If my mom was still alive, she would have turned 90 at the end of June. Since she passed in early July 2012, I have written different stories and blogs about her. Some were fictional short stories, like the story “The Ring”, which I published earlier this year. Others like “Turn Your Face to the Sun”, “My Mother’s Pearls”, “Your Mother’s Story” and “Perfectly Imperfect Mother” were simply reflections. Writing was my way to process the relationship and the loss, and to continue the bond with my mom.
In our society we learn a lot of myths about grief, including how long one should grieve and in what way one should process the loss. We often forget that a relationship with somebody who passed continues beyond their death. We still think of them, talk about or with them, and when milestones happen, we will imagine what they would say or feel about a certain family event or even what advice they might have when a decision needs to be made.
But not all our loved ones were good at giving advice, or perhaps we were not open to hearing them because of the judgments we held. Undeniably, some of our family members were not the perfect spouse, perfect sibling, perfect parent, or perfect grandparent. We might have mixed feelings about them and there is nothing wrong with that. All relationships have ups and downs, wonderful moments and challenges alike. And some relationships were simply abusive and impacted us greatly.
There are many ways in which we can process a loss and carry on a loved one’s legacy. We can continue doing the things they were good at, or we can even focus on what they taught us through choices that weren’t the strongest choices. In that case, their legacy entails what not to repeat in the same or a similar way in our lives.
Every year on my mom’s birthday, we eat paella to celebrate her and connect with one of the places she loved, which was Spain. In the same year in which my mom passed, we traveled to Barcelona and walked in her footsteps in the city she lived in and loved in the 1950s. My mom spoke Spanish just as fluently as her mother tongue German. She also spoke English and French and could very quickly pick up new languages or regional accents. She loved to dance and laugh. She was incredibly brave in some ways, especially as a young woman, and when she set her mind to something, she was persistent. At 80 years old, she was still going to the fitness studio almost daily and looked like she was 65 or 70. She also carried traumas, struggled with an addiction, and had other weaknesses and flaws like all of us. I have memories of a tender caring mom and I also have memories of a mom who drowned her pain in alcohol.
Processing a loss often includes being comfortable with ambiguity. It does not serve us to bedevil a person, nor to put them on a pedestal. We can have compassion with their struggles, yet also acknowledge how their actions (or non-actions) have affected others around them. Unless we acknowledge what effect something had on us, we cannot possibly be compassionate with ourselves and heal our own wounds.
In their book, “The Grief Recovery Process,” John W. James and Russell Friedman have emphasized the importance of creating a balanced memory. One of the exercises in their program is to draw a relationship graph and fill in positive memories you have with your loved one above the timeline, and negative ones below the timeline. One or the other might be easier to find, but the instructions are to find at least three of each. Even when it feels like the relationship was only filled with negative moments, there were times in which the other person gave us something, even something that we might feel is normal, like food and shelter.
When you sit with the question “What is his/her legacy?” you will come up with several smaller or bigger ways in which they taught us something or embody something worth continuing. Or there are things they have not done that you decide to do differently. That, too, is their gift to you. In fact, both might be the case.
Continuing a legacy could be something simple like showing interest in other people, if that is what your deceased family member or friend was good at, or connecting with nature, if that is what they loved, or staying fit and healthy, if that is what they valued, and so on. They might have shown a character trait we need to embrace more, for example be more outspoken or be more sensitive or be more daring.
However, there also lies great value in what they did not do. My mom, for example, never saw a therapist or made any other attempts to heal her traumas. That was just simply not done in her generation and culture. She also never worked on improving her marriage. I see that as part of her legacy as well. Not surprisingly, helping others to do their inner work and healing their relationships has become my calling and my profession.
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