In the end, grief is about how we remember. Memory is powerful. It shapes our lives in many ways. Memory impacts our emotions. Memory shapes the significance we give to current events. Memory influences what we expect from the future. So the effort to grieve well could be reframed as learning to remember in healthy ways.
Too often our church members try to define “getting over grief” as “moving past” their loss, which implies forgetting or not thinking about their loved one. They rightly resist this conception of grief. But unless these people have a healthy alternative, they avoid one error and get trapped in painful remembering.
In this article you will find a list of ways the people in your congregation can remember their loved ones in a healthy manner. Do not read this as a checklist for them to complete, but as a brainstorming venue for them to find ideas that match their preferences and situations. With each suggestion, it is important for them to remember that they are creating something special rather than sacred. If they venerate their method of remembering, it will add a pressure to do it perfectly and transfer the emotional attachment from the loved one to an object.
When people lose someone dear, they do become, in some sense, a historian for that person. They carry his story, values, and accomplishments to continue the blessing God brought about through his life. But it is important to remember that God promises to equip people for this task in the same way He does for any other task.
Read Luke 12:11–12: The context of this passage is different from grief, but Jesus’ promise still applies. The disciples were fearful they would not know what to say when they faced persecution. After all, Jesus said things so well and was always able to answer the entrapping questions of His enemies. But they feared freezing up and forgetting all they learned from Jesus. But His promise to their fear was that the Holy Spirit would prompt their memory in the needed moments. That same promise applies to the fear your church members may feel about forgetting pieces of their loved one’s life. Their loved one is with God, and God is with the grieving people. There is a sure connection between these folks and whatever memory would benefit a given moment.
With these things in mind, consider the following suggestions as you help the people in your church develop an approach to remembering their loved ones and, thereby, continue on their journey of grieving with hope.
Personal journal: A personal journal simply involves recording your memories in a notebook, on a computer, or with the voice recorder on your phone when they arise. Do not worry about trying to develop a chronological or thematic order. That can often make a personal journal feel forced or like a burden. This is not a biography but a series of snapshots from your memory. This type of tool allows it to feel less like your memories are attacking you out of nowhere and then running off to hide. Each memory, even if painful or sad, becomes part of a permanent bank of memories. You do not have to fear losing them (we’ve already discussed how fear magnifies grief) because they are recorded. Now each memory can be a welcomed guest rather than a painful intruder.
Structured journal: Many different structured journals exist. Some are meant to help you record your experience with grief. Others ask questions about your loved one for you to write about. If you lost a parent, you might get A Father’s Legacy or A Mother’s Legacy journal; while this journal is meant to be filled out in advance by a parent for a child, it can be helpful to fill in the parts you know about your parent. This type of exercise doesn’t rely on spontaneous or situationally triggered memory. Such journals can provide a pleasant surprise of how much you remember and give you questions to ask family and friends to learn more.
Scrapbook: Part of the grieving process usually involves going through the loved one’s things. In this process you will likely find pictures, letters, diplomas, certificates, and other things that capture the story of your loved one’s life. Putting these together into a scrapbook can be an effective way to review your loved one’s life in a highly interactive way that facilitates the grieving process. The end product will be something that you can share with those who would benefit from hearing your loved one’s story (children as they get older, grandchildren, or others going through grief).
Memory box: As you go through your loved one’s things, there will be some precious items that wouldn’t fit in a scrapbook. If you are not careful, there may be so many of these that space becomes an issue or that their prominence in your home becomes a perpetually painful reminder. Having a box where you keep these things will help you limit the collection to a healthy amount and give you something to get out and peruse on occasions when you want to reflect on your loved one’s life. Some people like to have a special box made, to feel like they are giving additional honor to their loved one and creating a family heirloom.
Family gathering: If you lost a friend, then the gathering might be with other friends. The objective would be the same: to remember your loved one in a healthy way through shared memory. In combination with some of the ideas above, this can be a sweet time of comfort for all involved. People might read from their journals about unique experiences, share pictures, or talk about items that had significance to the shared loved one.
This article’s big takeaway for those in your church should be that while remembering may be painful, it is not bad. It is a healthy and essential part of grief. Actually, there is no way to forget someone who has been a significant enough part of people’s lives that they would grieve that person’s absence. The objective is to remember in a way that fosters healthiness in their lives and honors the blessing God gave them in their loved one.