“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” ― Mitch Albom
ALL RELATIONSHIP ENDINGS are painful, and perhaps none more so than the loss of a loved one by death.
In her Psychology Today article, Dr. Lani Leary writes, “A relationship is an association, a connection, a link, and a tie between loved ones. We can choose to continue to be in a relationship with our loved one even after their death, even in spite of their physical absence.” And I agree — the emotional bond is still very real. Yet, that person is no longer in your life, so it is a one-way relationship connected by threads of love and memories.
I had never experienced this kind of loss until I was in my early fifties. And then, in a two-year period from late 2005 to early 2008, I lost six family members, including my mother and two brothers, all from different causes. I felt loss as a catastrophic wind sweeping away all I had known and taken for granted, leaving me carved out and raw. I didn’t know how to process death. Didn’t know how to respond to others’ attempts at comforting me, because even comfort felt like a crushing weight, as though I were somehow responsible for others’ discomfort with my grief.
With all the books and articles about the grieving process, it’s easy to forget that grief is an intensely personal process. Each person handles the loss of loved ones in his or her own way. Which is why it’s important not to place any expectations on yourself or any other person who is grieving. You (and they) must be allowed to think, feel, say, and do whatever it is you need in order to heal. Some people will appear to “get over” their loss in a short period of time; others will take years. Both are normal.
Grief also affects our other relationships. While partners and friends may attempt to understand and comfort us when we are grieving, we are essentially alone in our emotional process. If we need to retreat into ourselves in order to heal, that can strain existing relationships as those same partners and friends feel distanced. They may become impatient, wanting their relationships with us to “return to normal,” exacerbating any existing stress. Others of us may feel the need for constant company to avoid being alone and confronted with our feelings, or we may bury our grief in a workaholic frenzy — affecting our existing relationships in other ways.
While journaling can help us process grief — not just our own, but also our responses to those around us who are grieving — the following journaling prompts are intended more as a reflection on how grief affects relationships and what we can gain from thinking and writing about this topic.
- Freewrite for 10-20 minutes about the affects of death and grief on relationships. What insights can you glean from what you’ve written?
- If someone close to you has died, what was/is your grieving process like? Did you find that you needed to distance yourself from others, or did you benefit more from surrounding yourself with friends and family?
- How did grief affect your existing relationships?
- I have heard it said that our grief stems from regret for not expressing how we truly felt about a person while they were alive. In what way do you agree or disagree with this statement?
- Have you been close to someone who lost a loved one? How did their grief affect you and your relationship with them?
- Make a list of the things that grief has taught you.
- Do you think it’s more important to dig in and journey consciously through the grieving process or to “rise above it” by connecting with others in a search for meaning? Explore your answer in writing — what factors influence your viewpoint?
- What practices have you engaged in to help process grief, and what was it about these practices that worked for you? (These practices might include spending time in nature, journaling, creating art, working harder, exercising more, hanging out with friends or family, talking with a therapist, etc.)
- If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice about grieving, what would that be?