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Beautiful Lies or the Painful Truth


When I'm confronted with a newly deceased person, one of the questions I ask the family is, "This is the first time I've met [so-and-so]. What's his/her story?" When asked at the right time, it tends to help loved ones during the initial stages of the grieving process. After all, as a Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once said, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”

However, I can't tell you how many deceased people I've encountered who should be next in line for the Medal of Honor or sainthood. Yes, they may be wearing a police GPS monitor, have visible track marks on their arms, or show bruising from a recent violent event. I've even seen scars from previous bullet wounds or stabbings as well as tattoos from violent gang involvement. The person may have died from a homicide or a drug-induced overdose. And, no, he or she hadn’t darkened the doorstep of a house of worship for a long time, if ever. But according to family and friends, the deceased was the sweetest, nicest, most helpful person you could ever meet.

Having been in public safety as a firefighter and a police officer I can say there have been many times, as I have talked with families, that my internal red flags went up. Sadly, I knew these remaining loved ones couldn’t or didn’t want to share with me the ugly, painful truth. In other words, they were lying to me. Now, as a chaplain, when I ask the “tell me their story” question, I hear answers that would make you think the deceased led a picture-perfect life. The evidence before me tells me something quite different.

Do we have a selective memory when a person dies? Do we forget who these people were in their totality? I am a big believer in a redeemed life, but when that is not part of their narrative, I begin to feel like I'm being lied to.

As a chaplain, I want to trust people and find the positive traits and good memories to celebrate. The reality is that there are people out there who have lived a pretty bad life. I want to believe these people truly were who family and friends say they were. When the unfolding evidence and the body language of the person telling me the story contradicts what they are saying, I can tell this isn't the truth, or at least not the whole truth

In a June 2017 National Geographic article, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee states the number-one reason people lie is to cover up a personal transgression of failing. I would say this would be the majority of what I witness. People want to paint a positive picture of the deceased, especially to the chaplain, and not share any failings. Even more so in the southern Bible Belt culture than my previous home in the Pacific Northwest.

One question remains. Is it wrong to paint a different picture of the deceased? Under normal circumstances, I would say no. If someone remembers positive things at the time of initial grief, it might help a loved one not stay stuck in their grief. Anger, which is a valuable and natural part of the grieving process, may not be profitable at this time. In this case, as Cicero once said, to every survivor goes the right to tell the story of the deceased. If it is unbalanced for a brief period of time, maybe that’s okay.

Next week, I will expand upon the topic of lies and how we, as chaplains, must deal with the ones that are more dangerous and require us to act.

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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