When I think back twelve years ago to events following the horrific car accident in which five members of my family were killed but I was spared, I recall awakening to my sister screaming, “They are all dead!” I remember looking at her blankly, not feeling anything, not even knowing I had been in an accident, and unsure of where we were. Even though I was in pain, I recall feeling numb.
As time passes, our memories of the details about traumatic events change. Do I remember the accident today? No. Did I remember it just after it occurred? I truly do not know. Sometimes I have been so focused on exactly what happened before and after the accident I forget that exact details are not of central importance.
I wanted to remember all the details. And I wanted people to remember them my way, perhaps thinking that if others recalled the details in the same way I did it would justify the emotional pain I still felt about my loss. But I have learned that focusing on differences in people’s recollections of traumatic events does not lead to healing. After all, the recollections themselves can change over time and misunderstandings based on different memories of the details can undermine relationships with those people, especially if they are loved ones needed to support the grieving process.
I once watched a TV show in which unsuspecting bystanders who had witnessed a staged robbery were asked to describe the details of the event they observed. All described the scene differently, and all believed their memory of the event was correct. Their differences in opinion created such chaos that they could take no action to apprehend who they believed was a real criminal. Likewise, during times of grief and sorrow, loved ones who have experienced the same tragedy can easily remember things differently, leading to misunderstandings, judgments, and conflict that may only amplify the hurt and loss, and not lead to a fruitful outcome.
Instead of insisting that our own interpretations of a traumatic event is correct, we need to realize that no one is going to remember the details in exactly the same way and that, no matter how badly we want things to be as they were before grief set in, this, too, is impossible. The way forward is to recognize the hurt and loss we have in common with loved ones and maintain close ties with them to facilitate healing.
Since the accident, my relationships with family and friends have changed. Some have become stronger, and others weaker. But the one thing that has not changed for any of us is the empty hole that was left when our loved ones died. We all miss them, and we all miss what we once had with each other before our loss. Yet we cannot change the past. We can only live in the present, love and accept one another for who we are today, and not allow differences in the memory of past events to impede the healing process.
Jill Kraft Thompson lives in McCall, Idaho, and is the author of Finding Jill: How I Rebuilt My Life after Losing the Five People I Loved Most (Mind, Body, and Soul Productions, 2013).