Since Nobody’s Perfect, May We Speak Ill of the Dead?

In our grief support groups, we often use this question somewhere along the way: “Since ‘nobody’s perfect,’ what are some things that were not perfect about the person who died?” For some, the answers come pretty easily, but for many, this is a difficult question to consider and some pass on responding.

Our frequent tendency is to avoid speaking ill of the dead as it can feel disrespectful on some level and we don’t want to come across as critical of one who is not here to offer a defense. Yet, it’s true—no one is perfect and there were things about the dead which annoyed, frustrated, angered or irritated when the person was alive. It’s true even for the best of us, including saintly mothers, esteemed fathers, cherished grandparents, best of friends, close brothers and sisters, and our precious children. But it can be hard to remember and name those less-than-perfect parts of those we have lost. We may not want to “go there,” and if we do, we feel concern that others will think us ungrateful and won’t understand.

The reality is that people are complicated and their complications while living are not automatically resolved in their dying. In fact, we know that those who have complicated, ambivalent and conflicted relationships with someone while alive are unsurprisingly at greater risk of a complicated grief experience after the person dies. The opportunity to work out the complications and mixed feelings in-person is gone and is counted among the many things that are lost in death. How do we make peace with someone who no longer exists, at least here in the physical world in which we (mostly) live? It’s possible, but, of course, it’s complicated.

A theme which is found in these complicated relationships with the dead is that of forgiveness, and it can be forgiveness in all kinds of directions. Sometimes it’s forgiving the dead for not being all they could have been, all we wished or needed for them to be in life. Sometimes it’s forgiving ourselves for similar reasons—we were not all we could have been, all they wished or needed us to be. At times forgiveness is needed for their particular acts or sins of omission.

Other times it’s forgiveness for the kind of person they were, their style of life, the way they filled their space in the world that sometimes drove us nuts or got on our last nerve. And, it may also be forgiveness of our own intolerance, lack of understanding or deficiency of gracefulness toward them. Or maybe it was our particular acts or ways of being or their lack of gracefulness, or various combinations on all sides. Complicated all around.

Of course, part of the reason it’s hard to acknowledge and speak of the imperfections of the dead is that to do so takes us to a tender, vulnerable, sometimes painful place. How our person fell short in life can truly be a hurtful thing. These painful memories may haunt us until we give them the attention they deserve. Like a room we won’t enter or a box we we’re reluctant to open, painful memories wait to be entered and opened so that at least some of the pain can be sorted through and set free, liberating ourselves in the process. Because we’re not perfect, sometimes we wait a long time and suffer overmuch before finding the courage or support to take these healing steps. It’s not easy living imperfectly with imperfect people in an imperfect world.

Because sometimes our hurts dominate the stage, there are times where we remember (and speak of) only the bad and overlook the good in the lives of those who died. There can be several layers which hide the good parts or acts of a person who was a source of pain in life. The topmost layer can be anger—that’s what most frequently comes out of us and what we feel most consciously. Underneath anger is pain, the hurt and disappointment supporting the anger up top.

As we find ways to pull the anger back and give needed care to the hurt places, we can gently and safely set those places to the side and more clearly see the person as they were—a complicated mix of many parts, some selfish, misguided, and narrow-minded and others generous, insightful and caring. In no way perfect, but not all bad, either. Complications and imperfections all around.

There are storytellers who help us understand at least some of how complicated people can be. Part of Oskar Schindler’s story is told in Steven Spielberg’s film, “Schindler’s List.” Before World War II, Schindler was a poor businessman and an unfaithful husband. After the war, he went bankrupt and was again an unfaithful husband. During the war, however, he was very successful doing business for the Nazis while he helped save the lives of 1200 Jews. Because of how he risked his life and livelihood to save others, he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the government of Israel despite being a member of the Nazi party.

Other stories are fiction, but with all good fiction, they communicate important truths. In the Alexander Payne’s movie, “The Descendants,” Matt King’s wife is on life-support following a boating accident. While she is in intensive care, Matt learns that before the accident she was having an affair. In the story it becomes apparent that Matt was a fairly neglectful husband and father, the “backup parent” and “understudy” in his own words. Towards the end of the story, he finds the strength and insight to say to his wife, “Goodbye my love, my friend, my pain, my joy.”

Since nobody’s perfect, in what ways are those we have lost not perfect? It’s an important and potentially challenging question. Our hurts and annoyances with the dead do not cancel our love for them nor make us miss them less. We may even find that we yearn for some of those things which once drove us kind of crazy. We’re not perfect either, and the more honest and kind we can be toward our dead and ourselves, the more likely we can find an imperfect peace in our complicated world.

Greg Adams

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Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two young adult children—a son in college and a daughter working in-between college and graduate school. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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