Commentary: Accepting a loved one’s death doesn’t always mean saying goodbye

December 16, 2013 

Editor’s note: This is the third post of a column on grief and children that runs quarterly. If you have an idea about a future column related to this topic, please be in touch:

“Do not stand at my grave and weep; I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awake in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there; I did not die.” (Anonymous)

It is necessary to accept the reality of death. And it can also be necessary, for healing’s sake, to figure out creative and meaningful ways to keep one “alive” in memory and spirit. But, how do we help facilitate a child’s bond with a loved one after that person has died? How do we keep a loved one gone present in the child’s life? When it comes to children who are grieving, is it even healthy to maintain a sense of connection with the person who has died?

The answer to that last question, is generally “yes.” The bond between two people is altered when death interrupts but it need not be severed completely. If the child’s relationship with the deceased person was a healthy one, it can be beneficial to feel connected after that person dies. Grief experts refer to this as “continuing bonds.” To be clear, remaining connected with someone who has died is not the same thing as believing someone is still alive or can come back to life. But, looking for the person who died in the “ripened grain and autumn rain and the stars that shine at night” can be instrumental in a child’s healing.

During college, I (H.K.) spent a summer on Martha’s Vineyard living in the cottage attic of a widowed fisherman‘s wife. My first weekend on the island, I was invited to her family’s annual gathering, called “The Release Party” on the town dock. I had no idea what this party was all about. Essentially, as I came to find out, it was an intergenerational gathering that had been a family ritual for over a decade. The idea was to gather on the dock, a place that was meaningful to the beloved man who had died, to remember him, acknowledge that he was missed deeply, and for the family to share memories of time spent together. I will never forget standing on the edge of the dock with the fisherman’s wife, the stars overhead reflecting in the water, and releasing colorful balloons into the night sky with her children and grandchildren. It was somber and healing, courageous and meaningful, hopeful and beautiful – for adults and kids included.

The ceremony was a fairly elaborate way for the fisherman’s family to stay connected with him, but such practices of remembering, reconnecting, and “re-bonding,” need not be this formal. Spontaneously telling stories that reinforce positive memories, participating in favorite activities, visiting places that carry special significance, commenting on what the loved one would have thought (“Grandpa sure would love this lemon pie…”), holding on to tangible objects that evoke comforting memories. These are subtle, yet meaningful, acts that can maintain and strengthen bonds.

Also, memories can change over time – some become faded and more distant as the years pass by; others become clearer, more perfected. There is a tendency to make saints out of those who die before us, to remember only the positive, the good. For younger children, this is often appropriate. However, as children grow up, helping to them to add more richness to their recollections of the person – recalling both their gifts and faults – is important because it grounds the experience of the relationship with that person in reality. It suggests that, like relationships, grief is not perfect; it is complicated.

As holidays approach, loved ones who are now gone may be especially missed. This time of year offers many opportunities to strive toward a sense of continuity, even in grief, remembering that the past is connected to the present and the present can lay a foundation for the future. In this way, continuing bonds with loved ones who have died has the potential to strengthen relationships in years ahead. Even as you and the children you love miss those who have died, you can, as the poem suggests, still listen for the wind, look for the diamond glints on the snow, and be awed by the beauty of the light of the stars that shine at night. In your acceptance of the death of a loved one, may you also feel ever-connected to them in new and healing ways.

Hadley Kifner is a pediatric chaplain at UNC Hospitals. Justin M. Yopp is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UNC.

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