How Death and Absence Changes Facial Memory

My dog, Dallas, who died in May 2021. She always loved to stick her head through the holes in the banister.

Memory has always been fickle, more akin to an amorphous photo album we’ve dropped on the floor than the meticulous filing cabinet, or computer storage analogy that typifies how we think of memory. Our memories are often unreliable precisely because we are its arbiters, the ones picking up, or not picking up, those discarded photos. In so doing, we tell stories about our past selves, and those around us.

One way in which the photos in that photo album get distorted, it seems, is through the passage of time primarily filtered through death. Or at least, absence, as it doesn’t always have to involve death, but I’m thinking about it in that way this morning.

My dog, Dallas, died more than a year ago now, in May 2021. She was my best friend for about 10 or so years. I think she played a pivotal role in keeping me alive through some of my worst moments of suicidal ideation. I couldn’t “abandon” her by killing myself. Of course, sometimes, the depression also lied in the opposite way, “She’s better off without me, her pathetic owner.” Yes, that mentality applied to a pet, too. Depression is one helluva of a destructive, distorting bastard in that way.

Dallas came to my family courtesy of Louie’s Legacy Animal Rescue, which is why I started fostering through Louie’s to “give back” after her death. I still haven’t written a detailed blog post on my fostering experience, but eventually I shall do that.

Even today, I still get teary-eyed when I see Dallas’s image pop up on my Facebook memories, or when I pass her face in the framed photo on my living room table. I’ve gradually noticed, however, that the further I get away from her death — which again, has only been 13 months — the more and more her face begins to look different to me. As if the passage of time and her absence has distorted my memory’s remembrance of how her face was. Not so much like a fading photograph, or a photograph with spilled coffee on it that interferes with the image, but like the image itself has changed, somehow. Put another way, is my memory of her face decaying, so that’s why it looks different to me? But as I said, this phenomenon also applies to absence in general, so my exes’ faces have started to look different over time, or my grandpa who passed in 2007, or heck — here is the most trippy one — my own face! That’s right. As I wrote in my recent review of the novel, The Casualties, we are constantly dying and being reborn, so our “self” of five years ago becomes unrecognizable to us. This happens to me. I see a photo of myself from, say, 10 years ago, and I’m like, “Who is that?” I don’t mean that literally, obviously, but there is a sense in which that person of 10 years ago is unfamiliar to the person I am today.

The interesting thing is, for how fickle and biased our memories are, our brains are apparently expert level in face perception. According to the journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, “We are better able to distinguish between the differences of faces and their components than between any other kind of objects.” Even so, even with our “expert level” perception, we are notoriously bad at being eyewitnesses to, say, a crime. But as the authors of that study said, face processing itself is modulated by different factors, such as “facial characteristics, degree of familiarity, and emotional relation.” Much of that would not be applicable to witnessing a random, stranger crime.

Before I jumped down my usual research rabbit hole further, I actually expected to find a “name” for what I’m describing here, or at least some sort of explanation for why this happens that is more scientific than “death or absence changes visual memories of faces over time,” but I haven’t been able to. So, if you know, please pass that on!

Anyhow, I miss Dallas, and it is as if that longing has pushed her face beyond the realm of its baseline familiarity.

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