The Switch Stays On: Attachment After a Loss

light switch

How we start out in life has consequences for the rest of our lives. The connections we make, or don’t make, to whoever parents us, sets the stage for all our future relationships. The more our parents are dependable, nurturing and sensitive to our needs, the more we are set up to be part of dependable, nurturing and sensitive relationships throughout life. If our parenting is erratic, lacking in nurture, or insensitive to our needs, our future relationships can be filled with anxiety, expecting or fearing to be let down again, or we may avoid closeness in relationships as we mistrust the dependability of others. While no one way of looking at people can explain everything about us, as each of us is complicated with a great variety of influences, it seems fair to say that how we attach, or don’t attach, in our early relationships can have ripple effects throughout our lives.

I recently heard a speaker, Dr. Guy Diamond, talk about this attachment way of looking at ourselves and our relationships. He talked about how we can be so attached, so wired, to our parents that even when we are living independently, grown and out of the home, we can feel a deep need to connect to them, especially in times of change or when we feel vulnerable. When we are sick, we want the tender care a sick child receives (or should receive). When we have important things happen, good or bad, we want to call and tell our parents. When we have big decisions to make, we feel the need to talk it over with mom or dad or both. The speaker said that “the switch stays on” and we feel the pull of attachment to our parents even if they have died and are no longer physically here with us. Even after death, the switch stays on.

How true this is and not just for children toward their parents. For parents whose children have died, the switch stays on. For lovers, spouses and partners who are now alone. For bereaved brothers, sisters, and best of friends. We get connected and make deep attachments. Our lives are wired together in ways that cannot be severed. Even when a part of us has been cut off, amputated, it still feels like it’s there, and we yearn for it.

Because the switch never turns off, longing has been found to be one of the most common feelings experienced by grieving people. We long for many things—the sound of a voice, the sight of a smile, the feel of a hand in ours or a body next to us. In the absence of these things and persons, we seek out substitutes in relationships to other people and things, yet the longing doesn’t ever completely go away, because…you know…the switch stays on.

There are some things in life that we don’t have to live with and accept because we can change them. It is in our nature to resist things which cause us pain and to fight to eliminate the source of the pain, and that’s a generally a good thing. We make human errors when we give up too soon, give in to fatalism and say, “well, what can you do” when there are things we can do. We sometimes settle for too little in life when it could be better. This switch stuck in the “on” position, however, is not one of those things which we can change by will or strength of effort.

Because we are wired this way, our challenge is to learn to live with it instead of trying over and over to turn it off. Not going to happen, can’t be done. We are connected, and what a terrible loss it would be if the switch were actually turned off—if the feelings of connection and presence left behind were lost, too. It would be too much darkness. Unnecessary darkness as our grief is dark enough already, and we need the light provided by those stubborn “on” switches, small but important comfort like night-lights for a small child when all the other light has gone away.

Thank goodness the switch is always on to remind us that what we had and feels totally lost still exists in our memories and hearts. It assures us that we will always be connected by an attachment which is strong enough to survive even when it feels like all the power has gone out. Even then, the switch stays on.

 

Greg Adams

Program Coordinator

Center for Good Mourning

Arkansas Children’s Hospital

goodmourning@archildrens.org

 

Greg Adams

More Articles Written by Greg

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two young adult children—a son in college and a daughter working in-between college and graduate school. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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  • pat collins says:

    I love the idea of the “switch stays on” My husband and I have been married 60 years last October. I was 14 and he was 20 when we married. People said it won’t last. It did until alzheimers rased it’s ugly head. He passed away Dec. 27, 2016. But the switch is still on I feel him in most every thing I do. Sometimes it is almost like he is trying to help me make it on my own. I hope and pray that switch never goes off . I am 75 now a widow after after 60 years. I live in a very small apt. in a senior community.I have only one daughter close to me and 2 others that lives away from here.We had one son die of cancer at 21. I have now 8 grandchildren 15 great and one great great on the way. Most of my family lives in another state. That connection I have to my one and only helps me feel like I will make it until my other part of me and myself is together again. Thank you for helping me understand this feeling I have, this connection.

  • Kaufman Carole says:

    i wrote to you in mid june 2017

    i guess i thought there would be a response to me
    it was about the death of my infant son-35 yrs. ago in 1982
    maybe you never received it?

  • Kathy says:

    Wow, goosebumps. I recently lost my young grandson. The night he died, our patio lights (led strip) came on partially, even though we had turned them off. My husband told me it’s called bleed through, and it sometimes happens with certain types of switches. I was sure it was Traeger.After several days, I went out on the patio & talked to him, told him it was time to go, and we would all join him later. That was the last night I saw the lights on. Still convinced it was him. He kept the light on.

    • Greg Adams says:

      Thank you for sharing your powerful story about your grandson. All the best to you and your family in your grieving and living in the days ahead.