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Bereaved Parents and the Question of Photographs

I don't know how to combat the slow fade of the experience of my living, breathing son in all his complexity to the two-dimensional representation hanging on my wall.
03/15/2016 06:01pm ET | Updated March 16, 2017
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mosaic with pictures of different places and landscapes, shooted by myself, simulating a wall of snapshots uploaded to social networking services

Pictures are everywhere today-much different than when I was a child and you had to go down to the local studio to get a decent family photo. Poloroids were fun and fast, but the number of shots you could take was limited to the film in the packet.

And how many rolls of 110 or 35 mm are still rattling around somewhere in drawers or boxes, undeveloped and forgotten?

But now our phones make us instant and eager chroniclers of the everyday.

And social media gives us the opportunity to splatter our work across the Internet-all over the country and around the world.

One of the challenges facing bereaved parents is what to do about photographs-both the ones that exist and the ones yet to be taken.

I remember everything about the first formal family photograph after Dominic died.

It was two months to the day since we buried him, and his older brother was getting married. A day we had planned for and looked forward to for a long time. It marked a new beginning, a new life, but the spectre of death veiled my eyes and whispered in my ears.

Standing there, smiling and holding back the tears, my heart cried,"One of us is missing!" and I wanted to shout, "Don't take the photo. Don't memorialize the absence of my son."

I swallowed the words and have an album full of evidence that he wasn't there.

Our family usually sends New Year's cards instead of Christmas cards but I haven't sent one in two years because they always included a family picture. I don't know how to send them if Dominic isn't in the frame.

And what to do with all the pictures that already exist?

We had a video montage at his funeral and I have it tucked safely away. There are hundreds of snapshots, digital photos on computers and phones, all the images on his Facebook page and the pages of friends...

C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed:

Today I had to meet a man I haven't seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well-how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary...I had known all these things once and recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.[his wife]? That it is not happening already?

And that's the thing-the pictures aren't my son.

They were a moment in time, and bring a smile of remembrance, but they are only a shallow representation of the vibrant life that was Dominic. As the months progress and his siblings and friends age, the pictures document that he is further and further out of step with our current reality.

We are leaving him behind.

I decided early on that our walls would not become a shrine to the one child missing. So I have incorporated photos of Dominic with those of his siblings and other family members. I do have more pictures on display than I used to-they are all I have left of my son.

It's easy to honor his memory-but I want to honor him. Who he was, what he represents and who he remains as part of who I am.

I don't know how to combat the slow fade of the experience of my living, breathing son in all his complexity to the two-dimensional representation hanging on my wall.

I wish I did.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.