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:
- A Grief Concept You Should Care About: Continuing Bonds
- 16 Tips for Continuing Bonds With People We’ve Lost
- Continuing Bonds: Shifting the Grief Paradigm
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.