea in a one-pager. Using forgetfulness to your advantage.
The real story–of her, of our relationship, and what’s gone on since she died–is a lot more complicated and nuanced than I’ve ever let on. We were, and I still am, very human in every interaction. Which means, despite my trying to fight it off, there was some residual pain that I had to work through.
In this process I’ve learned and feel obliged to share that you cannot, I repeat cannot, irrevocably harm the relationship with a deceased loved one by any thoughts, words, or actions. Literally. You can only strengthen it–by allowing the good and bad to surface.
The only thing you can do wrong is to suppress the truth. To ignore the voice deep in your soul–that feels angry, guilty, or in pain. You aren’t “saving” your loved one’s legacy or the people around you by ignoring that voice and being dishonest with yourself. You are denying the very thing that is meant to make you closer now.
My mom’s influence will likely never fully fade. She’s why I run, read, eat healthy, and make lists. She’s the motivation for career leaps and travel. Her death has forced me to become more independent and resilient and to take bigger risks. And I believe she guided me to own the shadows of our relationship–built up resentment from over a decade ago.
Her life and her death are the two single greatest blessings in my life to date. That is not platitude; that is truth. And taking ownership for her and our dark side has completely changed my life, and our ongoing relationship, for the better. It’s done nothing but strengthen our bond.
But it’s been hard to get here–to fight off the compulsion to simplify or even beautify our relationship. To stop engaging with the creation of fake stories. To quit naming my grief as solely good. And to start proceeding with honest emotions. To begin writing the real story. To focus on the full scope of our relationship, even the shit I’d forgotten (or suppressed).
To be free I had to own every single little bit of it–of who she was and who we were together. And then just let the dust settle.
So no matter who you are grieving–no matter how seemingly great or terrible–the person was human (and you are, too). Perfectly imperfect. Imperfectly perfect. No matter how trying the relationship was. No matter how seemingly spotless. No matter how much regret you have. Or how much blame you’ve taken in.
This person, and your relationship, is more that what you are letting on, even to yourself. As you continue to process your pain, begin watching out for solicitation from narrative fallacy. To paint the picture of a saint or a devil. To name as “good” or “bad.” To take the calls from people looking for only happy stories. To engage with those feelings that say it must be black or white.
It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. Freedom is in the gray area.
[More to come later on some of the “hooks” of narrative fallacy–like confirmation bias, avoidance, guilt, etc.]
**originally featured on: http://www.k8ward.com