Maintaining an enduring connection with the individual who has died supports a healthy grieving process and may help the survivor avoid complicated grief. The grieving individual can potentially replace obsession about loved ones with feelings of connectedness with. This article:
- outlines Worden’s Tasks of Mourning
- highlights the myriad of ways our society already attempts to create an enduring connection
- discusses the difficulty many individuals experience in completing the fourth task
- provides suggestions and guidelines for creating that connection that are in harmony with and support an individual’s current spiritual/religious beliefs and practices.
Worden’s Tasks of Mourning:
The following is a brief summary of Worden’s Tasks:
1. To accept the reality of the loss: accepting that reunion in this life is not possible; having a realistic understanding of the significance of the loss; being able to retain an image of the deceased in the survivor’s mind; accepting the irreversibility of death. These tasks are helped by traditional rituals such as funerals.
2. To process the pain of the grief: allowing oneself to fully feel all of his/her feelings; not engage in denial of those feelings; processing complex feelings associated with the loss such as anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, loneliness.
3. To adjust to a world without the deceased: done on three levels – externally, internally and spiritually. Developing clarity about the role the deceased played in the survivor’s life; recognizing and accepting changed circumstances; developing new skills previously performed by the deceased; developing a new sense of self without the identity of the relationship; strengthening ones sense of efficacy, self-esteem; carrying on with the tasks of life; finding direction, purpose in life; creating new goals and purpose. Making adjustments to ones view of the world on a spiritual level.
4. Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. Creating a way to memorialize the deceased while going on with life. Finding an appropriate psychological place for the deceased that leaves room for others. Incorporating the essence of the deceased into new patterns of living. Transforming the initial relationship. Forming new attachments.
Socially Acceptable Ways of Creating an Enduring Connection
Many people already do attempt to find an enduring connection with the deceased but may not have labeled it as such. For example, they:
- Create walls of pictures of family members in their homes
- Keep favorite items of furniture
- Wear jewelry from great grandmothers
- Use china on special occasions handed down from great aunts
- Light candles on the anniversary of the death
- Leave flowers, plants, stones and other items during visits to gravesites
- Spend considerable hours researching family history and creating family trees
- Request masses for the dead
- Name children and grandchildren after the deceased
- Talk with the deceased and even ask for advice and counsel
All of these actions including talking with the dead are subtle carry-overs from the time-honored tradition honoring the ancestors that exists in many cultures and religions.
Why Task IV is the most difficult to Accomplish
It is no surprise that Task IV is the most difficult to accomplish and where people get stuck. Society accepts and even supports Tasks I – III but is uncomfortable with Task IV. There is a tendency to place limits of time for completing this task and there are ways of creating this enduring connection that are acceptable and others that are not. For example, it is okay and even expected to treasure objects belonging to the deceased and keep photos on a mantle. However, if someone reports ongoing conversations with the deceased after perhaps a short period of time after the death, this may make listeners anxious.
Suggestions and Guidelines for Creating an Enduring Connection:
Getting stuck can be avoided if individuals are encouraged and helped to be creative in forging this enduring connection rather than discouraged or pressured to conform to conventional ways of doing so. This may take the form of incorporating spiritual rituals and beliefs, a process that is becoming more accepted and is even thought to be a critical element in the successful completion of mourning.
There are many spiritual practices relating to the dead that are connected to a specific religion or belief system. Consequently, unless there are strict prohibitions again this, the enduring connection can exist in harmony with the individual’s spiritual beliefs and practices. The most important element is the relationship with those family members who have died.
Even the creation of an altar which is part of many traditions does not have to conflict with current religious beliefs. An altar can be thought of not so much as a “shrine” where the dead are “worshiped” but as a designated, quiet place to focus, meditate and commune with self and the larger world. It is a place to be inspired and soothed.
Creation of an enduring connection involves time, place and actions. The following are suggestions for how to create this enduring connection:
- Explore what current religious/spiritual connections recommend in this area and what if anything would violate those beliefs.
- Decide if it feels comfortable and practical to designate a specific sacred space, e.g. a corner of a room, a special garden outside.
- Imagine what type of relationship is the most comfortable, e.g., prayer, meditation, conversation, written pages (poetry, journals).
- If there is to be a designated sacred space, decide how it will look and what it will contain, e.g., flowers, white candles, photos, offerings, incense, bells and/or chimes.
- Attempt to come up with a schedule for making this connection, e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, important anniversaries (of the deceased and the survivor).
- Decide who will occupy this sacred space on a spiritual level, e.g., the recently deceased, other family members who have passed on, special people in ones life or all of the above.
- Think about who might be invited to visit this space or participate in any rituals.
- Create a plan for sharing these activities with others if appropriate (or not sharing them and keeping this private).
- Plan how/with whom to process any thoughts, feelings, information that arises through this connection (e.g., friends, other family members, support groups, counselors, religious/spiritual guides).
For those individuals who have suffered a devastating loss and who are spiritually minded, a relationship with their dead loved ones who can serve as advisors, confidants, sources of comfort and guides can contribute to a greater level of acceptance of the loss. Rather than keep the survivor mired in the past, loved ones are brought into the present.
For some, the development of an active spiritual relationship with the dead may be the one element that keeps grief from becoming any more complicated than it already is.