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How to Let Grief Grow and Keep the Dead Alive

There is no final good-bye.

Key points

  • Grief is not time-limited. It continues throughout the rest of a lifetime.
  • Those who’ve died can remain alive in conversation and in shared relationships much more than Western culture seems to allow.
  • The Western psychological approach to grief should become less pragmatic and more open to the spiritual dimension of presence and connection.

When my husband died, I summoned the coping strategies that had served me in the past but used them at high voltage. I have a fairly good coping repertoire. The top of my list is finding out what other people have done in my shoes.

I think I’ve read almost every well-reviewed grief book. As a psychologist, I wore two hats while reading them—the widow’s mantilla veil and the PhD’s graduation mortarboard. Some of these books are quite helpful in offering a psychological, spiritual, and even commonsensical perspective on loss and recovery. But there is very little discussion of how the dead continue to be vividly and incontrovertibly present in the minds and hearts of those who’ve lost them.

Many books about grieving tend to be linear. The narrative begins in darkness, moves through struggles, and then settles into a kind of serenity. Books about grief often offer warnings about prescriptions but prescriptions are irresistible in this culture. We want to know how to do it and we want the directive to be programmatic. My own experience is that grief is idiosyncratic, surprising and most of all, paradoxical. Living with it is living with contradiction, with duality: The dead are both gone and present. They are beyond us and within us.

Death after life or afterlife concept as a reincarnation symbol or suicide and moving on as a transition to heaven or eternity i
Source: Lightspring/Shutterstock

And they are equally present, though perhaps more uneasily so, in the interpersonal networks of friends and extended family. My reading did not prepare me for the psychological experience of feeling that I made my friends a bit uncomfortable if I referred to my husband a few times in a conversation. Did they think I had not adequately "moved on"? As time went on, I added new activities and new relationships to my already full life but I noticed that the same awkwardness still occurred when I brought him into our conversation. Moreover, friends who were very close to him rarely mentioned him. Were they afraid of making me sad? Not likely, since I was bringing him up all the time. In family conversations, he was largely absent, and my grandchildren seemed characteristically spooked by recollections of his opinions and pleasures.

After my husband died, my sleep became more and more troubled and I sought a professional consultation with a psychiatrist. It was a rather uncanny experience. Probably because I was in the field, this very matter-of-fact and cheerful consultant began talking about her own beliefs that the dead remain very close to us, and that the line between death and life is in fact a hairsbreadth, not a gulf.

She stopped at one point and asked me if I were in any way disturbed by her musings. I wasn’t, but I was taken aback, and I was also comforted. It was as if she were illuminating a document that was already familiar to me, but which I might not have had the courage or even energy to open and read. Grief is so paradoxical that although I was stunned by the realization that I would no longer be able to touch or hold my husband, I also felt that he was next to me in spirit.

Source: LittlePerfectStock/Shutterstock

I think that there could be less pain and a sturdier embrace of those who have suffered a loss if the dead were allowed to be present. Why should that idiosyncratic wonder of a living human being—their quirks and sensibility and longings and fixations—have to fade? It doesn’t make sense psychologically and I think it is time for mental health professionals to challenge this very Western, certainly American, and unhelpful perspective.