Ted Talk: Defining the Future of Grief Psychology with Love

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Let me tell you a story. A love story. A love story between someone who has passed away, and someone who is still alive. While this may sound a little bit odd to speak about a love story between someone who is alive and someone who is no longer breathing, I suspect that this is how many people feel who carry love in their hearts for a person who has died.

This love story is a story between Michael and his wife Gloria. Gloria died a couple of years ago after they were married for more than 50 years. Our conversation began with the simple question when I asked Michael, “Could you tell me your wife’s name and a bit about her?” Michael had no trouble sharing touching memories, nor did he find it hard to recount stories that made him laugh and moments that brought tears to his eyes. The years of their marriage were the basis for a rich relationship, and he was eager to introduce his wife to me posthumously.

As we spoke, I asked him to tell me what he loved about his wife. He shared with me how his wife was a music teacher who inspired her students. He told of Gloria’s love for her family and how she adored their nine grandchildren. He valued their shared volunteer work for socially just causes. His eyes lit up as he spoke about Gloria’s passion for nature and he placed flowers next to her bed when she could no longer go outside. He admired her strength and how she used music to curb the pain of a debilitating illness that ultimately led to her death. As he told more details of this graceful woman and his love for her, it was as if Gloria entered the room and sat with us listening to her stories being told.

Like Michael, when a person who we love dies, we do not stop thinking about them. We do not stop caring for them and we do not want to stop recalling the best of times between us. Unfortunately, these cherished memories have often been buried alongside our loved one, relegated to a place dictated by past-tense descriptions of a relationship gone-by.

For the last 100 years, the intersections of psychology and medicine have created a particular model of grief psychology that has insisted on a one-size-fits-all practice that can sever precious memories. These practices have been prescribed in medical offices and counseling conversations advising bereaved people they should accept that their loved one is gone and that grief will wind its way through a series of stages. This model is one that many are familiar with even if having never read a psychology book or taken a psychology class. It is a model built in descriptions that most often include 5 stages of grief that prescribes letting go, saying good-bye, and finding closure.  We hear it everywhere – in television shows, on greeting cards, even from well-intentioned people around us. Up until very recently, these practices have dominated how people have come to believe what is the correct way to grieve. For example, bereaved people are encouraged to write letters of farewell to the deceased or encouraged to perform rituals of letting go. It is not unusual to see these practices at memorial services like, releasing of balloons or butterflies, or advice given in hopes to resolve unfinished business. Bereaved people might even be told when the right time is to give items away that are connected to their loved ones.

For some, this may be useful, to find closure or donate items, but for many these practices have sequestered and silenced the love for our deceased to support a belief that the dead should rest in peace. These leading practices of grief psychology have removed the context of relationship and can overlook the way in which a person died. The practices of conventional grief psychology can perhaps even accentuate our heart’s yearning for connection to those who are no longer breathing, forcing the dead to live on as if a ghost without shape or form. Moving on and forgetting seems like a cruel way to treat a person, or an animal, who we love that has passed away.

What if there is another way? What if rather than saying good-bye when a person dies and disconnecting from the relationship, we were to think about what remains? What if rather than letting go, we focus on what continues to be vital? Obviously, the relationship changes when a person dies and this requires a different way of connecting. But the desire to tell the stories, to hold the love that we have shared, is an affirming opportunity to enliven these relationships. I believe remembering practices are the future of grief psychology. Affirming the best of relationships between the living and those are no longer breathing crafts a new way forward where the deepest pain of grief can ease. Using memories and love to fashion a relationship between people like Michael and Gloria grows hope, where the relationship can act like a beacon of light guiding us in what can be some of the darkest days of life.

To step into the future of grief psychology, Michael and Gloria teach us that we must maintain connection which enlists different assumptions than that of conventional grief psychology. The first thing we can learn from Michael and Gloria is that love does not die when a person dies. The love that was shared becomes a resource the living can tap in to, as a guide, a fulfilling place of healing for our hearts, and a source of inspiration to find meaning or renewed purpose. When we follow Michael and Gloria’s story, we also learn that people do not want to be forgotten, and the bereaved do not want to forget those who have died. I believe that remembering practices recenters the love for those who are no longer breathing and affirms they still matter. Remembering practices provide the thinking and tools that shift grief psychology towards love and towards relationship. Remembering practices have the potential to alleviate the deepest pain of longing, the kind of pain that can steal breath and bring us to our knees. Remembering the best of the past to shape a way forward can provide healing for the wounds that grief can bring.

Remembering those who have died means we can actively conjure their stories to mind; we can speak about cherished memories; we can introduce the stories of them to people who did not know them when they were alive. Remembering is not a passive process, but one where we continue to feel our love for people who have been significant to us and can even imagine their love for us. Remembering those who have passed away allows us to actively include them in our lives. Through this inclusion, we can form new meaning and new purpose while we continue to carry our shared memories into new experiences.

Practicing remembering looks like Michael introducing me to his wife Gloria. Remembering practices also looks like the mother who speaks to her son every morning as she is preparing for her day, even though he has been dead for more than a decade. Remembering is also the wife who finds comfort in wearing her husband’s bathrobe to sleep in as she imagines his arms around her. These practices create loving memories bringing a sense of the person who is no longer alive closer.

Michael and Gloria also teach us that is there is no time limit as to when we have to stop saying a loved one’s name out loud and no time limit as to when stories have to stop being told. This includes that we do not need to let go of meaningful items or cut the bond between the living and those who are no longer breathing. We can invite loved ones who are no longer with us physically can travel with us to the grocery store, workplaces, celebrations, and places of worship.

Michael and Gloria further teach us is that remembering can be private acts and rituals that connect with us with our deceased loved ones, but they can also be public moments. Remembering practices are the sharing of stories around a holiday meal of years gone by or acknowledging a deceased person’s pride in the new graduate. Public acts of remembering  looks like the time when the actor Jaime Fox spoke during his Oscar acceptance speech that he can’t wait to go to sleep and have a conversation in his dreams with his deceased grandmother about his accomplishment. We all can have our grandmothers, or others who have passed, both in our private dreams and in very public spaces to consult and feel their pride in our accomplishments.

When a relationship was loving, we want to celebrate this for the years to come. For Michael, this meant that he could introduce his wife to me with what was shared between them, invoking her presence. Remembering weaves a future tapestry for Michael, where Gloria’s imagined presence has a hand in creating the appearance of the tapestry’s textures and hues. If Michael were to only be guided to adjust to being alone, or how to say good-bye to the love of his life, this tapestry remains colorless and everyone loses - their children, their nine grandchildren, and for all who have yet to be introduced to Gloria and to hear of Michael’s love for her. Instead, when a practice of remembering is highlighted, their love is entwined in what continues to give him daily meaning. Michael speaks to her in his favorite reading chair where there is a lovely picture of Gloria next to him. “it is a comfort to have her nearby”, he shared with me. He consults her opinion on important matters. “All matters I suppose, but mostly of those involving the children and grandchildren. But also about us. I keep her up-dated because I know this would be important to her.” Remembering practices brings her imagined voice, one that Michael would no doubt be familiar with after more than a half century of marriage, to life. It is her voice, along with his, that creates a tapestry woven with new colors and threads. Michael and Gloria’s stories, told by him, as well as their children, and grandchildren can add to this beautiful and vibrant tapestry.

Remembering practices can inform grief psychology and counseling conversations where relationships are centered to uphold the best of our loving humanity. Remembering can ease the suffering of the parents whose new-born has died or soothe the shattered lives after someone we love dies by their own hand. Remembering practices can also help those who have experienced painful disconnection with the person who died or who has suffered abuses in the relationship while the person was living by carefully restoring a sense of agency to the person who is grieving. These practices allow the bereaved to figuratively find their footing on days when this seems impossible. Remembering practices are not a model of grief psychology that is predicated by stages but one that is guided by the stories of love, strength, and connection.

Michael spoke of the day he brought his wife’s ashes home and how he felt protective of her on that day – protective of her just like when she was alive. He explained, “When I picked up her ashes, I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. But when I got them home, I put them on the hearth right next to where she sat and read. I imagined her presence encouraging me to do this and consulted her in my mind if that was OK. And that is very peaceful for me to have her ashes here. And it’s a double box too, so there is room for me someday. I like this thought.” Gloria would approve of being consulted, of having the memory of her voice and their shared love invoked. She would like that this brings comfort to Michael.

We all deserve this kind of love – to be cared for, tenderly, after we die, by those who we are connected to while we are alive. To do anything less, to not practice remembering, seems like such a waste to a love story.

Thank you.