I recently received an inquiry from a family grieving the death of their daughter from an accident 5 years ago. I think this is a common question, and speaks to a valid need for community and support:
Dear Dr. Leary: Why do we find meaning in attending the “In Celebration & Remembrance” ceremonies year after year?” Friends may say this is really sad that we have not “gotten over” the death of our daughter, but for us, we have a chance to once again feel her memory and be with people who understand this journey. Why do we keep returning? Is there something wrong with this?
It takes great courage to grieve, because it asks you to be open and vulnerable to your deepest wound. Your grief exposes you and can make you feel out of control. It takes courage to feel your pain and share it with others. It takes courage to learn how to live in a new world, in a new way, without your loved one.
But in our culture, the bereaved most often report that they feel alone with their grief. You may have felt abandoned just weeks after the funeral. You may have felt as though you were on your own, trying to navigate this unknown territory by yourself. The bereaved often say that they feel ashamed that their grief has not abated to other’s timetables. That is, until we find a community of others who know our experience of death and grief; who share our common language; who also know what we need and what helps.
You return to rituals and ceremonies that honor your loved one because you find meaning and solace in a shared experience with love and loss. During these ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations you feel you are in community with each other, and the connection is what makes your loss more bearable.
In this community of the bereaved you have created a safe space. You are a family and you are as different as you are similar. While each of your loss is unique, each one of you is the expert for your grief alone, but you all grieve and are in community. You share the human condition of being vulnerable and that is what connects all of us.
Each of your heartaches is unique and none of it is common…but you have much in common. You grieve because you have loved. You are in pain because you felt an attachment. You come together again to remember and honor that love and connection, and you come to these remembrance celebrations because it is here that you are given permission, time, safety, and validation to grieve.
Together, during these remembrance celebrations, you do not need to be afraid that you will forget or that your loved ones will be forgotten. You can speak their name; you can tell their stories; you carry on their legacy; you share your loved one with others. Just having a caring environment in which you can express your feelings and be heard is profoundly healing.
All grief needs to be blessed, and in order to be blessed, it must be heard. Someone must be present to your expression of grief, someone who is willing to hold it by listening without judgment or comparison. When you wail or tell your story of loss, it is based in your need that your loss not go unnoticed—the death of your loved one will not be overlooked, and your loved one’s place in the world will be marked. Grief is an expression that validates your loved one’s existence in the world and acknowledges that love for a person does not die just because she or he did.
You return to these ceremonies because it is helpful. You return because remembering matters. There is nothing wrong with returning to love.