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Are you ‘hallmarking’ your past at the expense of your present?

Myself and a client of mine recently came up with a new word: hallmarking.

Ok ok, so yes, if you go to the dictionary you’ll already find this word. Spoilsport. So we didn’t actually invent a new word. But we have given it a new meaning.

Hallmarking, as we are using it, is about looking back on your life and applying a hallmark filter i.e. think the huge greeting card company/TV network ‘Hallmark’, where everything is lovely and ideal, and family relationships (in particular) are all they are meant to be. It’s all so lovely….but often not even the vaguest bit realistic.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “parents are always there for you” (not all of them and never always), “family is the most important thing” (not to everyone), “death brings families together” (hahahaha! well sometimes, sure…but often not) and “no-one will ever love you as much as your family” (too simplistic!)……. The actual reality of family relationships are far more complicated than that. I can easily attest to this: with each client I work with I get to see the true ins-and-outs of people’s families. The reality is that family dynamics and relationships are no more simple than any other, and there are no guarantees about what you’ll receive in yours, and no absolutes about how families should be.

This is similar to how I talk about ‘photoshopping’. That terrible thing that you are so often encouraged to do after a death. You know what I mean – “just remember the good things about them. Remember the good times.” Yup, just remember half of them and try to forget the rest. Very bad idea. Not even vaguely helpful to your healing. And it doesn’t honour them at all to have to ‘photoshop’ your image and memories of them, as if they aren’t loveable enough otherwise.

Hallmarking is a similar thing, in that you look back on your past and paint a rosier picture than the one that actually existed. ‘Missing’ a wonderful element of a relationship…that actually wasn’t really there. Or imagining a time in the past that was stress-free…but actually wasn’t.

How my client and I got onto this topic was that she was reminiscing for her youth, the time when things were easy and she was supported and loved. Except the actual reality of her youth didn’t look like that at all. It wasn’t easy. It was chaotic and challenging, and family relationships certainly weren’t like the hallmark cards.

Now there is a distinction to draw here. I’m not saying you can’t look back at the past and see it as better, and more beautiful and valuable, than you do now. Indeed, that’s part of what my work is: helping people to look back on their past (the death and life of someone who has died and their experience of that) and looking for the beauty and meaning you haven’t yet seen, so that your experience transforms. But that is a very different thing from using a pretend version of the past (that doesn’t relate to your actual experience) to compare your today with, then decide your present is lacking, and feel crap about that.

The problem with doing the latter is that you can use a fake hallmarked version of your past as a form of escape from your reality. And instead of finding the beauty in both, you are stuck longing for a past that didn’t actually exist. And using this figment of your imagination to measure your current life against and find it lacking. In grief this is not helpful in the least.

You might find yourself nostalgic for something in the past that didn’t even really exist, or at least not in the way you are ‘remembering’ it. And how on earth can your present measure up to that?

If I look back to a time in my past when things were easy, all my needs were met, I had almost no challenges, I was loved unconditionally by all, and was blissfully happy (spoiler alert: this time didn’t exist) and then compare my life now….well it comes up wanting, I can tell you! And herein lies the trap. I’d be lying to myself about the past, avoiding the future, and spending my time telling myself how much I missed this figment of imagination from my past, instead of taking actual real, important action in my present.

This can be one of the hooks of grief for people. Grief can, for many, become a tempting excuse, usually totally unconsciously, to stop you having to move forward into an uncertain future, or take any real responsibility for your life or make any real changes. And hallmarking your past makes this all the easier to do.

Instead, be real about your past – the good and the bad. Painting none of it as purely the perfect dream…or the terrible nightmare…that you may have seen it as. Don’t let this hallmarked version of your past draw you away from putting your energy and focus on your present and your future.

Much love,



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