Maintaining a Healthy, Healing Relationship after Death

Ken sat on the couch across from me, smiled and exclaimed, “I stopped it! The uncontrollable crying. I stopped it!”

Just the week prior, I had been at a loss as the 59-year-old self-avowed “Momma’s boy” cried with an overpowering despair. He had been completely inconsolable over the death of his 82-year-old mother.

As a fledgling bereavement counselor, I had walked away from his initial session wondering if I could ever be able to help Ken. His inability to see any reason for joy and hope had silenced me for almost the entire hour

For all of Ken’s life prior to his mother’s death, each had been all the other had. A successful businessman, Ken had never married and neither had his mother. Failing health had forced her to move in with her son, and he had been her primary caregiver for the last five years before her death. Ken’s despondency had been unlike many of the other hospice family members I had counseled. Most mourning adult children had been accepting of their elderly parent’s death. Ken refused to accept the new reality.

In the first session, Ken had expressed absolute despair and anger that every time he thought he was making progress in his grief, the memories of his mother would intrude. With those memories came a bleak sadness that caused him to surrender to sadness and “cry like a baby.”

Today, Ken was a different man. Instead of despair, a sense of joy surrounded him. He excitedly shared that after several unpleasant crying spells, he had come to a surprising conclusion. “I always enjoyed visiting with mother because I Iove her,” he explained.

With tears streaming down his smiling face, Ken said he realized his grief caused by his love for his mother was now the only connection that he still had with her. “The tears…the grief are my love for my mother,” he beamed. “So now when the memories and gloom come, I say, ‘Hello, Mother. It’s good to see you again.’ Then we have a good visit.”

Ken was ecstatic and I was stunned. This was a turning point in his early grief. Ken’s insight that grief is love was a monumental jump for him toward healing from the emotional trauma of loss. The realization did not stop Ken from mourning or missing his mother. The new insight powerfully changed how he viewed his grief, how he processed it and how he expressed it. Now he saw his grief outbursts as positive, healthy events and not something to be feared and avoided.

Knowing that his grief was a connection to his mother produced by his love caused Ken’s grief to be changed in two significant ways. First, the realization stopped Ken’s struggle against experiencing his grief in a meaningful and healing way. Now he could embrace his mother’s once intrusive visits into his thoughts. Second, Ken maintained his love for his mother and their relationship despite her death. Although Ken had lost the physical presence of his mother in the relationship, he was still connected to her emotionally and spiritually.

Ken’s insight that grief is love and that relationships do not end with death was also an eye opening moment for me as a bereavement specialist. I had learned that grief is simply another expression of the love or emotional investment toward the one who has died. Grief is not just the result of love and loss. Grief is the continued love for the person who died combined with the mourner’s yearning to be in the loved one’s presence just one more time.

Death does not kill relationships. However Death does change relationships. Death removes the physical presence of our loved one from the relationship bond, but the spiritual and emotional attachments to the loved one remain and can be nurtured.

The real struggle of grief comes from a natural human response to protest the new reality after death. The thought that one moment a loved one is there and the next minute gone is a harsh, painful concept. Mourners know the consequences of death, but they do not want to feel forced to live with this distressing truth.

Death and “giving up” our loved one is not our wish and this is not the way that we feel life should be. Therefore, we as protesting mourners create a longer, harder struggle for ourselves. We do not wish to stop loving the one who has died, and we do not wish to leave the person in our past. So we rail against reality and moving toward healing.

Knowing grief is the continued expression of love lets us understand that we do not have to “give up” or “let go” from the one who died. We can realize that we are not forced to forget or leave the person in our past. We live with the comforting thought that we carry loved ones into our future. Knowing grief is love is an empowering insight which does not eliminate the struggle of grief, but it can make the intense battle against the loss shorter and less difficult.

Larry Barber 2012

Larry Barber

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Larry Barber knows grief all too well. In May 1993 his wife Cindy and two year old daughter Katie died from injuries suffered in a traffic accident in Arlington, Texas. As a widowed single parent he raised two surviving children, nine year old Sarah and 12 year old Christian. Early in his grief walk Barber cried out to send people and knowledge into his life that would help him and his children through his grief journey. In return he has promised that he would gladly share what help he recieves with other mourners. Since that promise, Barber has accepted a grief support ministry that has reached out to thousands who struggle after the death of a loved one. Barber is a minister, a licensed professional counselor, and certified in Thanatology (the specialized study of death, dying and bereavement) through the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). He served six years as a hospice bereavement coordinator; twelve years as a grief support group facilitator in Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington TX; and four years as the director of counseling and grief support for ChristianWorks for Children in Dallas TX. Barber conducts grief seminars, in-services and church presentations. Committed to sharing grief insights shared with him by fellow mourners, he is tireless in efforts to comfort and equip those in grief.

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  • Miriam says:

    This is a great post. I lost my mom 8 months ago. I am 21, and she was my sole parent, provider, and best friend. I would say given the circumstances, my healing process has been good. I am now able to wake up daily with some sort of hope, and it is increasing daily. However, lately I have found myself bursting into uncontrollable crying fits.. And at first I tried to stop them, supress them. However, I read something from a book on grief that made me realize that my tears represent my love for my mom. And this post takes it step higher when the author says “So now when the memories and gloom come, I say, ‘Hello, Mother. It’s good to see you again.’ Then we have a good visit.” I never thought of the crying spells as also “visits” from my mom. But now as I think of it, the spells are a sort of connection to her, and so to think of them as visits brings in a positive energy. I always feel better after I cry for her, maybe because I have connected with her. So thank you Larry for your post, I am looking forward to my next visit with my mom..

  • LaToya Smith says:

    Im a 28year old woman im in a relationship with a 34year old man who lost his mother about 15months ago
    it has been so hard to maintain a healthy relationship i feel like ive became his personal punching bag i understand he his hurting but i cant help to question is all grife if we get into a fight about the trash can he will say” my mother just died, why or you asking me about the trash”