The pain of losing a loved one never leaves you, only dulling with time. We now have a plethora of photos that record ourselves, but memories are more emotionally powerful. So how do you remember what they looked like, their visual "essence"?
When someone close to you has passed away, that you love, there is an immediate sense of loss that begins the grieving process. You are trying to make sense of what has happened. When it's an elderly grandparent then that loss is understandable, if unwanted, and usually one-step removed. When that loss is a parent, or worse, a child, then the pain is much keener.
The memory of them is bittersweet because you are reminded of what they meant to you and the things you did together, yet the hole in your life remains unfilled. A gaping wound that can be slow to heal, becoming sore if touched and reopening if prodded. If the death is unexpected or preventable, then trying to make sense of the reality you now find yourself inhabiting is all consuming and isolating. One refuge is trying to retain a sense of closeness to the person. That may be physical in terms of their possessions; where they lived, their clothes, favorite objects, and other personal items. This may also trigger strong memories linked to those places in the form of remembered items or smells. There may also be a time-based link to the past that involves visiting places they frequented or where they died.
Ultimately, visual memory is so powerful that images are often one of the first places we seek refuge. We want to look at photos as a tangible link to them, to remind us of who they were as if they were still here. We want to look at photos when we are intimately linked to the events depicted as they trigger our memories at an emotional level and touch upon multiple times past. We also want to look at photos because we fear that we might forget what they looked like. Retrieving a memory can strangely lead to a loss of that information (see Brain Rules) unless we perform that retrieval repeatably. Have you ever experienced trying to picture what someone looks like, to have the outline of a face in your mind's eye, with hair, that is simply blank? When grieving, that is a terrifying ordeal because at a time when you are trying to get closer, you feel you are forgetting.
Images are so intrinsically linked to how we remember that a photographic record of someone's life is something we turn to for solace. You might remember leafing through albums that your parents or grandparents had that now appear as a commemoration to their lives. Photos offer an immediate way of remembering which can lead to healing. That may not be just for you, but also for others whose lives arced and intersected with the deceased. At my father's funeral, it was a cathartic process to not only look through photos from his past but, in the planning of his funeral, to request photos from friends and relatives. In short order, a moderate archive of images shot through the eyes of others had been collated. As a result, I produced a large montage print (Google's now deprecated Picasa does an excellent job here) which formed a focal point during the wake for people to gather, remember, and recount stories. It was a good way to produce an emotional upwelling that created a collected archive of memories, all anchored in the images we were looking at.
What is interesting, then, is that there were literally hundreds of images ranging from the earliest baby photos, right the way through his life's major event. There is the key word: life. It's a salutary reminder that the image that records a static, finite, moment is lifeless. It has a degree of quotation that imbibes and infuses it with a mental motion that conjures the surrounding events, drawing upon what we know about their personal individually.
The images that stick in my mind are iconic in a way that resonates with my understanding of him — the baby, the young man, the enthusiastic father. They each have a punctum that spikes my interest, draws me in, and lets me build an understanding of the photo. They might not resonate with anyone else, but for me they are meaningful. In my mind's eye I remember the father who I used to visit as an elderly man. He was somewhat timeless, aging gradually but the essence of his features remained the same. Is that the way I want to remember him? Probably not and if I conjure a mental image, a happy memory, one that comforts me, then it would be of the man that was my father when I was a child. That man was when I was around around eight years old. I want to remember him not as he, but as he once was.
If I turn to friends and relatives I've lost when they were relatively young then I don't think this is the case. I guess I don't have the same level of intimacy or depth and length of relationship, but even so I want to remember them as they were. Or at least as they were when my memories of them were before they passed away.
I don''t know if this is a general truism or whether images affect people at different levels, in different ways. What is certain is that people respond to grief differently and that photos are an important support in this process. This leads on to two general points that are important to us as photographers. Firstly, the power of family albums remains vitally important. Don't underestimate their value to you personally and to our collective social histories. Don't forget that it's not just the individual's photos, but those that knew them. Secondly, don't stop taking photos of your loved ones. Continue regularly and cherish that photographic record. To let the spirit of my Grandmother live on after her death, that part of the family gets together annually. Of course a photo is part of the proceedings. We have a tangible record of how she lives on.
If you do one thing, then make a single tangible step that preserves and extends that living archive of your personal history. Life isn't a dress rehearsal and you only get one chance.
Lead image by Sarandy Westfall via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.