When someone we love dies, our relationship with them doesn’t end.
At least, from our end it changes. We don’t really know what happens on their end.
(Lots of philosophical and spiritual traditions have very different thoughts on this subject.)
The thing is, many of us are tempted to think that, just because someone has died, our relationship with them has ended— which leaves us kind of stuck with a certain “version” of our relationship with them that (we think) can’t evolve.
It’s true that when someone dies, we can’t create new experiences with them like we did in the past.
We can’t have conversations with them like we did in the past.
The straightforward way we relate to someone in life is, after they die, replaced with a more complicated, more private, more emotional way of relating to them that happens mostly inside our heads and hearts.
But we’re still relating to them.
We’re relating to their memory— to our idea of who they were, and who we were with them.
Our relationships with friends and family members who have passed away sometimes remain some of the defining relationships in our lives.
They’re still with us.
I’m not talking about in a spiritual sense, although there are spiritual and metaphysical traditions that absolutely believe that someone’s essence absolutely lives on and stays with that person’s loved ones after they die.
I’m talking psychoemotionally: our relationship with someone simply doesn’t cease when they cease to physically be here, any more than our emotional relationship with someone gets put on pause when they’re not physically in the room with us.
Even though someone has died, we still need to manage our relationship with them.
We still need to acknowledge and manage our thoughts and feelings about them.
We still need to manage what their memory triggers in us.
This task is complicated, no doubt about it, given that they’re not physically here to take an active role in this process.
They’re not here to help us out.
But that doesn’t mean we can act as if their memory is frozen in time and space for us, never to evolve or draw us in again.
In our emotional lives, they’re very much alive, and we need to deal with HOW they live in in our memory.
You are not crazy for struggling to relate to someone’s memory.
You’re not crazy for struggling to manage difficult feelings about someone who has died.
You’re not crazy for struggling for finding this whole thing complicated.
Give yourself time and give yourself space.
Let your body and brain do what your body and brain need to do to grieve.
Let complicated and mixed feelings be complicated and mixed.
Let anger exist alongside fondness.
Let sadness exist alongside laughter.
Maybe you’ll need to cry; maybe you’ll need to tell a story; maybe you’ll need to punch a pillow; maybe you’ll need ice cream.
Be there for what you need.
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2 thoughts on “Death doesn’t end relationships. It changes them.”
I am printing this out.
Your post brought tears to my eyes and validation. You may know I’ve been widowed twice, the road back to rebuild ones life is not a walk in the park. My emotions with both husbands are at times complicated. I have learned to let them come up and embrace them if you will. I was widowed 20 years ago and again seven years ago. Widowhood for me was being strapped into a run away roller coaster. Up down up down and around. But finally, peace.
Funny, this post came out on the anniversary of my Dads death in 88….He was and continues to a wonderful example of love. He continues to influence me beyond the grave.
Many thanks for your posts.. love you book.
Celia Marszal Iannelli
Your words are my experience, beautifully expressed. I have my family photos framed and on a table by the outside door. I greet my mother as I come in and say farewell as I go out. Her studio portrait dates to a decade before I was born. The beauty and innocence of young adulthood smiles calmly, oblivious to the difficult future laying in wait. I volunteer on a charity’s telephone helpline. Without breaking confidentiality, allow me to describe a conversation last week: a distressed and sometimes suicidal gentleman was describing his inability to move beyond the death of his father two years ago. “Your father is still with you” I began, to which he interjected “no, he’s been dead two years” as if I hadn’t been listening to one word of his tale. Of course, it’s a concept I wasn’t going to be able to paint in lustrous colours for him on a wide canvas given how we were relating, but I nonetheless spent half a minute explaining my words. After an hour of talking to both his wife and himself, I felt some empathy had been conveyed, and the case was delegated to a local group to carry forward. His wife and I had instant rapport, we understood one another, I felt I was drinking tea in their kitchen, whereas her husband was in need of a professional to help him through his dark wood of despair. I felt my hour was well spent and I will think about him for and his family for a long time.