Chaplain, I need you to talk to a patient,” the social worker began, hesitantly. “Her husband died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said as I searched the hallway for the typical entourage of family members that assemble after a death.
However, there was no family present that day. Apparently, the man had died the previous month, but the patient was just now realizing this.
Noting my confused expression, the social worker explained that dementia had caused the patient to repeatedly forget her husband’s death.
At first, I thought that this could actually be a good thing. I marveled at the convenient beauty of amnesia as a painkiller.
No, the social worker explained, this was bad. With each forgetful moment, the patient would ask for her husband and need to be reminded of his death. And with each reminder, she grieved as if she’d heard the news afresh.
I agreed to help break the news to the patient, and just as the social worker had predicted, the patient cried as if hearing it for the first time. We tried to explain to her that she had simply forgotten, but this distressed her more as she wondered how she could have forgotten the death of the one she loved so long.
Then, the fear that she had forgotten his death gave way to a second fear. If she had forgotten he died, then, logically, she must have missed his funeral.
“How could I have missed it?” she asked. “We were married 52 years!”
We assured her she had not missed his funeral, but she continued the argument saying that she had to return home and tell her kids about their father’s passing. It was a terribly sad moment again and again for her.
Two conclusions were barreling down on her from opposite ends of the train track. First, her loved one died, but second, she didn’t remember him dying. Her reasoning went something like, “If I had truly loved him, I’d have remembered his dying.”
We all find ourselves in a similar predicament as we relive another anniversary of an event that we’d like to forget, 9-11.
We loved all those who died that day, but we’d also like to forget the horrific event. It makes us repeat this woman’s question: Does wanting to forget the event mean we didn’t care? The question sends us headlong into guilt. The more we force the amnesia, the darker our world becomes.
In the exhilarating year of Olympic wins and a presidential race, we’d like our media to bury this anniversary. The truth is that the guilt that comes from wanting to forget will collide with the debt we owe to the heroes and survivors.
The guilt of forgetting will far surpass the pain we will feel from remembering. We needn’t fear we’ll become like the pitiful picture of this woman who tried to call her children and tell them afresh of her loss. We must embrace pain.
We embrace the pain not so that it can become our battle cry or our badge of grief. We do so to honor the memory of those who died. We do this to honor the survivors who keep living. But most of all, we do this to seek peace.