There is something about a person’s recent demise that imbues them with positive attributes not necessarily accurate during their lives.
The woman who made every meal in the microwave your whole childhood is lovingly eulogized as “the best cook in the world.” Or the man who screamed at you the night before your driver’s test for changing lanes without checking your blind spot being remembered as “the most patient dad ever.”
These little white lies are what transpire when someone we love dies. Their impact on us is so intense during the time following their passing, that our memories are softened and magnified by love.
Occasionally, though, someone really heinous dies. Maybe it’s a murderer, or a famous world leader known for atrocities. More often though, it is someone we know, maybe someone in our family. For whatever reason, a toxicity surrounds this person and the fact that they have died brings you not grief, but closure.
The Rev. Dr. Dudley Riggle, in his work with grievers, tells a story about his time as a chaplain. Upon attempting to comfort a recently widowed woman, he was met with a half-smile and the remark, “Tonight, for the first night in 40 years, I won’t have to worry about being raped in my own bed.”
Many truths come out after a person has died, and these new truths can shatter what we thought about our own lives. When the difficult stuff comes out after the person has died, the survivors are left holding some heavy baggage. (It’s mostly full of anger, tears and curse words!)
Sometimes a person dies who we loved, but circumstances made it difficult for us to mourn. A few years ago, a friend lost his father in a brutal robbery attempt that went violently wrong. During the course of the investigation and eventual trial, it was discovered that my friend’s sibling had a lifestyle that invited violence, drug abuse and mental illness into their lives. My friend’s father was targeted and killed because of his sibling. Recently, when the sibling died, my friend mourned the child that he had grown up with, but not the person who had contributed to their father’s death.
In the “olden days” (defined as any time from 20 years before I was born and before), family secrets were never revealed, even after death. Many cases of abuse, assault, infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness and adoption were covered up to “protect the family name” and the “reputation” of the deceased.
In our high-tech times, though, with genealogy so popular and DNA testing kits so prevalent, we are often presented with facts that at one time would have remained hidden. You read stories all the time about people who just want to find out if they’re really Irish or Italian and end up seeing they have siblings no one knew about! And although open adoptions are common now, there was a time when a person could go to their grave never guessing they were adopted.
It is true that every death diminishes the world a little bit, but there are certain deaths that bring only relief. Each of us has peccadillos or peculiarities; things we might not want touted (or even referred to obliquely!) at our memorial services, but mostly our truth is well within the range of “normal, loving, imperfect human.”
I once met a woman who was holding the hand of her deceased mom. I asked if the woman had been sick for long and the daughter told me that her mom had been a particularly abusive and sadistic parent and that she hadn’t seen her in 15 years, had cut off all contact.
She then smoothed her mother’s hair and said a silent goodbye with tears running down her face, and I understood.
Because horrible people die, too.
Patti Fitchett is a licensed funeral director and funeral service officiant. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.