After Loss, Try to Linger Longer in the Happy Memories


July 16, 2018 03:19 PM

Updated July 27, 2018 01:14 PM

We are told there is no one way to grieve. No one lives the same. No one loves the same. And no one grieves the same. It is comforting and kind when people tell you to “take your time,” and “don’t let others tell you how you should feel.” I recall appreciating when people gave me “permission” to honor the emotions that came to the surface when I experienced the death of each of my parents. Being judged is the last thing you need when you are facing the loss of a loved one.

Still, I recently found myself in a discussion with my son about a dear friend who “will never get over” the loss of her mother. We talked about how tragic it is to see her, year after year, so profoundly sad. My son said that her mother would not have wanted it that way. I honestly did agree, yet I wondered if I was “judging” the way this friend was grieving — something I know in my core I have no right to ever do.

I cannot fully reconcile the conflict of honoring people’s need to grieve as they must — for as long as they must — with the belief that the deceased wouldn’t want them to be permanently sad. What I can do, and what I did in the conversation with my son, is give my mother’s example as a source of inspiration.

Of course, the passing of your mother alters your life forever. There is only one sad day in your life when you lay your mother to rest, and all the days that follow have a newly defined emptiness. My mom, Greta Rouse Klingon, lived on this earth for 90 years. We celebrated the length of her life many times and many ways. Yet, it was the “width” of her life that meant the most. Her heart was forever wide open, her love stretched out so far, her actions touched so many. For the last several years of her life, I called her most evenings. She would always start by saying, “I had a good day,” and then she would tell me what she did. Some days, her schedule would be filled with special visits or calls from friends. But on other days, when she was suffering from back pain or when she was so tired she couldn’t stay awake long, she would still begin with, “I had a good day.” Her glass was always full (not half-full, but full), as was her heart, as was her life.

She made everyone believe that their personal story truly was worth sharing with others. She was a journalist by profession, but that only explains part of the story. Yes, she was inquisitive and attuned to details, but it was her heart that turned the conversation from an interview to a belief that your personal history mattered to her and to future generations.

Mom will be remembered for so many things, but her loving, positive spirit is the legacy that was profoundly evident in every interaction, of every day. She was constantly reminding us through her example to see the world through a lens of gratitude. When she died, I was devastated that such a powerful, positive force in my life was gone.

Yet I realized that her death was a crossroad. I could cry every time I thought of her, or I could be thankful for her continued presence in my heart. I could see darkness and emptiness or I could carry her legacy of gratitude with me and let her light continue to shine. Of course I still cry. Of course I still feel the emptiness. But in those moments, I’m reminded that it’s not what she would want. It’s not what I want my children, family or friends to do when I pass. With every fiber of my soul, I hope people will remember my spirit, the laughter, the special moments and the flashes of wisdom I might have had. And because I know I want that, I will try every day to honor my mom that way as well.

I truly recognize this is easier said than done. While we want to remember and honor the happy times, the shock, pain, emptiness and “what ifs” can overtake even the strongest among us. In these dark times, we are deeply missing what was and trying to imagine how it could have been different. We torture ourselves with these thoughts and at some point, we have to admit it’s not what the deceased would want for us. If we can, even for a moment, feel the joy as it was before, we are honoring our loved one’s life, rather than mourning their death. We must try to linger longer in the happy memories. Let them wash over us. Maybe even let them bring a smile or laugh. I can’t help but believe that is what we must try to do … as we are able … on our own timeline.

Joyce Matthews is the Senior Director of Development and Alumni Relations for the Eberly College of Science at Penn State. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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