Freedom to Grieve

Protecting grief from "closure," consumerism, politics, and other cultural distortions

Unwrap A Gift for Living From the One Who Died

Grieving during the holidays can include receiving gifts from those who died.

Forcing her feet to step out of the car, Susan dried her eyes before walking into the country dance hall. No one there knew that the reason she wanted to dance was also why her tears fell so easily.

Her love for dancing started with the house dances from her childhood. Susan beamed, “I was not any older than five years when my dad taught me to waltz, schottische, polka and two-step. And he loved to dance.” Laughing, Susan recalled, “My dad would act the fool. That was his phrase, ‘Don’t we just love to act the fool, Susie!?’ That was me. I was all in.”

Years later, Susan would find another dancing partner in William. Their marriage was packed full, but tragically short. “William and I were very much coupled in everything that we did.” And they danced. Smiling as her eyes filled, Susan said, “We were dancers. When we stood up to dance, people sat down to watch.”

Just three years into their marriage, William was diagnosed with cancer. He died a year later at age 51.

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“After William died,” Susan said, “I was so empty. There just wasn’t anything there. Food meant nothing to me. Sleep meant nothing to me. Nothing meant nothing.” Pausing, she realized, “It was like I had died.”

When asked how she survived, Susan immediately said, “My faith. I would not be sitting here without my faith. “

A few months after her husband died, Susan went back to graduate school. “I deduced I was there because God wanted me to be there. God kept me alive. He kept me putting one foot in front of the other.” God was helping her take one step at a time, but would Susan ever return to the two-step on the dance floor?

A challenge in grieving is learning to move forward in life while fearing that you will leave behind loved ones. Those who died remain in the old world, and it is scary to move into the new world without them. For Susan, dancing was something she loved, first with her dad and then with William. But how would she be able to keep dancing now? It turns out that William gave her a way.

One evening about a week before William died, they took a walk together. William turned to Susan and said, “Promise me you’ll keep dancing.” Susan recalls, “ I said, ‘Damn you, William!’ Because I was thinking, “Who the hell am I going to dance with?” But I loved to dance and he knew I loved to dance. And maybe at a very deep level, he knew that would be therapeutic for me.”

Months after his death, his request helped her get out the door. Susan says she doubts she would have kept dancing had he not said that to her. “I drove by myself,” recalled Susan. “I would cry all the way to the dance and I’d go home by myself and cry the whole way home. But I loved it. In between it was wonderful.” William had given her a gift for living that she was able to unwrap even after his death.

Our loved ones who die can inspire us to keep living. The conversations, values, and memories provide a bridge between the two worlds. Susan kept dancing in large part because it helped her stay connected to William. Without his requesting her to “promise you’ll keep dancing,” Susan may have felt guilty. Yes, she was still sad about not having him for a dance partner. But the dancing was healing for her and he gave her a gift in that brief conversation. At the time, it made Susan angry because she could not imagine dancing without William. He was leaving her! But in the end, while sad, she realized that he was still with her on that dance floor. Not as she wanted, but at least in a way she needed.

Sometimes there are no conversations that leave specific promises with those who survive a loss. There may be no direct requests to keep dancing. However, people still can find meaning in how a loved one lived. We can connect those meanings and values to how we continue to live our lives. Our loved ones who died gave us gifts to help us move forward while staying connected to our past. We need to unwrap them.

The joy of Christmas came in an unusual gift of a baby. For Christians, Jesus is a gift of hope and life in a time of darkness. We can find other gifts for living from our loved ones, even after death. Their funny stories make us laugh. Their examples of generosity inspire us to give. Their quirky traditions live on in younger generations. Their dedication to the community guides our service. Their faith and hope strengthens us in times of doubt. Their precious lives, even when short, give us love.

This Christmas, look for the gifts you have already received from those who died. Unwrap the gift of living even as tears fall. Promise me you’ll keep dancing.

 

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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