The death of a loved one, be it our parent, child, spouse, sibling or friend ruptures the internal and external connection we have with that person. It is a connection that helps define our sense of self, mirrors who we are, impacts our feelings and influences our view of life.
From a relational perspective, death of a loved one is a crisis of self and a crisis of meaning.
- A 13-year-old boy asks how he will ever play baseball on the team if his dad, killed on 9/11, is not watching.
- Author, Joan Didion observes in Blue Nights, that there is no season to lose a child, to stop hearing her sing. Recalling her 32 year old daughter’s unexpected death from pneumonia, she shares her guilt for her failure to protect. “This was never supposed to happen to her.”
- Robert Stolorow, psychologist, describes himself as broken and deadened after the sudden death of his young wife. On seeing others with their partners he feels “strange and alien—not of this world.”
- A young man comes home on hearing of the suicide of his sister. He can’t fathom her pain; he can’t look at his parents’ pain; he can’t feel.
- A woman who spent years caring for an elderly mother feels panic and loss after her mother’s death – “What Now?”
What is Grieving?
Grieving is our reaction to the loss of a loved one. Beginning with the acute pang of loss, grief is often accompanied by numbing disbelief or unspeakable rage. Often there is a sense of emptiness, disorganization, the loss of the loved one and self.
Whereas early theorists like Freud conceptualized the ultimate goal of grieving as “letting go,” as disconnecting from the loved one, contemporary relational psychology offers another perspective.
- Recognizing the importance of relationships in our psychological life from earliest infant-mother attachments, new mourning theorists like George Hagman and Louise Kaplan propose that the feelings experienced in grieving are normal, communicative and meaningful.
- From their perspective, the role of grieving is to preserve an attachment to the lost love one, to hold them in your head and heart in a way that transcends loss.
- To do so is to re-connect to the lost loved one in a different way, to begin to heal the disrupted internal bond, to find self and to find a meaningful way to go on.
How is This Possible?
This is not easy, simple or quick, but it is a psychologically possible and emotionally restorative.
It means going on while holding on- even with tears, without closure, with a brick of pain in your pocket, with a mix of memories, with the fear of forgetting, and the need to remember the stories, the names, the moments, the loved one.
It means having the realization that the physical death of the beloved is not the end of our attachment.
It means your loved one can be an enduring presence in your life.
How Does a Person hold on to an Enduring Presence of their Loved One?
The Human Dialogue
Psychologist, Louise Kaplan offers us a wonderful answer in her belief in the human dialogue as the heartbeat of human existence. She invites us to consider that “No Voice is Ever Wholly Lost,” that the dialogue with a loved one can go on and becomes a way of maintaining psychological connection.
This human dialogue can be carried on through words, actions, art, music, stories, survival missions and renewed life meaning. It is embodied in…
- The child who follows in his deceased father’s footsteps and plays ball.
- The woman who takes on the business that her spouse cherished.
- The adult children who value and use their mother’s recipes.
- The sculptures of a mother who lost her son in Pan Am flight 103 outside Lockerbie, Scotland.
- The foundations that offer outreach to those in pain in the name of sons and daughters whose lives were taken.
- The actual words of young widows going on without their partners- “ How did you leave me with these kids!” “ I miss you.” “ Help me figure out what to do.”
- The naming of a child in honor of a brave sister killed in combat.
Connection and Meaning
Often the goal of having an enduring presence of a loved one is motivational in shaping life’s meaning and bridging connection with others who have suffered loss and are seeking restoration and meaning.
One of the most powerful examples of this is the work of Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist who lost his father to suicide at age 10 and whose life work has been as a theorist and spokesman for grieving as a path for making meaning, and reconstructing connection after loss.
- Recently speaking to parents, siblings and spouses who had lost their loved ones to suicide, Neimeyer offered a profound insight for anyone wanting to hold on to a lost loved one – no matter how they died.
- He suggests we rescue the memory of the person from the event, speak to others about the loved one we have lost, listen to their stories, connect not only in shared pain but in the best of those we cherish– always remembering that “ the final paragraph” in a person’s life is not the whole story.
How Do We Go On Living?
Answering this question and reflecting her capacity to hold on to a beloved brother who died of AIDS, is the poem by Marie Howe, “What the Living Do.” In the poem, Marie details aspects of daily life from plumbing problems, buying a hairbrush, to cherishing a glimpse of herself in the window of a corner video store. She ends by telling her brother, ” I am living, I remember you.”
Listen in to Psych Up Live as Dr. Cacciatore discusses “Bearing the Unbearable: Understanding How to Be With Grief.”