Ongoing Relationships With Those who Have Died

I cling to scraps of my mother.  I’ll take anything I can get.

I’ve extracted all that I can from my memories; turning each one over in my mind, carefully searching for something I might have forgotten. I’ve poured over her letters and notes which I keep tucked away among keepsakes of more obvious sentimentality. Here’s a lock of hair from my daughter’s first haircut; this is a note from my husband on the eve of our wedding; and, oh look, here is a tattered piece of yellow paper where my mother scribbled a vegetarian chili recipe.

When I was done excavating every corner of my history, I started picking through other people’s memories and mementoes. This remains a hobby of mine to this day, as I unearth the family photo albums every chance I get and perk my ears towards any mention of her name.

My mother died when I was a naïve new bride in my early twenties, and now that I’m a much wiser woman in her mid-thirties, I realize we missed out on so much. Whether it’s true or not, I believe that had she lived our parent/child relationship would have become deeper, nuanced, and candid in a way that only a parent/adult-child relationship can be.

I want to know how she really felt about things. I want to her to tell me the thoughts, experiences, and opinions she was saving for a day when I was old enough to hear them. I want to laugh with her at adult jokes. I want to gossip about my siblings. I want her to criticize my parenting. I want to buy her a present now that I have a few dollars in my pocket. I want her to love my children.

I need to know – if she were here today what would she want? What would she think? What would she say? How would she feel? What would she do? Obviously these answers don’t exist because my mother isn’t here to supply them, but I allow myself to believe that maybe, if I collect everything that’s left of her in this world, then she can continue to be my mother.

grieving for mother

In their book, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, authors Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman, and Steven Nickman observed that children who had lost a parent found ways to continue their relationship with the parent even after they were gone. The children maintained their connection by cherishing memories, talking to the parent, believing the parent was watching over them, and keeping their objects. Interestingly, they also observed that the child’s relationship with the deceased parent was not static. Instead, it evolved and matured as the child grew.

So if our relationships with our deceased loved ones evolve, then our grief must evolve as well. Not only do we grieve them at the time of the death, but we also grieve them in the future when we enter new life stages, hit milestones, and understand new realties. Although we may have made peace with certain pieces of our grief in the past, in time we discover sadness over losses we hadn’t even known existed.

We imagine in our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond how our relationship theoretically might have been and we grieve for our inability to hear, touch, see, and talk to the person they would have become. People like me, who are nurturing relationships with the dead, have no choice but to take what we can get and so we hold onto objects, we search for reminders, we talk about them, and we look for clues to tell us who they were and who they would be today.

Holding onto a loved one was, at one point, considered pathological.  Remnants of this mindset can still be found in the attitudes and expectations of our society, but when we accept that we can have fluid, changing, and longterm relationships with those who have died we open ourselves up to a new understanding of grief.  A conceptualization that normalizes experiencing grief and sadness years after the death and which gives us permission to continuously redefine our relationships with the person who has died  for as long as we live.

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March 28, 2017

19 responses on "Ongoing Relationships With Those who Have Died"

  1. I don’t think surviving my grief would be possible if I couldn’t have an ongoing and evolving relationship with my beloved husband. I’m so glad for articles like this – I’m three months into bereavement, and these articles make it so much easier for me to disregard “Let Go and Move On.” If I can’t take him with me as I go on, I ain’t going. Period.

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  3. Your emails and postings are wonderful, and I am sharing them with 3 friends who have lost adult children; and then within a year or two, also lost a parent. This is some really good stuff and it does not force us to keep the grief constantly active, as we have seen at Compassionate Friends groups. We must process and move ahead, even if its only a day or a half a day at a time. Without my 2 beautiful grandsons, it would be much more difficult for me to move forward. I ache some nights when I tuck them in but they are my daughter’s legacy and I must honor that every day, as best I can.

  4. Thank you for your article. It has been 8 mos since I lost my other half. I’m now trying to learn how to live the new me. And no one can understand unless you’ve been through this horrible ordeal.

  5. I didn’t like my biological mom and I have two “moms” anyway because I was taken out of the first home when I was 7 (Children’s Services came down with the Law in tow, and took us away in bits & pieces; 2 kids here, 1 there, 2 more there) and put us in foster homes all over the city. Two kids in one, two in another, one in another but not necessarily in that order. Three were allowed to stay at home after she finally divorced the dad because she didn’t want to lose her all-time favorite child, Andy. She made it obvious she had a favorite child.
    Both of my “moms” have died, the one who adopted me passed away in 2007, and I have no idea how to feel about ANY of it. I feel angry because it doesn’t really make sense. Then some people insist that everyone “only has one mother.” As if I’m not even allowed to grieve the one who adopted me, who treated me better than the one who gave birth to me. That’s a fact and I think it deserves to be noted.
    But everyone doesn’t have only one mother. I had two, I also had two dads and I’m not the only adopted person in the United States who recalls the other mother. I mostly dislike the first set of parents because neither would admit that anything was wrong and both spent their entire lives blaming the system for what THEY did – and never did get around to seeing their part in it. It’s not like we lived in Russia, that the government came in one day with the Law and snatched children away from a perfectly law-abiding and innocent family but that’s how they and everyone else in that family acts about it. Maybe they can choose to believe that but I can’t because I worked in EMS as a paramedic, where I saw more terrible things happening to people than ever was done to me; I never had boiling oil poured on me when I was 3, was never shot in the back while tied up and left to take 3 days to die of sepsis while my sister was dying of starvation being locked in the closet (one of the three survived and that’s why we were there.) I saw that and worse – parents who blamed it on the kids or anyone but themselves. After seeing only a few of those really intense incidents I became incapable of having any kind of acceptance for the people who do it and then blame everyone else for their actions.
    I liked the adoptive parents better but they didn’t believe in much emotional support. They saw it as coddling someone as opposed to helping them. They appeared to greatly dislike the idea of carrying someone through life. They seemed to think throwing you in the water and waiting for you to sink or swim was the way to get things done.

  6. Tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of the death of my grandson AJ. He was 20 yrs.old.
    I feel like it was just yesterday. I want to comfort my daughter, but I don’t know what to say. I feel so angry at times other times I feel so sad I don’t know how I’m feeling. I have to really concentrate on holding it together or I feel I can actually go crazy. I don’t want to be alone but I don’t feel like having anyone around.He had three brothers and I don’t know if they want to be alone or need someone around. AJ’s death was a shock for us.

    • Beatrice, try not to put such a heavy burden on yourself. Both you and your daughter need time and space. My mother (93) died less than a year after my daughter (37) and it was not old age that killed her, it was a broken heart. Honor your grandson’s memory by being open to the other boys, and try to make new memories with them, for your sake and that of your daughter who may still be in shock. Even a small new memory moves you forward.

  7. Eleanor,
    Thank you for your post and your continuing work on this website. My mom died over two years ago now, and my grief has changed, grown less intense at times, at others as fresh as when I lost her. Anyways, I found your website soon after she died (late 2013) and I find it a true comfort to be able to come back to it when I am struggling. I particularly appreciate reading about your experiences with your mother because I relate so much to it. I’ll never forget how you replied with such thoughtfulness and consideration to a comment I wrote in response to your Mother’s Day post on the first Mother’s Day I went through without her. The continuity of your work over time is very grounding. You have a gift for communicating about grief with warmth, clarity, compassion, and a dash of humor. Thank you.

  8. OT
    How do you reply to someone’s comment ? When I hit the reply button the page refreshes.

  9. “Holding onto a loved one was, at one point, considered pathological. Remnants of this mindset can still be found in the attitudes and expectations of our society, but when we accept that we can have fluid, changing, and longterm relationships with those who have died we open ourselves up to a new understanding of grief. A conceptualization that normalizes experiencing grief and sadness years after the death and which gives us permission to continuously redefine our relationships with the person who has died for as long as we live.”

    Thank you so much for stating this ! It drives me mad when people say ” you should be over it by now ” or ” it’s not healthy to dwell on it ” .

  10. This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much for this.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing how you crave and pursue your mom. I’m writing a book about stepparenting when a parent has died, and I just finished writing about the Continuing Bonds concept. The timing of finding your post with your lovely examples of continuing bonds is of course not just a coincidence. Thanks again for sharing.

  12. Richard does that with this guy named Bill Blanton. He was in the war with him, Bill was his sergeant.
    When he took me, my daughter (his goddaughter) and his kids to see this guy’s grave on Veteran’s Day he was really…not eerie but it felt something like it…when he started saying “Bill this is my daughter, Jocelyn. She’s a lot like you were: kind, considerate, never willing to let anyone suffer even the tiniest emotional confusion or disquiet if she thinks she can make them feel better just by being with them.”
    He went on talking like that for a few minutes as he introduced people. I never talk to anyone dead in that manner with an extreme exception that I feel wholly uncomfortable explaining online. Some things don’t translate across a modem and they’re a lot more numerous than people think.
    Although I do now feel like I know this guy too much, some guy who was killed in land warfare before I was 4 years old. I feel like I know him through Richard’s memories of who he was but I do wonder what a “kind, considerate, always willing to help” kind of person was doing in ground combat and special operations warfare. I’ll never ask because I can see Richard taking the whole question wrong. I’m NOT judging him. I just can’t picture the type of person he’s described Bill as being as also being able to kill people. I know nothing of what it takes to be able to do it. I can’t get my thoughts around it.
    I feel as if I know the guy well enough that when we honored his birthday on January 6, 2016, I ate a piece of cake in his memory and felt as if it was more than just participating because it’s what Richard was doing.

  13. Thank you always for saying it so well!
    I kind of stumbled on to the concept of “Continuing Bonds”, having no therapeutic background on this subject. Death and Grieving were my only teachers.
    This is how I started AfterTalk, where you can continue to Write to your Deceased Loved Ones, privately. When I write to my father…..I kind of get quiet and connected, and see within me what his answers would be. I “hear” his humor, and his no nonsense approach. I can hear him screaming at me now, “What kind of schmuck are you”?! He meant well…..that was just his personality. So, I guess what I am saying is IF you can go within, the answers, although from someone deceased, are there.

  14. I lost my daughter & best friend 6.5 months now & I search through all her unused purses her pockets for something, any little piece of her life. I cannot read her journals yet, maybe one day. I go in her room & look for little pieces of her. Unfortunately she was such a neat freak she didn’t leave me much. Miss her every day. Good article, always. I am doing my best to keep her alive.

  15. It’s only been 5 months since I lost my husband, and I’ve come to realize the hard way that unless you’ve been through a tremendous loss, you just don’t understand. I cling to every note, card, photo, poem. Thank you for your words.

  16. I feel this way about my lost loved ones. I hold on to everything I can about them and of them, and treasure opportunities to know more about them from others. I also feel my relationships with them evolve and grow as I do, and I talk to them regularly. Love never dies, even though people do.

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