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When to let go: Roadside Memorials

Updated on October 22, 2011

Wild Purple Foxglove

The Moment That Changes Everything

Every so often, something captures our attention so markedly that it imprints upon our soul. One clear summer day, heading to a weekend camping trip, something caught my eye along the forested roadside of the lonely stretch of highway we were driving. Next to a plain white cross there was one of those cheap white plastic patio chairs that everyone had 20 years ago, before fancy metal-and-glass sets became the norm. The chair stark and white, in contrast to the tall green grass it stood on, resting on a steep hillside facing the four-lane roadway. I clearly recall thinking, "I wonder if whomever put that chair there is still going back to sit in it."

Several days later, heading home, I had forgotten all about the chair. Driving along, talking to the kids in the backseat, I have to believe it was a greater power that caused me to glance up at 90 km/hr and realize that someone was sitting in the chair! Not just someone, a young man, probably in his 20's. He had on jeans and a dark-shirt, and was wearing a baseball cap pulled down low. In his hands he was playing an old acoustic guitar... and he was singing out loud. Then the moment passed. That sad scene on the hillside fading into the distance in the rearview mirror.

I couldn't help but wonder what had happened. Did he lose his friend; his sister? Was he there? Did he blame himself? Was he simply trying to share a moment with someone he missed so badly?

In the years before kids, I did a lot of travelling: South and Central America, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia.... It is common in many of these countries to see roadside memorials built. From simple markers on the side of the road, to elaborate little chapels with beautiful flowers in them replenished daily. In Mexico, it is common for there to be candles left burning for the dead... and it is both peaceful and eerie to pass the soft yellow, flickering lights when driving at night.

How, or when we grieve is the most deeply personal journey a person can take. There is no right time, length or depth to grief. Growing up, I don't remember seeing any roadside memorials. Today, on my 45 minute drive to work, I pass five. It is my perception that In North America, traditionally, people have tended to keep their grief private. Traits such stoicism have been highly valued, and people who were seen to "carry on" despite their hardships were seen as "strong". There are many who feel awkward to talk about someone who has died with those who were close to them. In the past it seems that people were forced to bury their grief, and carry it alone. Passing cemetaries in North America one does not see them full of families sharing a picnic as you might in South America, where a family member who has died is still a part of family celebrations.

Where I live, the roadside memorials also seem to serve as a reminder to pay attention: several are on sharp corners, others were the result of driver fatigue and this especially hits home when I pass them wearily after working a night shift. This is where, for me, a debate is sparked. Many memorials here start out as a beautifully sad reminder of a life cut short: cards, balloons, and flowers mark the spot where a life has ended too soon. Sometimes a more permanent cross or photo is placed, but then, over the years, the spot starts to get shabby. People move on, and who can blame them? But is it still a tribute to that person when what is left behind looks so derelict? Should there be a point at which the memorials are taken down if they are not being maintained? I recall one grieving family in our community who asked that people stop leaving things at a telephone pole where their son had died in an accident late one night. A younger sibling attended the school nearby and would have to pass this marker several times a day, the parents said it was just too hard on the child who had lost a much-loved brother.

I am not proposing that I have the answer. As a nurse I have spent time with many families in their darkest hour. Where do families build memorials when their loved one has been taken by cancer, heart disease, or chronic illness? What other means do we have of making our grief public? I feel as if social media has also influenced the way we grieve today, with online memorials springing up, or condolence pages made available for people to post their thoughts.

This I do know: when I die, I would rather be remembered for how I have LIVED. I would rather a bench mark a spot down at the beach where I like to watch my children play, or a tree planted which sheds glorious coloured leaves in the Fall because that's my favourite season. Grief is the most devastating of feelings, but it is not possible if you haven't loved.

"It is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all," Lord Tennyson.


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