Why do People Think we Move On After Death?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I always wanted an imaginary friend as a child, but my mind wouldn’t stretch far enough. I envied kids who genuinely managed to conjure the idea of someone else’s presence because I guessed they were never lonely. They always had someone to play with and talk to.

It wasn’t until I was about 24 that I finally knew what it was like to keep company with someone no one else could see. That was the year my mother died. And after a lifetime of having relationships exclusively with people here on our earthly plane, I learned how to love someone who doesn’t physically exist. 

For a little while after my mother’s death, I mourned what I thought was a complete and total loss. But then, after a month or so went by, I began to see her presence everywhere.And unlike before, she wasn’t anchored to the world. She was everywhere and nowhere, and I found I could talk to her and keep her close.

Though not nearly enough to ease my grief, her continued presence was a comforting realization. One I hadn’t considered possible. I used to think you were either here or there. I didn’t realize there was an in-between. Or that my mother would leave an infinite echo behind when she died.

Accommodating a new type of relationship:

In the 1950s, developmental psychologist Jean Piaget introduced the idea of assimilation and accommodation as a means to understand children’s intellectual development.

Of course, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is complex and most often applied to children. But, I find the idea of assimilation and accommodation stands on its own and can be helpful in understanding situations throughout our lifespan. 

Basically, Piaget said people have specific frameworks for understanding the world and everything in it. He called these frameworks schemas. He said that when a person is faced with an experience that is new or unfamiliar, they first try to understand it using their existing framework (or schema). This is what he called assimilation.

If they cannot assimilate their experience, they must change or build upon their current understanding to accommodate the new reality. Through accommodation, the mind is stretched, and another layer of nuance is added to the world. And this is what I think sometimes happens after a loss. When a person’s eyes are open to the possibility that people who are gone aren’t really gone, they restructure their understanding of the world to accommodate this new reality.

Personally, to accommodate an ongoing relationship with my mother, I had to open my mind to dimensions of love, attachment, family, and connection that I never knew existed. It wasn’t until the experience of loss forced me to redefine these things that I could have fully understood how it was possible.

Why do people think we move on after death?

Someone recently asked us, “Why do people think we move on after death?” I have a few responses to this question. But one of my best guesses is, many of us have to learn the truth about grief for ourselves. Before experiencing loss, many people have a framework (or schema) that doesn’t accommodate an ongoing experience. Perhaps, in large part, because they’ve been told otherwise.

It’s worth noting that a recent century of grief theory led us to believe that “moving on” was the goal. Throughout most of the 20th century, the idea that grief evolves through stages or phases reigned supreme. And these goalposts end with things like “detachment,” “recovery,” “acceptance,” or “new life.” Whether intended or not (and often it wasn’t), the message received was that it’s healthy to get over it and move on. 

And until you experience loss, you have little reason to doubt what you’re told. It’s not until someone wants to think about, talk to, and love a person who has died that they realize the goal of “moving on after death” is illogical. 

We should acknowledge here that there are reasons why a person might want to move on after death. For example, a relationship that was troubled in life may remain troubled in death. In these instances, the person may actually feel that staying connected is harmful.

Does it have to be this way?

I don’t think humans can’t believe grief and love are ongoing without having experienced loss themselves. Though a person may not precisely understand what it feels like to love someone who’s died, they can still know that ongoing grief and connections are normal. The problem is that, as we’ve just established, many are not primed to see it that way. And we, as grievers, often aren’t outspoken about the truth.

When I think back to life before loss, I wonder if I missed any clues about the realities of grief. For example, my mother showed me hints of her continued adoration of her mother who died before I was born. But were there signs of a continued and ongoing connection? I don’t think so.

People often keep their relationships with deceased loved ones private for many reasons. Maybe chief among them, they’re afraid they’ll be misunderstood by a society that still partly believes ongoing connections are odd. Or perhaps they worry others will make them feel wrong for nurturing a relationship they cherish. 

Here at WYG, we often lament the burdens that fall to grieving people. Should grievers be expected to use their limited bandwidth to help others understand? Should they risk being judged or misunderstood? There is no right or wrong answer. Whether you talk about your grief and your loved one is a personal decision.But I do believe that when someone shares their experience it can help change how we all see grief.

For anyone interested in learning more about continuing bonds with deceased loved ones:
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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25 Comments on "Why do People Think we Move On After Death?"

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  1. Cindy  January 21, 2022 at 10:40 am Reply

    Your writing in this post makes perfect sense to me as does the application of Piaget’s theory of development. I imagine the whole of myself as a weaving made up of the threads of people who have intersected my life. Everyone of them is in that weaving but those most dear make up many, many threads. Their death does not remove the threads, they are still a part of me. I think the memories I carry, continue to add threads because they are part of my current life. I can’t even imagine the concept that I should pull free every single thread of those who have passed. To me, that is an absurd expectation!!!

  2. beryl  January 17, 2022 at 1:08 pm Reply

    my husband passes july62021 i grieve every day it creeps up on me and overtakes me i have uncontrolably crying and sadness my dr put me on depression meds which do not help we were married 53 years its so hard to try and forget or dismiss all the memories we had my kids are grown and they dont want me to talk about their father they say it is too upa=setting to talk about i just want him back he suffered a lot with pain from stroke and cancer im probably being selfish wanting him back but im not sure how i can go on without him

    • Litsa  January 21, 2022 at 11:56 am Reply

      Beryl, I am so sorry for what you are going through. There is no reason you need to forget, dismiss, or put these memories behind you – grief is very much about keeping connections with those we’ve lost while also moving foward. I am sorry your children are not in a place of wanting to share memories together, but perhaps you can connect with memories with friends or other extended family, or perhaps writing/journaling some of your fond memories. Most research shows that anti-depressants are not useful for grief – they are for depression, which is different than grief. Talking to a grief counselor may be more helpful for you, or joining a support group for widows/widowers. Have you looked in to anything like that?

  3. Saul  January 17, 2022 at 12:32 pm Reply

    I will never ever move on, moving forward one step at a time is hard enough. My wife died exactly one year ago and I still talk to her everyday. I have her picture in my wallet and car as she goes with me everywhere. My son passed away December 2,2021 and had I not kept my relationship going with my wife I think I would of gone out of my mind. Thanks for the article as I now know im not crazy.

  4. Jenny  January 16, 2022 at 9:32 pm Reply

    My sister passed 4 months ago at a young age of 59. My parents transitioned to heaven over 14 years ago. It’s always hard – like an ocean wave that come crashing in unexpectedly. The best thing you can do is allow yourself the time to grieve when that happens. I am a firm believer that they are free of pain and whole again. Vibrant and full of energy to be able to watch over us and send us loving signs that they are with us. I have recorded many signs from each of them already. Thank you for giving us a place to share on this platform! 🙏💕🙏

  5. marcia harris  January 16, 2022 at 3:24 pm Reply

    This article helped so much. Many people said “you’ll have a new life.” I always replied, “I don’t want a new life” Now 5 years later, I have a life and I miss him daily, still wear my rings and get misty eyed at the grocery store thinking about what I used to make or buy just for him. Accommodation. I like that idea. So thanks again for the support.

  6. anonymous  January 16, 2022 at 12:16 pm Reply

    I am choosing for me, in 2022, to officially retire from the burdens of helping others to understand what the sudden death of husband has been like for me.

    I realize now how truly exhausting it has been for me. Deeply exhausting.

    I continue the daily practices which have helped me since my husband died in 2017.

    I write every morning– my “hi, honey” letter in my art sketch book, a small scented candle lit, my coffee brewed and hot nearby, and some kind of music playing softly. I write what comes.
    I do this on the mornings I want to, and on the mornings I wake up hopeless.

    Then my daily reading from “Around The Year With Emmet Fox”– hubby and I began reading this in the 1980’s.

    The sun comes up outside and peace begins my day. This ritual takes about 30 minutes and is a steady anchor.

    These past years have been like living on another planet for me– I have done my best in this stunning new world and I have much I can look back on now and place in the “Wise Choice” category.

    I have also made poor choices, and felt at times that I would not survive this massive grief.

    Always though I have somehow felt guided by energies not of this earth — including my husband! — and I am grateful.

    I am living 2022 trusting my gut and using the earthly red light, yellow light, green light traffic system.

    Red = STOP (not for me)
    Yellow = Slow Down Use caution May or May Not Be For You Take Your Time
    Green = YES (this IS For You)

    It works for me and I have become pretty good at recognizing the colors in my gut– I must say that I’ve not always had this much trust in myself to follow the signals before!

    Still, my darling is always nearby, as are other soul helpers.

    I released my husbands ashes into the river on December 21, 2021 in a spot near our home.
    I felt the peace and beauty of this place fill me up.
    It was a courageous thing for me to do alone, and a sacred honoring our life together.

  7. Nancy  January 15, 2022 at 9:55 pm Reply

    Til death do us part, I don’t think so. I lost my husband in 2020 and while I’m coping with my day to day better, I won’t ever lose my connection with my love.

  8. Mary  January 14, 2022 at 10:08 pm Reply

    It’s a true blessing that I received an email from this group & chose to read it. My dear husband died in April of 2021, I’m grieving hard & will never move on from Dave & our true, everlasting love. He died at home sitting in his favorite recliner after a grueling 2 year battle with cancer. I didn’t call the funeral home but instead sat next to Dave for 24 hours crying, talking to him, sleeping by him for the last time. A couple of friends came over the next day before the funeral home came. I had Dave cremated (no embalming) & keep his ashes with me 24/7. I talk to him & feel connected to him & always will. Until reading your article & other’s posts, I didn’t know there were others who view death like me. It’s been very refreshing to know there is.

  9. Patricia  January 14, 2022 at 6:04 pm Reply

    The email bearing this article arrived on the second anniversary of the very unexpected death of my husband of 28 years. I know I’ll always mourn his loss, and so far I feel his absence very intensely. Maybe that’s why I’m not yet feeling his presence as much as I wish I could? This article feels like a small opening. Thank you.

  10. Carm  January 14, 2022 at 9:22 am Reply

    Love this blog…Being a retired educator the idea of Piaget’s concept as it applies to those of us who grieve is spot on! And the idea that many of us do not “move on” but assimilate our loss(es) into our lives gave me a peace that I haven’t felt in the almost 8 yrs since my husband passed as well as the other deaths over the span of my life in my 62 yrs. I suspect many, even ones who say they have “ moved on” have really assimilated it into their life such that it fits their idea of having “moved on”.

  11. Gwen  January 14, 2022 at 9:16 am Reply

    My 35 year old son, Dominic, died after eight days at the Mayo Clinic two years ago. I have lost both of my parents, a best friend, and been divorced. All of these things are extremely hard, but to lose a child is the absolute worst kind of pain. Please write some articles for parents who will never “move on”, but how to live “through” the grief of losing your child.

  12. Mary  January 14, 2022 at 8:46 am Reply

    Ex husband’s suicide Dec 30. Cannot wrap my head around why. Now my son has only one parent left, he’s grieving in his own way. Dad left note but son won’t talk about it, don’t blame him, I don’t really want to know. Am conflicted on should I move down to where my son lives or stay here? Where and when is the catalyst that will help me decide? (A rhetorical question.) All these vignettes keep going through my head, married in ’73 and there’s close to 50 years of memories to sort through and re-experience and hurt. Regret. Sadness. Now what?

  13. Maria Savinetti  January 14, 2022 at 8:28 am Reply

    I just Recently Lost My Son . He was My Greatest Accomplishment. He was My Biggest Blessing . The Love of My Life

    • Gwen  January 14, 2022 at 2:06 pm Reply

      Dear Maria! I am so very sorry and can truly say I know how you feel. As my comment above yours tells, I also lost my son. Everyone thinks the “firsts” are the hardest. Not true. I’m starting my third year and it is harder now because it’s been longer since I’ve hugged him, kissed his whiskery cheek, wonder where he’d be working, if he and his wife would finally be able to have a baby, what he’d look like, etc. Please be assured of my prayers. If you can, look for “What Have You Done Since I Left”. Donna and her husband, Dick, are the leaders of a Parent Grief Group my husband and I go to twice each month. She is wonderful and has helped me so much. Please check out her book if you can. Maybe even your local library would have it. You are my “Sister as Grieving Mothers”.

  14. nick  January 14, 2022 at 8:16 am Reply

    I wish I could have a comforting relationship with my wife, but every time I think of her, all I get is pain. I know others get consolation when they think of their lost loved ones, but all I get is sadness, followed by more pain in my heart. Of course I can’t stop thoughts of her popping into my head all the time – and why not? We were together for 50+ years and reminders of her are all around me. But they are not welcome reminders – only sources of sadness and longing to be with her again. This topic is yet another manifistation of the grief axiom – everybody’s different. What brings comfort for one person brings pain to another.

    • Litsa  January 23, 2022 at 9:08 pm Reply

      I am so sorry that what you find in your memories is primarily pain. It is so true that grief is so different for all of us. I think it changes as well – songs or memories or photos that at first bring exclusively pain may later bring comfort and then may at other points bring primarily pain again! It is one of the most complex things about loss, even when we think we understand our own grief, even it can change.

  15. Catherine  January 14, 2022 at 7:39 am Reply

    My middle child has not spoken to me since their brother’s wake in February 2021. They are transgender and still dealing with transition. I get an occasional email but no acknowledgment if Mother’s day, my birthday, Christmas or any other day. I feel like I lost 2 of my 3 children. I have struggled, successfully, to avoid calling or texting, but rage and grief can be overwhelming. Interested to know if this happens to anyone else.

    • Litsa  January 23, 2022 at 10:19 pm Reply

      Catherine, this is very normal and there is a name for it – Ambiguous Grief or Ambiguous Loss. We have a couple of posts about it that you might find useful -https://whatsyourgrief.com/ambiguous-grief-grieving-someone-who-is-still-alive/

  16. Michael  January 14, 2022 at 7:23 am Reply

    Thank you for that article! It describes exactly what I’ve experienced from my sister. Her talk of moving on, etc., has been upsetting, & has been continuing to bother me, even though I told Sister to not contact me again.

    You asked if we should devote our time & energy trying to explain our feelings to someone like that.

    My answer:


    The only people I’ll talk to on these matters of grief are the people at this discussion-board, where people understand, because they’re experiencing it too (…or are familiar with it because they’ve listened to us.)

    When I started this comment, it turned into a long letter, and so I deleted it, & am writing this briefer version.

    When Sister, in one e-mail, brought up “Closure”, I replied “Closure, Yes 🙂 “.

    …I then achieved a needed closure by telling her to not contact me again.


    • Gwen  January 14, 2022 at 2:11 pm Reply

      Dear Michael – when I lost my 35-year old son two years ago 12.16.19 at the Mayo Clinic, I found out how people we thought were friends and even some family, leave us. Why? We need them the MOST NOW! But, from the Parent Grief Group I belong to, I have learned that people who were acquaintences are sometimes more caring than the other people we relied on. We have been told to find new people to be in our lives if those we counted on have decided we are the ones who need to change. GRIEF needs to be known by those who do not grieve, as to do the right and thoughtful things for those of us who have lived this and belong to the club no one wants to belong to. God bless you!

  17. Vivienne  January 14, 2022 at 3:50 am Reply

    Do I tell people this? Only a very few know. Others would probably think I’d lost it.

  18. Vivienne  January 14, 2022 at 3:47 am Reply

    I have an ongoing relationship with my husband since he died 5 yrs ago. I talk to him every day, throughout the day. I ask him questions, I ask for advice for help etc and it always comes.
    It gives me great comfort and strength to know he is still with me , besides me all the way until we meet again.
    When I first lost him it wasn’t enough, but now if this is all I can have, then I’ll settle for it knowing he’s nearby.
    I bought myself a camper van this year because I decided it’s time to live again. So I’ll be off travelling with my cocker spaniel and I know he’ll be in the passenger seat alongside me. He’s giving me the courage to do it. We’re still together but differently.

  19. Megan  January 14, 2022 at 3:21 am Reply

    Losing my 20 year old youngest son who was still living at home . Though independent he was still needful in many ways of his mom and dad.
    Figuring out and navigating the next phase of the of his life . . He battled the demon of addiction.
    He died in my arms . For this reason the grief and trauma have been a long road I am still traveling . Currently I too just like this article can not move on.I cherish the moments in life when I find myself talking to him as though he is in his room or driving with me as I go about breathing oxygen each day . It’s just a new chapter our lives we are learning how to relate to one another ,me and my recently “departed” son(who tragically died )❣️

  20. Jo Ainsworth  January 14, 2022 at 1:38 am Reply

    My husband, my best friend & soulmate died 2 years ago Christmas 2019. I still have his phone, keep it charged up & I WhatsApp him most days, it’s like a daily journal of what’s going on. I sleep with his jumper sprayed with his aftershave. Our Alexa says good morning to both of us. I’ll still talk to him like I used to do whilst watching something on TV, especially the bits I don’t understand. It brings me comfort & I don’t feel so alone. Moving on is just a saying that’s misinterpreted & I suppose because we ourselves aren’t as open about our feelings after time. We expect perhaps that we shouldn’t be so sad all the time so you start to hide it away, that’s learning to live alongside it, not moving on.
    Take care ❤️

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