A warm embrance, a tender kiss and an open hearted smile. Those are some of the qualities we miss when someone we love passes away. We miss their physicality and their presence. We miss their unique laugh, wit and intelligence, but most of all we just miss the Everything of that person. This article is about how we can be gentle with ourselves through the grieving process and how to not only remember those who have died, but how to celebrate and bring their best qualities forward into our present.
So often when our loved ones pass away we mourn their loss and depending upon our faith or belief of what happens when we die, we each grieve the loss differently. Sadness and sorrow will often come upon us as we miss our family and friends from the experiences we are having in our life. We miss sharing the anniversaries, holidays, and birthday’s with them. We miss hearing their voice, their laugh and their unique perspective on life. Maybe there was a special dish your Mother always made, a game you always watched with your Dad, or there was a funny thing your sibling always did when they came to visit. Missing these reflections of their personality, we are often left feeling empty, alone and sad.
There is a Welsh word with no direct English translation, Hiraeth which sums up the feeling well. The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire. (Wikipedia).
We miss, we yearn for and sometimes we look for our loved ones as we go through their papers or clothes. It is as if we are wishing them back to life as we hold these things. My perspective and what has helped me with the grieving process as my Mom passed away six years ago is the concept of bringing them forward. What I mean with this is the idea that we include not only the memory, but also the personality of those who have passed in our present day life. For instance, it’s the idea of say I’m walking through a store and I see something and I immediately think of my Mom. When I was in the throes of my grieving just seeing something in a store that reminded me of my Mom would have triggered me to feel immense pain and sorrow. I literally had to leave places that reminded me of her in the weeks following her death as I was that torn up inside. But now, six years on, I still miss my Mom, but I can see something and think of her memory and just simply smile in a sweet remembrance sort of way. I can look at an object, say something to do with the beach or the sea and just think how much she would like it. I can just imagine her saying how she would think it was special and I am including her in my present moment.
What I am able to do now because of all of the sorrowful crying and missing of her, is to remember her as she was, and to pull forward those aspects of her personality and her humor and her style that helped define her as a woman, a sister, a friend and a Mother. What I am doing as I look at an object or a sunset, is sharing this experience with my Mom in an internal knowing kind of way. I am looking at or experiencing an event and saying – Mother would like this. And then when I share this idea with the rest of my family they all chime in and say, yes, your Mother would have loved this.
Through this process I am involving my Mom in a way in my present day life. I know she is not here, but I know how much she would enjoy something. In this small way of including her in my life I don’t feel as lost without her physically being here.
This may be just a game I am playing with myself, but it has given me perspective and has created a new narrative that I tell myself about my life now without my Mom. At each stage of our lives when people who are close to us die, this experience invites us to reexamine our lives. Maybe you have experienced this after leaving a visitation at a funeral home. Immediately you are confronted with the mortality, poignancy and fragility of life. At those times we begin to consider our age, what choices we are making, what we are doing and why we are making those choices. Death has a way of making us pay attention to our lives. I think this examination of our life also helps us to create the story of our life within the context of those who have already passed.
In his book, The Orphaned Adult, Alexander Levy writes that “Since our parents “project an illusion of permanence, “their death forces us to confront our own mortality (we are next in line to die) and to adjust to our new identities as orphaned adults. This stripping of our childish beliefs is the first step toward true adulthood: “Perhaps only after parents have died can people find out what they are going to be when they grow up.”
I do think that until this happens we are always the son of, or the daughter of. But once our parents pass we are now the oldest and no longer can we think, dream or fantasizing of “going back home” or have our own Hiraeth moment. We are home.
Since my father is still alive I am not as Levy says, “an orphaned adult”. And to be honest, I’m not looking forward to that day. I have no idea what that will feel like, and I can only imagine the self-examination which comes to those in this club.
What I do know is that I have found a way of integrating the loss of my Mom into the vernacular of my everyday life. I know that it has made my road of grief a bit easier by thinking of those things that she would enjoy, or that I wished I could share with her on a daily basis. I will say things like – “ Mother would love this” to my sister. We are bringing our Mom into our current discussion. It’s this very familiar and soft way of including someone who is so dear to us into our present day reality even tho they are not here physically.
I believe that if we don’t carry someone forward as in my example that this just makes us feel more lost, more alone and abandoned and truly like an orphan. I don’t want to feel like an orphan, although I appreciate Levy’s reference – I am my parent’s son, I have a home and a family, I am not alone.
I have also found this process especially useful when parents have lost a child. Undoubtedly the death of a child is one of the most agonizing and terrible things to happen for a parent and the grieving process takes a lifetime for them. What I have seen to be helpful is to walk through with the parent the age that their child would be today and based on their personalities we begin to imagine what they probably would like and what they would be doing. This is no substitute for having their child in the moment, but it helps the parent feel not as lost. This give the parent another way to think of their child rather than just that they have died. By projecting what the child would have been doing in the present gives another perspective on processing the loss.
By including those who have passed in your life even if it is just once and a while, you will feel less lost and sorrowful. Remember your loved ones fondly, full of life and at their most vibrant. Celebrate their spirit as you make that recipe or repair something as your Dad taught you. Bring their unique personalities forward as you live your own life and making your own mark on the world – just as they did in their own unique ways.
Robert Jackman, LCPC 2016
The Orphaned Adult: Understanding And Coping With Grief And Change After The Death Of Our Parents – Alexander Levy