"To remember is to triumph over loss and death; to forget is to form a partnership with oblivion."
From "The Shame of Forgetting", Harpers April 1999
I had always thought that the answer to this question had something to do with the loss of companionship of the loved one. Even if you want to be narcissistic about it, it could even be because it allows us to focus our own mortality; the fact that we too will die and in fact are dying right now. But I have just learned about a curious alternative to either of the past two suggestions.
Genevieve Jurgensen argues in her beautiful book about her daughter's deaths, The Disappearance: A Memoir of Loss, that we hurt because we know we will forget.
We know that we will try to let go of the deceased loved one. That in fact most therapists would say this is a healthy thing. That dwelling on the past kills us today. But Jurgensen argues that we hurt because we know we will have to move on. That we feel guilty, not so much that we have lived and they have died, but rather that we will forget them.
I have experienced this with my uncle. He died in 1996. Prior to his death we had a strong bond; we played blues guitar together, he took me to see the Rolling Stones. I talked to him several times a week. When he died, as it seems to be my nature, I didn't grieve outwardly, but I thought he would be on my mind. Looking back now I'm shocked that there have honestly been periods of several months were I have not thought about him. I don't think I'm awful, I just think what I did or am doing is normal.
So we hurt, because we know we will forget. And if we don't remember, who will carry on our loved ones' legacy?