Grief task #4: Revising your relationship to the deceased
Your relationship to the person who died doesn't end with his or her death; it changes. "The goal of grieving is not to let go but to find a way to hold on with less pain," Neimeyer says.
Simon Ruben of Israel's University of Haifa describes the grieving process as being "two-tracked," with two processes happening simultaneously. On one track, we cope with the visible symptoms and emotions (anger, depression, sleeplessness, and so on). On the other track, less obvious but equally important, we're working to reframe our relationship to the loved one who has died.
Nobody forgets a loved one. The question is, how do we hold him or her in our memory, our rituals, and our conversation in a way that's manageable, possibly even comforting, rather than painful?
Reminiscing aloud. "Loss is so taboo in American culture. You're supposed to have a funeral and move on," says Jennifer Amandari of Los Angeles, who lost her mother when she was 16 and then lost an infant daughter six years ago. "But not talking about the person stunts your ability to heal and work the loss into your life."
Having your grief witnessed. When psychologist Robert Neimeyer's teenage son got choked up at Thanksgiving on realizing he was seated in his late grandmother's chair, the table conversation came to a halt. Rather than rushing the awkward moment, someone shared his own memory of her. "We all began to recall 'Gloria stories,' and it was a beautiful moment that allowed us to continue a connection to her," Neimeyer says.
Reflecting on the legacy of the person who died (alone or with others). How did he or she inspire you? What was his or her life's meaning and purpose? Questions like these help shape a perspective on the seeming meaninglessness of death.
Following rituals that celebrate or honor the deceased. Victorians made an art of the rituals of remembrance, from wearing black and jewelry made from the hair of the deceased to producing funeral cards and postmortem photography. Such traditions help survivors maintain a connection and continuity. Family members join Lisa Byers of Toledo, Ohio, on an annual visit to the grave of her late husband, who died of a heart attack at age 46. Patti Anderson, who lives in Cincinnati, joins her out-of-state sisters in annual trips for their mother's birthday. They've turned it into a memorial to her, complete with a special dinner devoted to reminiscing. Another family sends balloons aloft on the anniversary of their father's death -- followed by a dinner at his favorite restaurant.
Creating a memorial. Cherie Spino and her sisters plan to make a wall hanging from scraps of their mother's clothing that they'd saved. Others have found solace in creating scrapbooks or PowerPoint presentations with old photos, symbolically lighting a Caring candle and posting a dedication, or planting a tree or garden.