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

Coping with Grief / Coping with 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.

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

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  1. Kim  June 27, 2022 at 6:55 am Reply

    Thank you for a new perspective.

  2. Raam GES  May 15, 2022 at 4:41 am Reply

    ” Thoughts morphing ‘regret’ into ‘grief’ was excellent. Shows your control over thoughts even more than the language.
    A new vista of thought ‘living with the Dead ” has opened up in me. THANKS A MILLION !

  3. John brattesani  May 10, 2022 at 10:06 pm Reply

    I lost my wife 6months ago, I thought that I was getting over it but now I was with her when she passed
    And I get flashes of her passing I feel as though it will never pass , we were married
    For 52 years and she was my rock, I feel I will never get any peace from this and
    I think I’m going mad

    John brattesani

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    • Litsa  June 8, 2022 at 4:22 pm Reply

      John, I am so sorry for your loss and how you are feeling. Please know that it is not at all uncommon to feel like you’re going mad in grief – we’ve written about that here – https://whatsyourgrief.com/grief-makes-you-crazy2/ But the fact that it is normal doesn’t mean there isn’t support. You are still SO very early in your grief – that would be true after any loss, but especially after so many years of marriage. A counselor or a support group for widows could prove very helpful as you learn to live with the loss and grief. If you search for a widow support group in your area, either on google or by contacting a local hospice, that could be a good place to start.

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  4. Andrew  February 1, 2022 at 5:55 am Reply

    I like this site, and find many articles helpful. I lost my wife of 33 years last September because of cancer, although it wasn’t the cancer that took her but the side effects of treatment. So, it’s a little less than five months since she died: early days. I am aware of changes though, and I don’t feel the anger bordering on rage any more. I think I’m done with ‘howling’, and the guilt of not saving her. I don’t want my life with her, and my memories of it, to be defined by the last 4 weeks of her life. I’m sure the changes I feel will not be ‘linear’ and any progress may be sideways or even backward – but that’s still progress. They are moving me from where I was (and who I was) to wherever that leads. This article resonates with my feelings of adjustment, of reassessment, of finding a way to ‘curate’ the museum of my life. I think (I hope) my relationship with my dear wife will be a living exhibit in it. I know I will add memories that I have tried to avoid, and re-evaluate old ones, but my exhibit will be constantly refreshed by bringing material “out from store” and I view this as a positive thing.

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  5. Anita Garvey  December 11, 2021 at 6:26 pm Reply

    Loved this article about maintaining my relationship with a loved one who has passed. This really rang true for me: I’ve had to adjust to different ways of sharing things with my son, and of communicating with him, but he’s definitely still in my life in a very real sense.

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    • Linda Kennedy  March 24, 2022 at 1:43 am Reply

      I Lost Husband 18 Years ago…We HAD A Blended Family & It Unraveled In Many Was Over The Years…He Never Met Our 2 Biological Grandchildren….His Oldest Biological Granddaughter Is Pregnant With Baby #3…& I’ve Been A Total Wreck Waiting For This Baby To Born!!…I Cry Everyday Now That It’s Any day Any Minute That My Husband Isn’t Here To Meet His 4th Great Grandchild…I’m Only The Step Grandma & I Feel So Alone…I Talk To Our Granddaughter Everyday Now That it’s Time…Probably Tomorrow For Her 3rd Baby In 3 Years!!!..I Don’t Understand Why I’m Feeling So Sad When It’s Such A Joyful Event!!!..

      • Gramma T  April 10, 2022 at 6:51 am

        Dear Linda
        I’m sorry you are not experiencing your gr.parenthood more fully w. the 2 of you present. It has been nicer for me , having my spouse-the gr. dad helping me BE there for my gr.kids., and grown kids.
        On the other hand-it’s enviable that you are still so included in their lives. We are experiencing a bigger detachment from our son who lost his daughter now -but I know it’s very important that we at least remain grateful for those grown kids that we DO have in our lives. I know there are also online cites that are about older couples or single moms and dads who are Totally estranged from their grown kids and families. Many live out their lives never knowing their kids or gr kids ever again. It’s wonderful that your gr. kids keep in touch and include you in their family matters! Even I have to remind myself-in cases whereby my own spouse may not be able to join me or help US travel together to visit family-that I. Myself , would have been ENOUGH . Grammas are very special people & many cultures attach their line to strictly a Maternal connection -often for more obvious reasons -Her giving Birth. It’s Gramma who also passes down most traditions in a family . Obviously -it’s important to your grdaughter to include YOU . I’m sorry you are experiencing it all alone-but really we’re Never alone -w. God with us.
        Maybe start w. feeling Joy for Yourself -and all that you still have in your life -this nice Legacy from the 2 of you -someone who Cares about YOU -and the “Joy” may come at the right time., when you share it w. others . This new addition to the family may be just the ONE for You too! (Our younger grdaughter who died as a young teen -spent most of her childhood really missing -of all people -her Great Gramma ! ) (& it didn’t matter to Her who her Grt. Grampa was -tho He was supportive too) (It was always just all about Great Gramma !).
        Statistically-so many women are outliving their husbands , then still living such Longer lives now . I’ve known some who lived another 20 yrs ! That didn’t stop them from Being and Becoming the Best Gramma they could BE ! Even if -for now-You Just Do YOU -even still grieving -it all exhibits how much Love you have and had to share -& your family may love you -not Despite that-but because of that ! Best over it !

  6. 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.

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    • Anita Garvey  December 11, 2021 at 6:33 pm Reply

      Shelby, please do not got to sleep and just not wake up. You’ve been on the path I am now on, for many more years than I have. Maybe I need you as an inspiration to help me get through this. My son passed in August. He was 43. I’m still stepping on land mines, in this unfamiliar landscape.

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    • Margie  March 16, 2022 at 12:23 pm Reply

      I can relate to you my Mother died 2 weeks ago . I am hurt, I use to be her caregiver. I was in my apartment and God came to me and said that your mother is calling you. I got out my bed and put on some clothes and went to her house. I went in her room and said hello Moma , she said to me it’s not your week to be here. I replied to her and said yes I know. She said to me let me hear some gospel music and I played her favorite song. She told me that she was tired , for me to take a nap and I did. Little and behold when I woke up to give her meds @ 2:00 am she was gone. When she said that she was tired 😴 I didn’t realize that she was preparing me that she was going to her heavenly home. She had died in her sleep, even though she left us , she fought a Good Fight here on earth. I am lost without my mother and I miss her with everything in me. My father and mother had been married for 64 years and was blessed with 6 children. We all are heartbroken 💔 even my 92 year old father. If anyone knows the Power of Prayer please!!!!!Keep us lifted up in prayer.

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  7. 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.

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  8. Judy  November 16, 2021 at 12:33 pm Reply

    I lost my husband 10monthsthe ago l talk to him everyday and do a lot of crying l have his remains with me as long as l have them l feel close to him also all his clothes and personal items are still here l can’t give them up Sometimes l feel him around me l have a little dog and sometimes she comes into our tv room and stop and just stares as if she can see something My husband loved her so much Maybe she can sense he is around Maybe l am loosing my mind All l now l loved him deeply and still do

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  9. Carmen Gonzalez  November 13, 2021 at 4:27 pm Reply

    Hello everyone out there all I know is that there is no worst pain in life than loosing a loved one especially loosing a son My son passed away on June 27,2017 and he was 18 years young he was a skater he loved to skate he fell of his skateboard he hit his head and he never came back he was alive for 6 days then he was just getting worst he was getting seizures and his pressure wasn’t coming down on his head the pressure in his head was getting higher and higher all this just seems like a big nightmare I still can’t accept that his gone every day I cry for him everyday I think of him I miss him I wanna see him and hold him in my arms and never let go of him I have many dreams of him almost every day I dream him I feel as if I’m going crazy and it seems so hard to get close to God cuz I’m still mad at him for taking my son from me way to soon why it’s not fair I have 2 other sons 20 and 24 years young my son that passed would be 22 right now I can’t believe 4 years have gone by already it seemed like just yesterday I feel as if I’m never gonna find the strength to be happy again without my precious son I need him so much why did God take him from me so dam soon why can someone tell me please God bless you sll

  10. 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.

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  11. 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… 🙁

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  12. 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.

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  13. 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

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

      🙁

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  14. 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.

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    • Anita Garvey  December 11, 2021 at 6:40 pm Reply

      Jay, please do continue your dialogue with your husband. If it feels real to you, then it’s real. My son passed in August, and I’ve realized that someone who is now pure spirit may have limited ways to get our attention, so pay attention to little details. If it turns out the loved one does continue on, and hears what you say, that will let them know you got the communication and appreciate it. My heart goes out to you.

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  15. 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.

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

    Your articles are so comforting and helpful. Thanks you.

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  17. 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!

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  18. 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!

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    • Gramma T  April 10, 2022 at 5:42 am Reply

      I will never know if my managing my own grief over the loss of a grchild is the Right way to have managed myself and set an example-but not very long after receiving the news of her passing (from an accident as a young teen ), I decided on a few of my own parameters to follow-& basically it has helped me & my spouse in surprising ways towards not becoming too swallowed up in grief and loss. I first was of course in disbelief & great sorrow after hearing the news. After about 24 hrs., I became resolved about some “rules” I set for myself. The 1st was -to Never visit the “What If’s” . The What If’s that begin w. especially her parents perhaps indulging in “What IF they had chosen that alternative activity that day ?” “What IF they had gotten help even minutes, hours, sooner ?” ETC. How Tormenting could THAT be?? (That worked well for me & those in our own household. ) . 2nd-Along the lines of “Had she Lived what would she be like or be doing today “? I also do NOT GO THERE. Instead I think in terms of her life as we & she knew it ended -and she transformed into someone and towards a destiny we ALL will reach someday -she just went much sooner. 3rd-I Placed her in heaven -she had a free ticket to heaven as an innocent child. I placed this Heaven w. God, Himself as the very Highest position anyone could achieve in life. 4th-I don’t dwell on what I or WE are Doing as so much more important than what SHE’s DOING -or that Our experiences are SO perfect and She’s Missing Out. It’s quite the Opposite-we have NO idea , but could try to give it the benefit of the doubt -that her after-life is SO amazing and so beyond our own earthly imaginings -and that in respecting that as such -& coming to terms w. that can be very consoling. I have noticed that when I sometimes find myself grieving over our loss-it’s usually when my Own life is upset over something & it’s easy to attach our own problems to our loss of someone -then revert to “If Only’s “, etc., but -if you can monitor your emotions when doing happier things and really enjoying your life -minus the Issues-you may notice your not grieving at those times. You may even feel a lil guilt over that -(having even momentarily forgotten ) , but really -it’s just US still Living our own lives as best we can -while THEY are living Theirs . We should never assume that what We’re still Doing is SO much more Special that our deceased loved ones are really “missing out”. We have No idea if they may be involved in something So Really Special -it may make Our lives pale in comparison. Perhaps it’s worth a try thinking in those ways and eventually Letting It Go -and though God shut the door on us over even our Best relationships -perhaps the sooner we come to terms w. it all -the sooner God may also Open another door for us., perhaps one thats unimaginable in the present , but could serve us very well in the future. Life is a Journey -Keep the Faith. Even if still
      deeply grieving -keep living in the Present -give yourself permission to grieve -in whatever form it takes-and toss any doubts aside about How your grieving about yourself. In that alone-‘ALL IS WELL”, not ALL WILL BE WELL ” . If you’ve learned anything -Life is Short -make everyday count-fill it w. all the sorrows , but also joys you experience. If you want to MOVE ON -do it. Our loved ones have moved On -perhaps to Greater Things-so I like to think . So-the best we can do is to TRY to make our own heaven on earth until we can join them someday for the REAL DEAL. Meanwhile -there are BILLIONS of people in this world-certainly ONE of them could fill your void someday & you-theirs?

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