Gone but never forgotten
by Larry Dawalt, HPCCR Senior Director of Spiritual and Grief Care Services
Editor’s Note: 2014 has already been a rough year. It seems like I learn about a heartbreaking death almost every week. In fact, I don’t remember a time when loss has been so prevalent around me and the people I love. That being said, I read this article from Larry Dawalt in our latest Bereavement Bulletin and thought that is was a poignantly appropriate article for what I (and others) have been experiencing as of late. So if you have lost someone recently, I hope you take the following words to heart and rejoice in the continued relationship you can still have ‘on the inside’ with that very loved person who is no longer here.
It has been such an accepted norm in society for many years, but lately it is being challenged more and more by a theory known as ‘continuing bonds,’ and I think that theory is closer to the actual grief experience. While it would take pages and pages to explain the theory in detail (which has been done in the book Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief), the phrase is basically a verbalization of the fact that people live on inside us long after they are physically gone.
Years ago, when asked about the death of her movie star mother Natalie Wood, Natasha Wagner stated that she “had to learn to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t there anymore.” That task is one of the most significant parts of the grief process because even though they may be physically gone, those dear to us continue to live on inside us. And they live not just in our memory, but in our very being.
In his book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, author Daniel Siegel uses the term ‘neurological embedding’ to describe how our connections to others are wired within us. That means people are a part of us to the point that they have helped shape who we are, including our beliefs, thoughts, concepts, and opinions about some of the most important matters of life.
That’s why the ‘process it and move on’ theory, which is about breaking apart a relationship, really doesn’t work. The theory actually came from various interpretations of Sigmund Freud’s 1917 article “Mourning and Melancholia.” Over the years we have had ‘stages of grief,’ ‘tasks of grief’, and other valuable theories that have been utilized to help understand the grief process. And while these theories remain valuable – especially William Worden’s Tasks of Grief model – they are best understood with the realization that people live on inside us whether they are physically present or not.
The ‘reality of the loss’ is certainly that our loved one will not be physically present with us, but discovering what they left us and how they will always be a part of us is a task that can make grief more manageable. That task will come soon enough, so please don’t try to rush this in the early days after the death of a loved one. I agree with the saying that ‘when grief is new, words should be few’ and that includes our own internal dialogue. But when the thoughts and feelings start to come again and as they continue into the weeks, months, and even years, I believe learning to have a relationship with someone who isn’t (physically) there anymore is the way we learn to function again and move forward.
They are inside us. Their words, opinions, lessons, wisdom, guidance, and love are still there. At the same time, some of the pain of relationships is there too. This pain has to be dealt with, because just as joys are embedded in our brain, disappointments and pain are embedded there as well.
Having raised your awareness of ‘continuing bonds’, I want to encourage you to find an ongoing place for your loved one in your life. This place will surely change over the years, but find a place where you can have a joyful, reconciled relationship where they are physically gone but never forgotten. They walk with you, they help you, they make you smile, and when they make you cry it’s because of the way you miss their physical presence, while gratefully acknowledging the gifts they gave and the part of them that lives on inside you.
These continuing bonds will always be there, and whether you learn the theory from one of our hospice grief professionals or discover it through your own study and practice, I hope these bonds become a comfort for you and that you learn to have a relationship with your loved one ‘on the inside’ where they live as long as you live.
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