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.