Almost ten years ago, my wife’s grandmother died. At the time, we gathered as a family to be of support and comfort to one another, telling stories and sharing the legacy of this wonderful woman who lived well into her 90’s. Our daughter, who was three at the time, saw the family dynamics — crying, laughing, sharing stories — but due to her age, she wasn’t much of a verbal participant in the mourning period.
Fast-forward three years. Our family was sharing a moment at our dining table one evening, our daughter is now six. She turned to her mom and asked, “Mommy, what happened to Nana after she died? I miss her so much.” My wife turned to me with a gleam in her eye and said, “This is your department.”
As parents, we were surprised to hear the question from a child who — while she knew her great-grandmother — wasn’t an active verbal participant in the period of mourning immediately following Nana’s death. We had assumed that she was unable to say goodbye, at least in the same fashion as the adults had done, but evidently our daughter was processing the information at the earlier time, not yet able to give voice to it. When her developmental stage gave her the language and symbols to do so, she could ask such an important question.
I share that story because as adults we reacquaint ourselves with the details of a death and our grief over a long period of time. How one might feel at the time of a death of a loved one can be quite different from the grief one or two years later. Why is that?
We are always changing and growing. The interactions between ourselves and others is constantly informing our relationships, who we are and how we perceive the world. Over a period of time the intensity of our grief subsides, and yet, we begin to see with greater clarity the depth of our relationship with the deceased and the work needed in order to adjust to life without that person.
It’s been almost nine months since the death of my father. The feelings and reactions of today are quite different than back in July. Are my grief reactions less intense? Yes. Is my grief giving me reason to work hard at understanding my relationship with my Dad? Absolutely. Do I miss him less? No, but I am I finding new language to describe the relationship. Every day. This is the work of grief.
Researcher and Clinical Psychologist Therese Rando, Ph.D., has contributed a stage model of the grief process that she observed people to experience while adjusting to significant loss. She called her model the “Six Rs”:
Recognize the loss: First, people must experience their loss and understand that it has happened.
React: People react emotionally to their loss.
Recollect and Re-Experience: People may review memories of their lost relationship (events that occurred, places visited together, or day to day moments that were experienced together).
Relinquish: People begin to put their loss behind them, realizing and accepting that the world has truly changed and that there is no turning back.
Readjust: People begin the process of returning to daily life and the loss starts to feel less acute and sharp.
Reinvest: Ultimately, people re-enter the world, forming new relationships and commitments. They accept the changes that have occurred and move past them.
Each of these tasks take time and lots of energy, and the process — aided through interaction with bereavement professionals trained to help — can accompany the griever through the twists and turns of grief work.
The often-missed instruction with any stage theory, however, is that the components rarely run in a straight line. People have described the grief process with words like “roller-coaster” or “spiral.” I like the analogy of a spiral because it implies that as we move more deeply into our lives, each day and more significantly into our grief, we may tap into parts of our personalities that have been as-yet undiscovered, traits that may help us cope with the loss and understand it, so that we move toward the reinvestment to which that Rando alludes. This is why the story of a child’s perception can make sense for us adults who are grieving.
Psychologist Jean Safer, Ph.D., herself a grieving daughter, offers a four-question “psychological inventory” in her book, Death Benefits: How losing a parent can change an adult’s life — for the better. This inventory can be a starting place for some interesting grief work, for the death of a parent or anyone we have lost.
What did you get from your Parent that you want to keep?
What did your Parent have that you regret not getting?
What did you get from your Parent that you want to discard?
What did you need that your Parent couldn’t provide?
Answering such questions can be painful and may trigger reactions that we don’t expect.
Answering them can also lead us into deeper awareness of who our parent was and who we are as their child. I believe the process of answering those questions is worth the risk, to examine the relationship and jettison any unnecessary baggage so that we can move confidently into a new chapter of life.
Making meaning from the death of a parent or any significant person in our lives is not just a task to be accomplished. Meaning-making can be a tribute to the quality of the relationship and grant us access to deeper, yet-undiscovered human traits. It can allow us to say “goodbye” to what was and “hello” to what can be new, even more life-giving possibilities.
The wonderful comedienne Gilda Radner wrote before her death, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die — whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.”