Tag Archives: ritual

When your loved one is a secret…

I recently received letter from a woman who lost her boyfriend. Unfortunately, she says she was “the other woman.” He was in the process of moving out, but passed away in bed one night. There is a question as to whether it was suicide or an accident. She states that the problem, because of her situation, is that she feels she is mourning alone. His family does not realize how much he loved her, or she him. This was someone she was planning to spend her life with. She asks me, “How do I move forward without knowing how he died, or being able to participate in any of the rituals that go with death…funeral, burial, support of family and friends?”

I responded by writing that:

My heart goes out to you in the solitude of your grief. Yours is a complicated and disenfranchised mourning, because of the layers of circumstances that leave you suspended with questions rather than answers; misunderstanding rather than solace; and separation rather than community.

You are not receiving the validation that would reinforce your importance in your boyfriend’s life. You are not receiving this confirmation of significance from others, but that does not mean that you cannot receive it from yourself. The reality is, that no one else can confirm for you the truth, or depth, about your feelings for each other. No one else truly understands your relationship, though they could honor it. That is the value of the ritual of funerals and memorials when people come together to grieve and honor the deceased and the relationship. In place of that, could you and create a ritual to reflect your feelings for each other and the meaning of your loss? This “memorial” might mean spending time at a place in nature that meant a lot to him and saying good-bye to him in your own private service. Or it might mean creating a scholarship in his name to honor him. I encourage you to give yourself what you wish others would give you so that your grief can be expressed and honored. Ultimately, we all grieve alone and no one else truly understands our relationship with our beloved, or the meaning of the loss of that relationship. In this, you are not alone.

You may not have the facts surrounding the cause of his death. Ours is one of the only cultures that, upon hearing of a death, other people’s first question is “how did he die?” We grieve because our loved one is no longer a part of our world in the same way that he or she was. The suffering you feel due to the manner of death can be softened if one does not personalize or take responsibility for the accident or the suicide. Can you really know if either circumstance is true? How would you feel if you focused on the love you shared and what his life meant, rather than the mode of his death? You can move forward without knowing answers because ultimately we all move forward when we are ready, and when we decide to move into life. Take the energy from your relationship and his love for you, and use that to find meaning in the loss and a reason for your future. Only you can do that, as we all must do that, and we each must do that alone.

Do not limit the support for yourself that is out there. The support group that I led for young widows would have welcomed you with open arms. You could have identified yourself as the girlfriend of a man who died unexpectedly, of unknown causes, and used the weekly meetings to talk about your feelings. Those feelings could have included your questions about the uncertainty of how he died, and even not being fully included in his family. You would not have been ostracized for being “the other woman” and could have talked about your boyfriend in a way that was authentic, but respectful of others’ identities. And the group would have respected your confidentiality and supported you. Everyone deserves support, and I hope that you keeping looking to find what you deserve.

The struggle and work of grief is internal and your own. Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint, and yet we all know or will experience loss and grief. We heal more completely in community and with the compassion of others. Please allow yourself to trust and seek out the comfort of care that will help you during this difficult journey.

The value of ceremonies

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.