Photos of Deceased Loved Ones: The Great Debate

I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or trend that’s recently led me to several online articles and posts discussing whether to keep and/or display photos of deceased loved ones. When I originally started writing this post I began discussing those who I think are talking about this topic ‘well’ and those whose advice I find downright disturbing, but then I stopped myself because who cares? You’re here and hopefully you trust what we have to say so I’m just going to get right down our thoughts on the matter.

Whether or not to display photos of deceased loved ones, in my mind, ought to be a benign conversation. I know how I feel – photos are a beautiful and treasured reminder of loved ones who are gone. However, I also understand there are plenty of peoplephoto-67051_640 who prefer not to display photos for perfectly good reasons. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

I’m sure this has been a non-issue for many of you, but for others it’s not quite so straightforward. It just makes me immensely sad to think of some widow or widower stuffing photos into a box because someone made them feel that leaving photos up is wrong, abnormal, or an indication that they are stuck in their grief.

There are reasons why people hold on to photos and there are reasons why people don’t. Here are a few, but not all, of those reasons.

Why People Hold on to Photos:

For children and/or other family members…like brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters. When someone dies, his or her branch on the family tree doesn’t just fall off. That person is still a part of the family and hiding reminders of them, even if you would prefer to do so, can make other family members feel like their loved one’s memory is being erased.

Because you’re still a family: I have 5 brothers and sisters and, as I’ve said in past posts, we all still consider our mother to be a part of our family. She exists in memory and she continues to influence our family to this day. Whether her photo hangs on the wall has no bearing on her prominence in our family; but memories and moments involving her are an important part of our history. So why shouldn’t they exist in our homes?

Photos also give future generations a chance to connect with their deceased ancestors and family history. How else would you know you have your great grandmother’s nose or see aunt Carol smiling with her prized roses? Anyway, what was the point of taking photographs of these people if you didn’t plan on looking at them later on down the road?

Nostalgia and Memories: This is the most common-sense reason and why many people take pictures in the first place. Photos preserve memories like pre-school graduations, birthday parties, kids posing happily with artistic creations, weddings, etc. You know these moments are fleeting and in time our brain will no longer be able to remember them with the same vivid imagery, so you take photos.

Photos can make you smile, laugh, cry and remember. If you don’t believe me just ask Kodak, Canon, Shutterfly, Instagram, Facebook or Apple. Mankind’s penchant for taking and sharing images is stronger than ever.

Photos are tangible: One of the most difficult things about losing someone is the feeling that their memory is fading. Their smell, voice, and the feeling of their embrace – you wish for them to appear in a dream just so you can remember these things again. Photos are an accurate and literal reminder of your loved one.

They like photos: Dude, some people just really like photos. Put an avid camera clicker together with someone who really likes their family and what do you get? You get photo album after photo album of family members and friends. Accept it.

An appreciation for history: Some people just really care about history. My older brother, for example, is a history buff. He will leave no stone unturned in archiving our family history. It’s pretty cool and I’m certain our family’s next generation will appreciate his efforts; but seldom does a letter, film negative, or VHS recording that goes unturned in his pursuit.

In honor and remembrance: Many people prominently display photos of deceased individuals to honor them. I have wasted an irrational amount of time walking down the halls of Johns Hopkins Hospital looking at dead doctor after dead doctor. Why are they all hanging there? To honor and give them their place of prominence in an institution they helped to create and grow.

Portrait paintings of the rich, powerful, important and influential have been commissioned for countless microcosms throughout history. Walk the hall of any government building, club, or business and you will see this is true. In the same vein, it should come as no surprise that someone might see the family portrait as a way of honoring and paying tribute to individuals they love and adore.

Why People Don’t Have or Display Photos:

Photographs are a grief trigger or are too hard to look At: As we’ve established, many people find looking at photos of their deceased loved one to be very difficult. They may not choose to get rid of photos, but they might choose to put them away for a while. Sometimes people will continue to display photos even though it’s hard because they feel putting them away is disrespectful or means they are forgetting.

I think it’s probably incorrect to look at the act of putting photos away as a signal someone is ‘moving on’. Part of grieving well is learning to integrate the deceased loved one’s memory and being able to look at photos of deceased loved ones and feel happy or positive emotion is often a signal someone is doing better.

Grievers should feel okay about putting away photographs if they need to, this in no way means you are forgetting. Just because you put their photo away doesn’t mean the photos are gone forever. Though they may be too hard to look at right now, there will hopefully come a day when you can look at them and also remember fond memories.

Important Note: If you have children in the home, I would consider this more carefully. Consistency and connection are important for children and they may not understand the complicationed emotions and actions of adults. Please e-mail us if you want more clarification on this topic.

Photos are a grief trigger for others: Although you may be okay with photos, others in your house may not be. Together you may decide to put away photos away or you may arrive at some other compromise.

There aren’t any: Sadly some people don’t actually have any photos of their loved one. This is often the case with the death of a young child or baby, when someone has been distant or estranged, if the family photos were lost or destroyed, or if the person was just generally camera shy.

To avoid judgment or having to explain: Some may worry that others will judge their coping; some grievers may feel internal and/or external pressure to put the photos away, and some people may put photos away to avoid having to answer questions from visitors who didn’t know their loved one.

Bad memories: Not everyone has a past full of happy moments and fond memories. Old photos may be a reminder of a past they would just as soon forget.

Photos make them feel stuck: For some it may feel difficult to move forward when reminders of the past are everywhere. For this reason they may choose to put a few or all of the photos away.

Do you display photos of your deceased loved ones? Why or why not? Leave a comment and don’t forget to subscribe to receive posts straight to your eMail inbox.

March 28, 2017

26 responses on "Photos of Deceased Loved Ones: The Great Debate"

  1. I lost my dad while my mom was pregnant with me. And she doesn’t display pictures of him or talk about him, unless I bring it up, which is to painful so I rarely do! He committed suicide, so I understand. Except it makes me feel like I’m a bad memory for her & a constant reminder, just by my presence. I’m 36 years old & have had a great deal of pain in my life because of it. Pictures & conversations is all I’ve ever wanted since I can’t have him. It may be painful for her, but it destroyed my life by choosing to not deal with the situation & pretend as if nothing ever happened. Pictures are a wonderful thing!

  2. I lost my beautiful son 2 1/2 years ago. My husband, my other child and I, don’t talk him. It’s just way too painful. We were always a very close family and it’s just so hard talking about him. Has anyone else experienced this is their grief process?

    • I’m very sorry for your loss. I lost my son in February of this year. We do talk about him at times yet whenever we do, or whenever I pass by a picture of him, I am struck with pain, actual physical pain in my heart and stomache. Grief is overwhelming!

  3. I am concerned about the many photos my son has of his wife who committed suicide. My concern is for his 5 year old son who was basically neglected by his mom. I feel the child may be getting confused. He acts out very badly but only at home. He starts therapy next week.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Susan, I am glad to hear that he is starting therapy. We can’t speak to any specific situation, but generally speaking it is healthy and important for children to keep a connection with their deceased parent. Photographs can be an important part of that with the appropriate support, communication and explanations from their caregiver. That said, there can always be unique circumstances and situations so it is important when there are behavioral issues or other concerns to seek support from a professional. Wishing all the best . . .

  4. I have a question. I have heard from two persons that its a bad thing to have a picture of a loved one that has passed away in your bedroom, now is this true. I lost one of my older sisters almost two months ago.
    This lady said its bad for my mother in law, she had breast cancer last year, and has recovered, so I dont see what the big deal is. Is it a catholic thing or a mexican myth. Please help.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Maria, there is absolutely no reason to think it is bad to have a photo of your loved one in your room or anywhere else that is meaningful to you! Photos can be a great comfort and you should absolutely feel comfortable and confident keeping your photos in your home. I am not familiar with a myth or superstition about this particularly, but from a grief and mental health perspective there is no reason to think this is a problem in any way!

  5. My husband and I always displayed photos of us everywhere throughout the house. I haven’t taken any of them down. I’ve had several people tell me that I’m “living in the past”, or as your 64 Grief Myths said, “you’re stuck”. I’ve chosen to ignore their comments, and some I don’t hear from any more. Thank you for all of your articles.

    • Bea, I’m so glad that you have kept your photos. Everybody has their own way of making a way after losing someone very close. I have tons of photos of my husband and my parents. The photos give me comfort and create a sense of ongoing relationship. My dear ones may be physically gone, but the relationships are not. Displaying photos is how it can look to have a continuing relationship with those we have lost and to honor their memory by keeping them in the present if we choose to. Other people might choose to do something else, but no one should second guess what you should or shouldn’t do or to analyze your choices in a negative way. Just wanted you to know that there is someone else who keeps the photos and who has even added more than there used to be. 🙂

  6. I have pictures of my daughter all over my house, in my car and at work. I won’t ever forget her beautiful smile and soft curly long hair…. I have had some of her dearest friends give me pictures of her they had taken, had painted of her and most recent one made a colleague and gave it to me for Christmas.

  7. This is so helpful.I thought I was the only one going through this but I’m glad there are many.It does feel like you are stuck in grief when you don’t want to remove the picture,but then again when you remove it you just miss that person and you want to look at the picture again and it reminds you of them and brings back memories.I think it depends on an individual and healing stage he or she is in

  8. Thank you for your insight. I find that looking at a photo of a loved one makes me remember the time I took the photo. It makes me smile back and helps me to remember him because I he has made a big impact on my life and plus, although he is gone physically, it is important to me not to forget him even though I have to get on with my life.

  9. My husband passed away almost 8 years ago & I do have pictures of him out. He was 47 when he passed & our kids were 16 & 10. The kids have wanted them out & think it keeps him present. They worried, would feel guilty that they would forget him.

  10. I am widow of 20 months. Actually put up photos of husband everywhere after his sudden death. That helped for a long time. Just a couple of weeks ago, I put them close but out of sight just for awhile. I am at a time when I want to expand the emotional and mental memories and story to include the other 99.9%. Walking past the photos that had been comforting and supportive, became distracting….and limiting. There was/is no pressure fromvanyone. But it has broadened the path of this part of this healing journey. I did not choose it or much of what it included. Choices have been hard earned and not always right. AND this wold not hAve even ocured to me even a few mon the ago. . I will put them up again…likely different ones in different arrangements and spaces. This is just a part of the larger rebuilding. P.s. for the first 18 months they kept me sane. We really did exist…our story was real.. he was real…I needed to be able keep real about what and who I was grieving. It helped to have his image…that twinkle, grin, but also later reality check on his health aging lI’m it’s …and strengths ….at the point of death. It helped make sense if it all.

  11. It drives me crazy that I only have one picture of the two of us together, and it’s taken from far away. The worst thing is that this is reflective of our relationship: we were good friends and had known each other for a long time, but while he was alive I was really shy and struggled socially, and thus there are only a few serious conversations I can remember ever having with him. I wish I had something tangible with which to remember. I wish I had something tangible to remember.

  12. good day, I lost my boyfriend of 3 years to cancer April 2014. I have had mixed feelings over the last year about photos. sometimes I want to look at them like crazy and other times I get overwhelmed and I put them away. Its definately individual choice . My though if someone is pressuring someone either way thats a problem! We are not alone because people go through grief all the time however it IS our individual journey and we have to make the best choices for ourselves. take care and I hope we all find peace when we need it 🙂

  13. I’m one of those who has pictures everywhere. First, it was pictures of my husband. Now, it pictures of my mom too. I’ve made collages as well that I have around the house that are not only decorative, but were really therapeutic to make. On special days, I get all the memory boards out from the memorials and put them all out for a couple of days. For me, it just seems sad to have made all of those nice displays and to just keep them in the attic forever. I try to get through those hard days, birthdays and the anniversary of my loved one’s deaths by having a plan to celebrate and part of the celebration is to bring them into the room. I think I did more for my mom’s first birthday after her passing than I ever did when she was alive. I bought a wooden “J,” her initial, from a craft store and collaged photos all over it and then glued little embellishments to it like small lockets, buttons and heart shaped pendants. Creating art with photographs for me has been a labor of love and makes me feel like I am spending time with those I loved. Not everyone is the same when it comes to having the constant reminders, but for me my husband died; my mother died, but the relationships with each did not and I choose to look at them everyday and have them in my life still.

  14. I have pictures of my son all over the house and big frames I love looking at them I wish I had more space on my house walls I love when people look at them and I could never take them down I even have an alter for him a big one and it even lights up at night its beautiful im sure my son loves it 🙂

  15. My son died just a little over three years ago. I have kept his photos up, *but* it is difficult sometimes to look through photo albums with his pictures. I think healing means accepting our lost loved one’s place in our past. And sometimes I think I am getting there. But there are many days, still, when the enormity of my loss smacks me in my gut. And so, perhaps, it will always be. Losing a child is earth-shattering.

  16. My sister displays photos of EVERYONE except our mom. I have several scattered throughout my house…. once I asked her about it and she said it hurt too much to look photos (this is 30 years later). Interestingly she always wants to look at them at my house, and often comments that she wants copies (which I continue to send her, and she continues to lose). I agree, though, to each his/her own. But I think sometimes NOT displaying a photo (especially if you are a person who displays photos) is a symptom (manifestation) of something not being dealt with. IN my family in general we never talked about my mom after she died… and I think it was detrimental in many many ways that I am still working through.

  17. Anne Marie HigginsJune 18, 2014 at 2:41 pmReply

    I still have a “shrine” with my favorite photos of my husband going on five years now since he died. I have changed them a bit but still have the main ones up.
    I carry his memorial card with his picture with me wherever I go, it gives me comfort. I do not listen to other’s judgements, he was not their soulmate. Each person must decide for themselves but for me, I love looking at his handsome face and smiling right back at him.

  18. Your site is so great! I had forgotten all about “pressure by others” as a reason. I put things away for a while, but just decided to break them out again last night. I LOVE how feelings have changed and I feel healed, not too intimidated by the past.

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