As the Mental Picture of Your Loved One Fades

My daughter was 45 years old when she died on a February night from the injuries she received in a car crash.  The last time I saw her, she was taking her children to see their dying grandfather, and laughing at something they said.  When she died two days later – before her grandfather – I was stunned.

For months, the image of my daughter, laughing in the sunshine, was clear in my mind.  I saw it again and again.  As time passed, however, the image began to fade.  Sidney Zisook, MD, talks about mental pictures in an Audio-Digest Website article, “Grief, Bereavement, and Depression.”

Mental images of a deceased loved one are attachment images, according to Zisook.  “Humans have mental representations of important people in their lives,” he explains.  These images often appear at stressful times and “do not change quickly in response to death.”  I have many mental images of my daughter, images of her as a baby, walking toddler, Girl Scout, college student, composite engineer, MBA, and loving parent.

Still, the image I see most is the one of her laughing with her children.    According to “Bereavement and Loss,” an article on the Breathing Space Scotland Website, the mental image of a deceased loved one “preoccupies the bereaved.  In some cases, it is as though the person was still present and adds somewhat to the denial of loss.”

Denying loss was impossible for me.  Eight weeks after my daughter and father-in-law died on the same weekend, my brother had a heart attack and died.  Then, in November, my former son-in-law died from the injuries he received in another car crash.  There was no way to deny the deaths of four loved ones within nine months.

You probably have mental images of the deceased and one particular image you see often.  This image may be starting to fade.  At this point in their grief journey, many people enlarge photos of the deceased and frame them.  I haven’t done this.  When I want to see pictures of my daughter I look at photo albums and electronic photos.

M. Katherine Shear, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work, discussed attachment figures in a University of Pittsburgh speech.  According to Shear, attachment figures are people we want to be close to, people who offer support and confidence.  “A death of any attachment figure changes your life,” she said.  “The result of bereavement is intense yearning and longing, preoccupation with thoughts and memories . . .”

Can you do anything positive with the mental images of deceased loved ones?  That is the question I asked.  A visual person and word person, I decided to describe my daughter’s image in words.  The first word is happy and this comforts me.  The second word is family and this comforts me, too.

Every day, I see my daughter’s face in her children, the 17 ½-year-old twins my husband and I are raising.

Fading images of a loved one can be worrisome, but they show you are moving forward with life.  You are thinking more about the present than the past.  Though some images fade, you will always have memories of your loved one and the happy memories and values you shared.  These are the building blocks of your future.

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Harriet, I’m going to be the editor of Open to Hope’s new Art Hope & Healing microsite. Just read your words, “Can you do anything positive with the mental images of deceased loved ones?” – which stopped me in my tracks. That’s our mission!

    But I wanted to talk to you about one specific medium which might interest you both personally and professionally. I am a digital artist that creates transitional objects (photomontages created from repurposing family photographs). The idea is really visualized narrative therapy: a way to transition individuals from their paralyzing complicated grief with a visualization that conjures up “the preferred future”.

    Curiously it is both a process and an outcome. The process is collecting/transcribing memories by the surviving family member or partner, including hoped for plans they might have shared. The outcome is a joyful, life-affirming scenario showing the loved one as they are now surrounded by symbols of their legacy, or literally, showing them in an encouraging role, engaging with the Griever.

    Understandably, it’s best to digest the above with examples. Visit my website (www.artforyoursake.com/healing) when you have a chance, and let me know if you think I’ve answered your question to some degree. All the best, Nancy

    • Good Morning Nancy,

      Thanks for telling me about the new Art Hope and Healing microsite. I have a graduate degree in art and look forward to this new resource. Your digital art is a unique idea and many will benefit from it. In the article I answered my own question and your digital art is another answer. I wish you all the best with the microsite and your artistic endeavors.

      Harriet