This year and this month mark the 20th anniversary of the sudden death of my middle nephew. The pain of that loss is not as strong as it once was; in fact, I think my sister and the rest of the famly have fully accepted the reality of it. Yet, I’m recognizing that we continue to have relationships with loved-ones who have passed on from the physical world and need to find healthy ways to acknowlege and embrace that.
Several years ago I met some distant family members for the first time and fairly quickly into the conversation they pulled out a worn photo of a small child. Their son, they said. And then they said he had died nearly 50 years before. They still carried his photo and introduced him to strangers after all that time. I was surprised, but that was because at that time I had not experienced the death of anyone close to me.
Now, I fully understand that the fact that someone once loved is no longer available to touch, to see, to hear doesn’t necessarily diminish the connection or feelings about them.
I’ve known several people in recent years whose child had died; some through accidents, illness, even suicide. One thing that struck me in conversations with them was that so many friends or family had urged them to “get over it” and move on. Yet, they weren’t ready to let go of the person fully or had not grieved enough. Often they were filled with not only the pain of the loss, but anger or guilt—especially if feeling they could or should have done something to prevent the death.
Along with that “move on” mentality is a sense that it’s best to forget the person; best to put away photos and not mention their name. This is all from good intentions, for sure. We may feel that if we talk about the one who has died we will just bring up emotions our loved one had finally put aside. Or perhaps we are not able to deal with our own grief and so want to gloss over the loss and rationalize that it is for the best to “get over it.”
I feel now that our healthiest response is not to let go and move on. Certainly it is not healthy to wallow in our grief and refuse to get on with our life as it now is. Yet, can’t we find a way, bit by bit, to reconcile what we wanted for that relationship with the new reality? Can we allow the love for that person to be full of memories and present-day feelings without fearing we will be overwhelmed by grief? Can we accept a new form of relationship; a new identity for ourselves vis a vis that person?
It seems that we must allow the pain of loss to be as sharp and deep as it is; acknowlege the heartbreak and that alllows us to move forward into new meaning in our lives.