As the weather gets colder and the Christmas decorations go up, it can prove to be an almost unbearable time of year for those experiencing the recent death of a loved one. Regardless of how you spent the holidays prior to the death of your loved one, going through the holidays without them can be incredibly hard. There seems to be some societal expectation that we all must be cheery and bright and spend our days with our loving family. For people that don’t fit that picture of holiday cheer these days can feel painful and unending. The music is unceasing, the loneliness is aching and the grief can be profound and exhausting. If you find yourself dreading the holidays this year, please just remember, you are not alone. Many of us struggle this time of year.
As we approach the holidays the following strategies may be helpful. Some may work for you and others may not but anything to help you get through might be useful. to consider.
Holiday Hope: Remembering Loved Ones Druing Special Times of the Year. Patricia Zalaznik, Fairview Press 1998. pp 13-17.
The Bereavment Ministry Program: A Comprehensive Guide for Churches. Jan Nelson & David Aaker, Ave Maria Press, 1998
Yesterday was the Day of the Dead, or All Soul’s Day. Although there are various renditions of this holiday depending on geography and religious faith, the main idea is to honour the dead on this day. My own experience of this day is in Mexico, where it is believed that the souls of the dead can come back for a day to spend with loving relatives. It is moving to witness so many people openly honouring the loved ones they have lost, and, since losing my own partner, I have tried to re-member him consciously on this day with my children.
But this year, I had forgotten that the Day of the Dead was upon us until I woke up from a short nap having dreamed of my deceased husband, Quique. In the dream, I had been looking at my son who is 8. He was sort of crouching on the floor and I felt a need to pick him up and hug him. As I bent over to lift him, he was the 8 year old boy I see every day. But as I lifted him into my arms, he began to cry and he turned into an infant; the six month old version of himself, as he had been when Quique was alive. I comforted him but he was unable to tell me what was wrong. It was then that Quique asked me what I thought might be the problem. Quique suggested that was perhaps our son was teething. It was a conversation between two concerned parents like many we had had. He comforted our son and soothed his tears.
As he held our son and quieted his crying, he asked me to look at his back because he had been scratched by something at work. He lifted his shirt and I saw some minor scratches on his back. I passed my hand over his skin. I felt him. And then I woke. It was then that it dawned on me that I had been dreaming of Quique. It has been quite some time since I have had a dream with Quique. What lingers with me is the extraordinary ordinariness of our conversation. The absolute normal feeling of just being with him as we once were: a happy married couple, companions, partners, friends. There was no fanfare because he was dead. He just was. I just was. We just were. Together. Normal.
And the feel of his skin. The feel of his back on my fingers. Normal. Familiar. Loving. It has been six and half years since I’ve felt his back and yet it felt like the most normal and familiar thing in the world to me. That lingered with me.
Later, I remembered it was the Day of the Dead. I was walking the trails near my house reflecting on how good it felt to be so closely connected with Quique again. It was so lovely to feel that close, if even for a few moments. And then I began to wonder if he had come to me. I began to imagine that he had come to me to remind me it was the Day of the Dead; reminding me that he needed to be remembered. But in thinking about it as I walked, it felt more like a gift of him remembering me. I realized that I need to be remembered too. I would like to believe that he remembers me as much as I remember him. I want to believe that he still loves me, he misses me and he can come to my dreams to remind me of that. It may be magical thinking but it is comforting to consider.
I often feel like we have a responsibility to the dead to remember them. But on this particular day it felt just as important that they remember us. I hope that they can. I hope that they do. I play with the idea that my dream was just that: Quique letting me know that he remembers me. He has not forgotten. Nor have I. We still serve that purpose for each other: we help give meaning to our existence here on this earth by remembering and loving.
When someone dies, we are left with the overwhelming pain that their physical absence has left in our lives. Often, the typical way of coping or supporting people with this pain is to develop ways to find closure, move on, or let go.
But for many of us, we don’t want to let go. This person was in our lives for a reason. We loved them. We continue to love them. They fill our thoughts, whether we want them to or not. As time passes, we often try to suppress this person from our attention and our daily lives; imagining it is unhealthy or abnormal to dwell on them.
But what if we didn’t have to let go?
Although the pain of loss can be excruciating, it does not have to be the only experience after death.
“Death is an end of a life, not a relationship” (Morrie Schwarz)
As we go through the difficult process of grieving, I encourage people explore the ways their relationship with their loved one can continue.
When someone we love moves away, we miss them but we keep them close to us in our hearts. We may think of stories to tell them, ask for advice, imagine what they might say if they were here with us. We work to nurture our relationship with them through the means we have available, be it internet, letters or telephone.
Perhaps nurturing your relationship with the one who has died, through the means available such as stories, rituals, sharing and connecting consciously with that person, enables them to continue to be within you and keeps them alive in your heart.
Nothing can erase the pain of loss. With clients I explore what it means to grieve the death of a loved one but also what it means to keep a relationship with that loved one alive. We talk together to discover ways we can and already do maintain our loved ones close and how messages from society about "moving on" are not always helpful as we grieve. We explore the joy and comfort that can be found through keeping a loved one close instead of having to say good-bye while acknowledging the pain that comes when a loved one dies.