I had accidentally left $20 sitting on my nightstand one morning before heading out to meet my friends at the beach. I was back for a summer during college and these precious moments with my high school friends meant a lot to me. Throughout the year I didn’t get to see my friends who I had known for decades, and each summer back from college gave us the opportunity to reunite. We had an amazing day catching up and swapping stories.
When I got back home, my $20 was no longer there. I searched around my room and could not find it. I screamed out to the rest of my family and inquired about my money. No one had any idea where it could have gone. I thought, Jordan was home this morning, maybe he took it? So I texted my brother, “Did you take my $20?” He quickly responded, “No.” I didn’t believe him. We’d been here before.
My brother was an addict
In those few years before my brother died, there were hundreds of moments like this. Missing money, cars at half a tank of gas when they should have been at full, and overall, my brother out in the world doing who knew what. It was terrifying, frustrating, and quite frankly, made me resent him. My brother was an addict, and for those who have dealt with addiction, you know the trials and tribulations of loving one.
But after my brother died, I felt a shift in the way people spoke about him.
No one was recalling the crashed cars, the nights of not knowing where he was, or even the case of the missing $20. We were all just remembering the good things: his hugs, his smile, the way he made us laugh, his great taste in music. It almost felt as if we were skipping over not only the bad years but all of the bad in general.
Why people skip over the complicated parts
The truth was, this was a complicated person that we boiled down to the human equivalent of a “live, love, laugh,” sign. Basic, easily summarized, and a nicely tied package with a bow. It felt wrong. It’s like when you break up with a partner who clearly isn’t right for you, and suddenly you’re just playing the highlight reel of the best times in your head. Your friends want to scream in your face, “Don’t forget about the reasons you broke up with them!”
I wanted to find out more about this phenomenon – of how we are impacted when others only speak about the good qualities of our person who has died, so I spoke with Brie Overton, the Chief Clinical Officer at Experience Camps. Here’s what she had to say:
“It’s as if we subconsciously have selective memory of the deceased when they die that allows us only to remember the good: happy times, lovely qualities, positive memories, and joyful experiences with them. We are less inclined to remember the not-so-great things and traits initially when a person dies. It’s like we have a built-in buffer that holds onto all the wonderful things about the person and filters out the negative thoughts and feelings. This is temporary and doesn’t last forever.”
The problem with the buffer and “not speaking ill”
Another reason many people dismiss the more negative qualities about the person who died is because we may have been raised to “not speak ill” of the deceased, Brie told me, which shapes how and what we remember about the person.
But here’s the problem with blocking out the flaws of the person who died: Choosing to remember only the good provides a false sense of reality. Remembering the good only allows us to remember and think about the person in pieces. It doesn’t allow space for us to think about the person as a whole.”
So, it turns out, when we begin to accept that the loss is final, we allow ourselves to truly remember the person. Our brain and thoughts allow us to remember that they were human beings. As humans we are all perfectly imperfect with faults of our own.
Jesse Moss is the Senior Marketing Manager at Experience Camps, a nonprofit that champions the nation’s 5.6 million grieving children and works to create a more “grief smart” culture. Drawing on her experience as a Digital Strategist in the Obama Administration, she also oversees the nonprofit’s fast-growing TikTok channel — reaching millions with humor, empathy, and joy as well as grief.