Susan of Texas asks: My son died in a car accident, and I find comfort from holding a piece of glass from my son’s demolished car. My friend thinks this is strange. Is she right, or do other people do what I do?
Dr. Bob Neimeyer responds: It sounds like your friend is not a bereaved parent. Many people find solace in maintaining contact with their loved one through cherished “linking objects,” whether these are a child’s favorite toy, a husband’s sweater, or in this case, a piece of broken glass.
At the core of grief is the urge to restore a sense of loving attachment that was shattered, or at least challenged by the loss. In your case, the broken shard may have special meaning, not only linking you to your son, but also symbolizing, in some sense, the fracturing of the world you knew with the tragic impact of his death. Many years ago when I was an adolescent, I was in a serious car accident in which my car was totaled. When I was released from the hospital, I went to the junkyard to see the car-an emotional experience for me, as you can imagine-and took away the car’s ashtray, as the one part of the car I could easily remove. That seemingly insignificant memento reminded me of a car I had loved-my first-as well as anchoring the memory of a difficult chapter in my life as a young person. I am sure I still have that ashtray somewhere in my attic.
From what we are learning about continuing bonds, it seems that the main question is how we can not only hold onto reminders of what was, but also reach forward to what might yet be.
Our lives will never be the same after such a tragic loss as yours, but we can find purpose nonetheless, often in a way that extends the presence of our loved one in the world by living in a way that he or she would value and appreciate, but including them in our thoughts and conversations, and in general giving them a continued existence in a life of our own that reaches for fullness and meaning. As we do so, we may find it easier to keep them with us in our hearts, in the back of our minds, and in our lives with others, and as we do so we may find that positive emotions of love and joy begin to leaven the grief, and make it more bearable. Across time, the role of our concrete linking objects may change, and represent cherished mementos, but no longer serve as the major avenue toward contacting our loved one’s memory. I wish you well on this long journey.
Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD
Author, Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping