What I’ve Learned About Having a Relationship With the Dead

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa


A large part of grief is learning to have a relationship with a person who has died.

I have shared this belief countless times and I have to wonder how many times it was met with bafflement. That would be a fair response. The idea of having a relationship with the dead is a sentiment that sounds really odd . . . until it doesn’t.

For most of us, across our lives, we have understood relationships as the countless different types of connections between people. Relationships between friends, between colleagues, between family, between acquaintances. There are close relationships and distant ones, easy relationships and strained relationships. But what is the one thing that relationships almost all have in common? They are relationships between people who are both alive. It seems like a relationship prerequisite, doesn’t it? Both people living?

With that in mind, it is no surprise that early in my grief I believed my relationship to the person I’d lost now lived only in the past. Throughout their life I’d been filling a box with all of my connections to them, and now the lid to that box was slammed shut. Though I could open the box and look in to see our past, I thought I would never be able to add anything again. The relationship was a memory, there would be nothing new. I spent my time looking backward – feeling close only when I visited the places we used to go, did the things we would do, when I saw the things they loved. I held the things they held, dug through the box to remember exactly who they were when they were alive and thought of the words they said and advice they gave.

With time, I slowly realized that I was wrong, that my connections lived in the present too. I started noticing and appreciating things they would have loved but didn’t live to see – books and music and people. With each of these little connections, I would feel a deep, stabbing pain because these were a reminder of their absence — of all the things they would never experience and we would never experience together. But strangely, there was also an immense feeling of comfort because these things were also reminders of their presence — of the connections I still had to them in my new, everyday world.

I found myself imagining who they would be now, how they would have grown and changed with the time that had passed. Who would they vote for? What new movies would they have watched this year? What would they think of my new car? Soon I ‘heard’ them giving me advice that they never gave. I started going to places that they always wanted to travel but never did, and places they never even knew existed but would have loved. Though it took a while, I eventually realized that our relationship was not frozen in time, it was not locked in the past. I could keep adding new things to the box.

I’ve learned that grief, in so many ways, is learning to have a relationship with someone who died. Early on it felt like the present was nothing but an excruciating reminder that they were gone, a reminder I wanted to avoid. I buried my head in the past, thinking comfort and connection lived there and only pain and absence lived in the present. But ultimately I realized that the present held so many new and evolving connections to them if I could find a way to be open to it. Just like people and relationships grow and evolve in life, so too can they keep growing and evolving in death. I just need to start looking for them in the present instead of only in the past.

Check out this article if you want to read more about having a relationship with the dead and, as always, subscribe to get our free weekly grief support newsletter sent straight to your inbox.

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

12 Comments on "What I’ve Learned About Having a Relationship With the Dead"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Shelby  November 17, 2021 at 10:35 pm Reply

    I found my mother dead on Valentine’s Day 1994 in a horrible position. I can honestly say that dealing with her death and not trying to self-destruct all the time is so. There always seems to be something that makes me want to do things just to feel better. I’ve been to doctors and counselors with no help. I thought hitting her age and the living beyond I would be okay but no I realize I have reached the point where people go to sleep and just sometimes do not wake up.

  2. Lekha  November 17, 2021 at 3:20 am Reply

    Thank you for sharing this article. It’s been 3 tough years since my only child went to heaven, following an accident. God had blessed me with a beautiful angel. She was 19 years old, so precious, loving and talented. She wanted to make a difference in the world, to make it a better place for youth & women and even engaged in women empowerment and “save the planet” initiatives. I was a single mom, and she was my best friend and sister too. We had many amazing adventures and wonderful memories that I treasure with all my heart. In her short time with us, she achieved so much. There are still many goals on our “bucket list” that were not attained. Life is so painful without her. The first 18 months were horrendous and I just wanted to be with her. I still talk to her daily and have done a few things in her memory. It’s been slower with COVID-19 restrictions. Doing much work on my personal development and following a spiritual journey has given me so strength to face each day. I find your articles very helpful. May God bless you, all those grieving and our loved ones in Heaven.

  3. SHARON ROSSY  November 11, 2021 at 4:29 pm Reply

    15 years ago, I lost my eldest son at the age of 27 to a freak accident. I thought the world had ended and I was never going to recover. But, somehow, three years later I finished my degree and became a psychotherapist working mostly in the field of grief and loss. it’s so important to keep those bonds. Our loved ones may not be here physically, but they are with us always. We bring them with us. The relationship never dies, it just becomes different. That has helped me through some dark times. And often, I hear that voice and that laugh and it’s a source of comfort.

    3
  4. Diana  November 4, 2021 at 2:25 am Reply

    I have lost the love of my life almost four months ago to murder. Who would have thought my whole outlook on life would change. I have never felt the pain I am in. i am devastated still trying to find out who I am now. I feel as though I was picked up out of the world I knew, and put in a new world where I had to learn everything all over again. Figuring out my purpose, who am I , who my friends are and who my enemies are. it is kind of funny that the dear friends I thought I had stabbed me in the back when I was in need, and the people I thought disliked me, welcomed me, and embraced me when I felt I didn’t deserve it. Our four year old says no worries Gama… we will see him in heaven, and he is watching us, but we just don’t see him. I miss him so much Gama… 🙁

    1
  5. Sharlene Hamilton  November 1, 2021 at 1:49 pm Reply

    After my husband passed away, I found myself talking to him which I continue to do and will do for the rest of my life. I have involved him in every decision since his passing. When I’m afraid of life I cry to him. I sob and I tell him everything I’m feeling and ask him what I should do. I remember the happy times, our trips, favourite places to go. Every part of our lives, I have learned to integrate into the present knowing that from the time he died, his presence with me is constant. In fact, it is getting stronger each day, as I learn new and creative ways to continue our marriage in our new reality. I feel peace because I could never get over him, forget him, move on from him or stop missing him or loving him. He was my rock and my comfort, my true soulmate. Finding this website has reaffirmed what I have known all along to be true. I am grieving in a realistic and healthy way and I will never stop grieving him and that’s okay.

    9
  6. Gramma  October 31, 2021 at 4:20 pm Reply

    I kissed the face of my husband of 51 years, for the last time 4 months ago. I am lost, doing things around the house, just sitting and starring out the window, not knowing it’s me who is moving, or weeping. I have memory lapses, I have heard him call me, and I worry I am losing my mind…really actually losing my mind. I have read the blogs, and compared my loss with theirs, which, some are More horrendous. I thank our heavenly FATHER and HIS SON, and SPIRIT, that he comforts me. ..and will comfort them as well. I am relieved to read these, as it helps me know I am not alone, nor am I getting mindless. Thank you..Gram

    2
    • diana  November 4, 2021 at 2:27 am Reply

      🙁

  7. Jay  October 31, 2021 at 4:34 am Reply

    I am so grateful you have posted this article, Litsa. I’ve kept hoping I will come to understand this concept of having a continuing relationship with, in my case, my beloved husband, who died “suddenly-unexpectedly-traumatically” in November 2019. He was 66, not yet retired, and I was 59.

    I find this really difficult to articulate, and I sincerely hope I don’t offend with my awkward questions. My problem is that it feels to me like an “ongoing relationship” must be predicated on a belief that the person still exists somehow on some level. I know that is NOT what you are saying in your article, but rather that you’ve come to realise that it’s not only the past which holds connections. But to me, even if it’s about more than memories, if it’s also about imaginings and speculations and contemplation in the present, I just can’t see how that constitutes a “relationship” WITH THE PERSON.

    I don’t know how to exist in the world without my husband. We don’t have children, and were very much a world unto ourselves… So if I begin my day with “Good morning, darling, I love – oh, that’s right, he’s dead. There’s no point saying good morning because I’m on my own now”, then why would I get out of bed? I have to keep talking to him because the loneliness otherwise is unbearable. I don’t expect him to respond, of course, and as my ClinPsych points out, I’m not making him breakfast, so who’s it hurting… but it makes me feel crazy to be talking to him if he doesn’t actually still exist somehow.

    When each of my parents died, I didn’t have any sense of their continued presence. This threw into disarray any nominally Christian beliefs I may have absorbed up until then about an “afterlife”. The truth is, I don’t have a clue what I believe anymore, but since my husband died I have “experienced” his presence in so many ways. I live in the home we shared, so of course there are many reminders, but this feels like more than that. I think you’ve described this as, “Soon I ‘heard’ them giving me advice that they never gave.” That makes me feel crazy, Litsa! I can THINK about, “What would my darling do in this situation?”, but how is that a continuing relationship? I could just as easily ask, “What would [insert celebrity name] do in this situation”, but it wouldn’t mean I have a relationship with that celebrity, would it?

    I’m sorry, I just don’t understand this concept, even though I am very much choosing to continue my relationship with my husband, if only because I can’t bear to face the alternative. I’m grateful for any further thoughts and insights.

    2
  8. Trish  October 30, 2021 at 12:35 pm Reply

    “I started noticing and appreciating things they would have loved but didn’t live to see – books and music and people.” Thank you. Those words and that idea hadn’t occurred to me, yet, and resonated with my sad heart today. It’s been almost exactly five years since Paul died and maybe changing my thinking, again, will help survive the next five better. I hope so. I didn’t know a person could be so sad and lost: and I’ve struggled with depression all my life so I thought I knew pain and sorrow. Thank you for your different perspectives; I appreciate the new thoughts. I need them.

  9. Doreen Twarkins  October 30, 2021 at 10:18 am Reply

    Your articles are so comforting and helpful. Thanks you.

    1
  10. Carmella L Russell  October 30, 2021 at 8:30 am Reply

    Love love love! Find myself making those connections as well.

    The other day I received a text from a dear friend verifying my address to keep in touch as she was retiring and adopting the RV lifestyle with her already retired husband. Carla and I have both lost a parent to cancer, she is a PK (preacher’s kid) and I was married to one. Respective parent even hard heard of each other as their ministries were in the same denomination. We met in a Sunday school class of ironically several PKs. She was a nurse at local pedi hospital that had infants from a home for babies being put up for adoption. She took to this one little one that had massive heart problems and would likely have difficulty getting adopted if at all. Carla and the infant had the same birthday, February 13th (btw this is the date my father passed). It was the reason she took to this little new born baby. And in sharing the story that little girl became my husband’s and my first child, Catherine. Not more than a couple of years or so later she and her husband had their 2nd child and for very different reasons than mine & my husband named their daughter Catherine as well. In her nursing career she finished as a care flight nurse director. When I received her texted I had just 2 days earlier survived a rollover car crash ( definitely effects one’s own thoughts about their mortality). So we ended up chatting on the phone about how I was going to feel. Yes all those prior connections we shared were there. Here Catherine grew up and is a wonderful mother and nurse. My Catherine went to Heaven just before her 3rd bday. I can visualize and wonder how my Catherine might be just such a person had she lived.

    I am blessed to still have a life to live even with my father, first child, and most recently my husband. But they are here with me now from almost 42 yrs – father, 32 yrs – daughter, and 7.75 yrs – husband later.

    Thank you for putting it into words!

  11. Laura Pykosh  October 30, 2021 at 5:15 am Reply

    This is such a new and different perspective! Very insightful. When I think of how my forever 14 son would be….movie tastes…books read….career path…I do experience the stabbing pain of absence, but also the comforting joy of presence. Thank you for helping me gain this new perspective!

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.