Valley Voices

When your dearly departed loved one may not be so lovely

In the grief support groups I’ve led over the years, I’ll frequently refer to the person who died as “your beloved.”

I also comfortably use “beloved” or “loved one” in casual conversations and formal hospice meetings when discussing patients and families.

Not long ago, one of my colleagues attended a national hospice conference. After returning to the office, she posed a question to our staff from one of the workshop presenters: What if the person being grieved was not loved?

Can everyone be called a “loved one” or “beloved?”

When people die, wounds we never imagined can rend our hearts. Eventually, with time and tending to our grief, most will cherish their memories like family heirlooms. Indeed, those accumulated memories from a lifetime likely become far more valuable than any inherited object in a living room.

Nonetheless, some recollections and relationships are tainted. How about the verbally abusive parent or the always-angry grandparent? Or the children who lied to siblings, deceived parents and wrecked everyone’s life as they ruined their own lives?

The parent, grandparent or sibling may have been the one who taught you how to ride a bike or loaned you money for your first house, but they also curdled the infrequent good memories with destructive actions.

You do love them, but you are also

▪  afraid of them

▪  resentful of their selfishness

▪  carrying anger that outweighs any recollection of the “good times”

And there can be a lot more bullet points than those for some families.

Is it possible to grieve someone you mostly struggled with, where only a few positive memories pale when compared with the dark, negative experiences?

I suspect maybe for a parent who gave you birth or a child that once held such promise – there could be authentic feelings of grief over the loss of what-could’ve- been. But how often are the threads of long-ago hope torn by the accumulation of anguish?

Because no one knows the details of a grieving person’s history, should I call those who have died a family member instead of beloved? (I think that’s what the workshop presenter suggested.)

Mostly I agree with the “family member” phrase, but it stirs uneasy reactions. I naïvely and optimistically want everyone to be revered as “beloved,” though I suspect some don’t deserve that description. In my decades of ministry, I’ve met people who appear wonderful while smiling from the pew or chatting in the church potluck line.

But I later discover the long-ago or just-yesterday scars caused by casual infidelities, random rages or selfish decisions. I don’t know why certain people are awful, hypocritical or manipulative – but they are. I’m not much of an expert on the faithful facts of heaven, but there are those that can unleash hell on earth for family and friends.

As a pastor serving churches over the years, I’ve done a few funerals (and gratefully only a few) where I knew the person being buried had spent much of his or her life “burying” their family with some of those bullet points I mentioned. With the family’s help and permission, I could find good memories to share as we stood over the grave.

And also with the family’s permission, I tried to be truthful without adding to their troubles. That could mean briefly sharing about difficult times,or saying little about the person’s life and more about a family’s loss. A memorial or graveside service isn’t the place to air the worst, but neither does it help the grieving (or not grieving) family to pretend everything was a bowl full of cherries.

Under all circumstances, it’s hard to talk about a truly loveable person who also created anguish.

Everyone is a mixed bag. Our grieving – and healing – won’t be helped if we falsely turn the recently deceased into a saint. That supportive, caring spouse who died from lung cancer and coulda-shoulda quit smoking can cause a surviving spouse to have a profound sense of loss along with bouts of frustration.

Why didn’t he take better care of himself?

Why didn’t she listen to the doctor’s warnings?

How could the one who is still living not be angry?

I would always hope that this widow or widower can live the remainder of their lives creating the treasure of good memories about a flawed person, rather than hoarding a storehouse of repressed hurt. Most aren’t saints; most are just human. Please, please, allow all of the honest feelings to come out as you grieve.

Though I wish it weren’t so, some will grieve and wrongly call the one who died as your or my “beloved.” Is it possible that is more hypocritical than helpful?

I believe words matter. How we label our memories influences how we live into our future.

Larry Patten of Fresno is a writer and minister who works at Hinds Hospice. He maintains www.larrypatten.com. Write to him at larry@larrypatten.com

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