It's common to idealize a loved one who has died. Why do we often recall the wonderful aspects of people we've lost more than the troubling or frustrating parts? Perhaps thinking of the good things brings some light into the dark shadow of our grief. Perhaps this tendency shields us from too much pain. Our brains seem designed to protect us in many ways that we don't yet understand.
Photo by Frank Lyman Jr.
Although I admit I am biased, I think I can say my brother was a pretty exceptional guy - an innovative professional driven to improve education and career prospects for students, an engaged father, a loving husband, a devoted friend, and much more. His too-short 46 years were filled with good things. I haven't yet seen the bottom of the pile of heartwarming testaments from friends and family members and colleagues. I find joy in hearing every last glowing compliment.
But I need more. I need to hear the whole story told, with all of the previously-hidden angles, surprising twists, and embarrassing mistakes. I need to keep the whole person with me, every foible and flaw included.
Because I knew Frank from his earliest days, I experienced him in his most unschooled and raw form. He pestered and teased me as only a fun-loving younger brother to a perfectionist older sister can do. He told whopper lies (once, after getting in trouble for coming home late from elementary school, he claimed he had been busy taking the injured crossing guard -- a man in his 60s -- to the hospital on a motorcycle). He snuck around stealing my spare change and babysitting money, even when I hid it in places where I thought it would embarrass him horribly to look. In high school his social escapades took priority over chemistry homework and social studies papers. All of this was mixed in with his intelligence and sense of humor, his caring way of looking out for me, his friendship, and of course his knack for giving me clothes that ended up being the standouts in my closet. Keeping him as alive and whole as possible in my memory demands that I hang onto the good and the bad, the challenging and the wonderful, the annoying and the delightful about him.
One of the most heartbreaking things about losing my brother is realizing how much I didn't know about him. This didn't bother me when he was alive -- perhaps, back then, I subconsciously assumed I'd have years of time to fill in missing puzzle pieces. Now, knowing I won't have that chance, I find myself turning to my brother's friends. I call and e-mail people from grade school days all the way through his most recent community, asking for uncensored, unfiltered stories of their experience of Frank. Nothing has offended or shocked me. Although it may sound strange, stories about when he screwed something up or made someone angry warm my heart as much as the tales that show him at his most caring and brilliant. Such stories confirm the existence of my fully human brother, revealing the varied and vivid facets of his identity. They are how I fill in the puzzle now.
To those of you in the world who knew Frank: If you have a story to share, don't pretty it up for me. The real, whole guy is the one I love, the one I will continue to get to know over time as I hear more about him. And to my fellow bereaved: If you need more of the whole story about someone you loved and lost, consider asking for it. Unexpected colors can add new, rich dimensions to your memory -- and, perhaps, fill in some of the empty space in your heart.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.