I have a fuzzy memory of being a child at the grocery store with my mother. I was little, probably only about as tall as her waist. And young enough that separation in a public place like Wegmans made me uneasy. Mind you; this was Wegmans circa the early 80s, so not the mega maze-like place it is now. But still, I didn’t like being split up in any stranger-filled space.
Anyway, at one point in our trip, I got separated from my mother. I probably wandered ahead one aisle, or maybe she had to double back for something. I wasn’t panicked, but I wanted to find her – fast. So when I discovered her an aisle or two away, I hurried to her side and reached up to grab her hand, only to realize a second or two later – oh my god, this isn’t my mother!
As an adult, I see kids make this mistake all the time, and each time, I smile and think it’s kind of cute and funny. But I also know, for that child, it’s probably distressing. To enter the safe radius of your parent or caregiver, and reach out for their warm hand, only to find yourself next to a complete stranger whose hand you would not like to hold. It’s a disorienting experience, to say the least.
To understand how this relates to grief, I want to share a bit about a grief theory called the Four Phases of Grief. This theory was put forth by John Bowlby, known for his work on attachment in babies and children, and Colin Murray Parkes. We’re not concerned with the theory in its entirety today. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out our article on the Four Phases of Grief. Instead, I want to focus on what the theorists identified as the second phase of grief – the “yearning and searching” phase.
Yearning and Searching
In the yearning and searching phase of the Four Phases of Grief, the grieving person intellectually understands their loved one has died, but they continue to search for them. Remember, Bowlby saw relationships through the framework of attachments. So, one might say that in this phase, a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are oriented towards repairing the physical attachment that was severed by death.
Yes, the person rationally knows this isn’t possible, but I guess the parts of the brain preoccupied with habits, routine, love, attachment, and yearning have some catching up to do. So the grieving person continuously reaches for their loved one in vain. You don’t have to agree with everything in the Four Phases of Grief to agree that searching for deceased loved ones is a real experience, especially in the early days of grief.
It’s hard to explain this “searching” to people who haven’t experienced it because it isn’t just a matter of looking around for the person and finding they’re not there. Instead, searching, in this context, means doing all sorts of things to try and repair the physical attachment – like seeking out sights, sounds, smells, people, and places that remind you of the person. Sometimes you get so close that for a split second, you honestly think you’ve managed to cross the void. But then, once again, your loved one is gone. It’s like they’ve picked up the phone, said “hello”, and the signal cuts out.
As you might expect or relate to, this experience is more than just sad; it’s tormenting. It’s a bait and switch of the worst kind. For a second, you’re that kid in the grocery store who thinks they’ve found their parent, only to look up and find something dark, strange, and unfamiliar. For many people, the consequence of this unfulfilled searching is repeated feelings of loss, hopelessness, and despair. Because over and over again, they are reminded that nothing – no sight, smell, sound, or dream – will ever bring the person back again.
Do we ever stop searching?
I think the natural next question is, do we ever stop searching? I honestly don’t have an answer, but that’s because the tendency to search evolves differently for people over time. One theory that we particularly like posits that, though we may always seek connection with deceased loved ones, eventually we accept that a physical connection isn’t possible and instead establish a psychological connection.
This psychological connection often takes the shape of thinking about a loved one, talking to them, carrying on their legacy and traditions, and other continued bonds. It also often provides the grieving person with the comfort of knowing that they’ve established a psychological bond that no amount of time or distance can destroy.
That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how hard it can be to get to a place where you feel comfortable and secure in your psychological connection. This bond does not exist on a higher, more sunny, plane than your grief. Rather, it exists in the same place as it. Your grief and your continued bond are two sides of the same coin. This means that you have to live with the knowledge that there’s often a 50/50 chance you could feel either comfort or grief (or both!). To quote one of our theorists from above, Colin Murray Parkes, “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.”
If you’re interested in learning more about continuing bonds and attachment in grief, we have a 3-hour CEU workshop coming up next week.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.