In loss we are asked to learn how to be in a relationship with an unseen being. We have to open our minds to our imagination and then want the imaginal relationship to develop.
– Deborah Morris Coryell
Years ago, I remember getting the call that my partner’s grandmother was dying. Being young and flexible, we got in the car and made the 26-hour drive to Southern Ontario to say our goodbyes. Unfortunately, we were too late, but we appreciated the opportunity to connect with family and friends. The concept of closure – of saying goodbye – is a common theme within grief.* At the time, I didn’t question it. I do now.
This past month, my two remaining grandparents died. My grandmothers were 95 and 105, respectively. Here’s what I have come to understand about death: I don’t want to say goodbye. Rather, I want to continue to say hello. To continue our relationship. Past death.
Death does not necessarily mean that our relationship dies along with the person. The relationship that was there continues to influence the present and, with attention, can influence the future. Reflection on the person, the relationship, and this influence help keep the relationship alive. This is an important part of grieving.
When working therapeutically with people who have lost a loved one, I often ask them to introduce those that are no longer physically present by utilizing some of the following questions (these questions are adapted from the work of Michael White and Lorraine Hedtke):
- What was your loved one like?
- What kind of person were they? (e.g., qualities, values, interests, hobbies, etc.)
- What stories come to mind that demonstrate what kind of person they were?
- What is a favourite memory you have with the person?
- What influence did they have on you?
- What influence did you have on them?
- Where and when do you continue to feel this influence?
- If you wanted to continue to grow this relationship, how would you do this?
During such meetings, it is not uncommon to see smiles, laughter, and tears – both of joy and of sorrow. When I ask the client about their experience of the conversation, they often describe feeling closer to their loved one.
With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to my maternal grandmother, Paula Dyck, and share a few of my favourite memories of her.
At 105, my grandmother finally got her wish “to go home.” Patience was a virtue that my grandma demonstrated in her life (and death). Much to her disappointment, this amazing woman walked out of palliative care not once, not twice, but three times! During one of her last moves out of palliative care she stated, “If God isn’t willing to take me yet, I better get on with living.” And that she did.
A strong theme in her life was a deep gratitude for the simple things in life – for family, faith, and simple pleasures such as music and the ability to read. A few months prior to her death, my grandmother said to me, “I’m so thankful!” She didn’t elaborate, so I asked her what she was thankful for. My grandmother responded, “I don’t remember. I just am.” Even as age took its toll and robbed her of parts of her memory, gratitude remained. What an inspiration (I could learn much from this).
My grandmother’s faith led her to be active in the church, and she was still attending church business meetings into her 100s. She volunteered internationally with a development and peacebuilding NGO (Mennonite Central Committee – MCC) in Paraguay, Korea, India, and Jordan, and sewed voraciously for her local thrift shop which supported MCC. However, my favourite story of her active faith was her recent response to reading an article questioning LGBT2SQ+ involvement in the church: at 105, she inquired earnestly, “How can I help make the church more welcoming?” She even had a conversation with her pastor about this, challenging him to lead the church to be more welcoming. How awesome is that?
And then there was her devotion to family. In the late 1990s, her nephew, Canadian punk pioneer Art Bergman, was playing with his band at a university bar in the city near her town. Although she was well into her 80s by this point, my grandma and a couple of her similarly geriatric siblings took a rock-n-roll road trip to go see them. I just love imagining the three of them perched on bar stools in the haze of smoke and noise. If you haven’t heard of Art Bergman, let’s just say that his music wasn’t of the churchy/classical variety that my grandma enjoyed. But that didn’t matter (much) because Art was family.
One of the things I love about leading grief workshops is that I have a regular venue to talk about my own experiences with grief. As I share my stories, I can’t help but both smile and notice my sadness. It’s through sharing that I continue to feel my grandmother’s influence. If I want to continue this influence, it is going to take effort and imagination on my part. I can keep her close by remembering and telling others about her, by regularly noticing her influence in my life, and by imagining a new sort of relationship with her – the beginning of something different, not the acceptance of the end.
*For more on the myth of closure, check out Nancy Bern’s (2011) book, Closure: The rush to end grief and what it costs us, or watch her TedTalk.
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