Recently I was speaking with a couple whose adult son died two months ago of a drug overdose. These parents adored him and knew he was dealing with emotional challenges. They did what they could to let him know he was loved and they were with him come what may. They attempted to get him help. He was surrounded by a multi-generational family who thought the world of him.
As we processed their experience and they openly shared their grief, they said something that in all my years as a therapist, I had not considered. They both acknowledged that as we approached the threshold between summer and autumn, they were experiencing a heightened sense of loss.
They had the thought, “Nothing should change,” as if they wanted their memories of their son to be frozen in time. That makes a great deal of sense. With the seasonal shift, the loss became more palpable. The last time they saw him alive, it was the beginning of summer. It was inconceivable that they would be grieving what many describe as the hardest one; that of a child.
For many, autumn is a time that brings with it return to school. Some parents who have lost a child at whatever age, are likely to remember first-day-of-school photos and packing the way cool new lunch box. For some, it is a reminder of the cycles of life as the leaves come swirling from tree branch perches. Chilly winds echo the coldness they might feel when thinking that this person is no longer here to see and touch. As much as we may wish to, we can’t reanimate him or her any more than we can glue the leaf back on the tree.
It is conventional wisdom that around holidays, birthdays and the anniversary of the death of a loved one that emotions run high. We notice the empty seat at the table and imagine it occupied by that person. We hear their laughter in the air and the quirks that made them unique. We smell a whiff of perfume or cologne and look around to see if they are behind us. A song comes on the radio and we smile in recollection of them belting it out with a microphone made from a hairbrush.
To Everything There Is a Season
The biblical verse from Ecclesiastes speaks poignantly about the need to be aware of the turning of the seasons.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
In the Jewish tradition, a year’s time is marked for concentrated bereavement. It doesn’t mean that people cease sadness or awareness of the loss afterward. On the anniversary of the death each year, a Yahrzeit candle is lit and the prayer called Kaddish is recited.
Grief changes us. We are no longer the same people we were prior to the death. How we perceived life has shifted dramatically and we are unable to return to “normal” functioning. There is no statute of limitations on grief and we don’t “get over it”; we just get on with it and create a new normal. In a recent discussion with a colleague, she shared that someone she knew had allowed a loved one’s room to become a shrine, with nothing untouched since the person had died. While it is understandable to want to live as if the deceased is still with us in body, the reality is that they are not. For some, changing the room would mean admitting that death has indeed occurred.
An observation over that years is that people who have some kind of spiritual practice, if not a formal religious orientation, seem to fare better than those who claim not to.
In a 2002 study it was determined, “If our results were replicated, this would show that the absence of spiritual belief is a risk factor for delayed or complicated grief. It has been thought that sensitive discussions between palliative care staff and relatives before a death have a positive impact on subsequent bereavement.”
How Can We Weather the Winds of Change?
- Keep a belonging of the loved one as a talisman. The mother of three daughters cut swatches of fabric from Hawaiian shirts that their father wore. A musician tied a piece of his mother’s nightgown to the fretboard of his guitar. When my mother died, hospice volunteers made teddy bears from her clothing and gave them to my sister, a neighbor who was a surrogate daughter, and me.
- Plant a tree in their honor.
- Create a scholarship fund in their name.
- Engage in activities that they enjoyed. Imagine them with you.
- Speak to them in your mind.
- Write them letters.
- Indulge in their favorite food. The father of the young man spoken of earlier in the article loved a particular brand of frozen pizza. They keep some in the freezer. Sometimes he enjoys one with his young nephews and talk about the departed.
- Keep the person’s memory alive by sharing humorous or poignant stories.
- Speak their name aloud.
- Design “change of season” rituals to honor them.
- Recognize that the deeper the love, the deeper the pain.