Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Many of us are lucky to have found our soul mate in life. Someone to share our lives with, raise a family with and then grow old enjoying the life created together. But when one of the spouses dies it leaves a void in so many different ways. Along with the obvious, gone are the subtle exchanges of love that bind two people together - a passing kiss, an affectionate pat on the bum or a smile with that little twinkle in the eyes. Taken together, the loss of all small and big things shared leave a dreadful void that seems like it can never be filled.
For me, one of the hardest things to get used to was the loss of shared institutional memories. Those memories we had of our life together before and after having children. The important stuff and the fun stuff. Things like us getting caught by Francés’ father in the middle of the night, buck naked on their sweeping front lawn. Or one of our children catching a huge fish while on vacation and having her picture on the front page of a local paper. Those were the things that bound us as one. The moments we shared together. The moments that were part of building a life and family together. Now suddenly and forever, there is no one to share them with. There was no one to help me remember all those wonderful moments. Those memories like the muscles in our bodies, if not used, atrophy and over time become harder and harder to recall. They slip away into the ether of time.
It is especially troubling to lose this institutional memory when your spouse is young. We don’t expect to have our spouses die when we’re raising children. We envision being grandparents together, growing old and having the grandkids over for sleepovers and taking them shopping or fishing, watching them play baseball or perform in a dance recital. This is the norm. This is what we assume when we say, “Until death do us part.” We expect as a couple to live out our senior years enjoying, with pride, the accomplishments of our children and grandchildren as they make their way in the world. Who doesn’t remember their grandma or grandpa sharing stories of when their mom or dad was young? These are the stories that bridge a family’s history to the next generation. Passing on lessons and opening a window into who we are and where we came from. There are so many stories I want to share with my grandchildren when I have them. But who will help me fill in the blanks? It gives us a comforting sense of pride and an affirmation of our bond together as a couple when we reminisce about our children and family. It reassures us that we have lived a good life. That we have contributed. That we’ve done good together. That feeling is hard to fulfill when you don’t have your partner to share those memories with.
When that is suddenly taken away before our time, how do we hang on to those memories while trying to navigate the chaos suddenly thrust upon our lives? There is no partner to rely on anymore. And in times of quiet contemplation you can find yourself very much alone. I believe that the best way to counter this dilemma is to celebrate the life of your loved ones, so as not to lose all of those institutional memories. Too often that makes people uncomfortable. But why should anyone be remembered only for their death? As if that defined the person and we shouldn’t speak of them anymore. Celebrating their lives is the last step in the healing process when someone close to us has died. What defines them are all the years they spent touching the lives of those they encountered. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to dwell on what was the last moment of their life. We should celebrate them with stories of their love.
I can think of no better way to honor and preserve the life of a lost spouse than to share those memories with others. Preserving as many of those memories as possible, and thus guaranteeing their institutionalization into the family history, provides for those left behind and those yet to come the importance of that person’s life in shaping the family’s legacy. My children and I would never have known or understood Francés so well had it not been for the stories of growing up told to us by her mother and siblings. Those stories were a window into who she was as a wife and mother. They helped define for us her character, her determination and her passion for life.
Celebrating the lives of those we’ve lost by telling stories ensures that these memories are passed on from one generation to the next, ensuring a family legacy. An institutional memory, if you will.
Joseph Alvaro is the Creator and Executive Producer of The Lucky Ones. His wife Francés passed away in 2009. His book, “I’m One of The Lucky Ones,” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To watch stories visit LuckyOnesTV.com or follow @LuckyOnesTV