Before my daughter died, I thought that grief was something that resolved with time.
I bought into the popular belief about stages of grief and acceptance. I thought that to “get over” grief you had to “let go” of the person you’d lost (whatever that means) and “move on.”
The platitudes: get over it, let go, and move on now sound absurd. Even the idea of acceptance seems impossibly naive. No matter how many years pass, I’ll always feel an echo of the shocked disbelief I experienced during the initial weeks and months after losing Ana.
The idea of letting go of my connection to Ana so I can somehow heal from her death is, quite simply, ridiculous. It implies that I can tuck her memory into a tiny corner of my brain and let it settle there like an old Christmas decoration or child’s toy — collecting dust.
It’s simply not an option. My identity was not separate from hers because she wasn’t finished growing up. I am still connected to her, still reaching for the piece of her that is also a piece of myself.
Letting go (or trying to) causes more pain. I have instead been learning how to integrate Ana’s memory, the manifestation of her being, into my internal life.
The importance of continuing bonds
In his remarkable book, “The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents,” Dr. Dennis Klass coined the term “continuing bonds” to describe the transcendent connection that grieving parents have with their dead children. Klass earned his PhD in the psychology of religion and was a scholar of grief for over 50 years, though he is now retired. He’s been studying parental bereavement since 1979.
Klass attended meetings with a parental bereavement group in the nineties. His experience with the group became his foundation for the book. I’m planning to write a detailed review of Klass’s book in the coming weeks, so I’m reading it again, more than two years after I first read it when I was still in the midst of shock and early grief.
Throughout the book, Klass emphasizes how important it is for grieving parents to maintain their bond with their dead child.
He writes, “The parents often tie the resolution of their grief to the bond with their child.”
How do we do this? The path is not the same for everyone, but there are some commonalities that bereaved parents use to maintain a continuing bond with our child. The pain is itself a link, which is why it can be so hard to let go of the acute agony of early grief.
Objects are also a way to stay connected. I found a ring beside my bed the day after my daughter died. It was her ring, and though her fingers were much slimmer than mine, the ring fit my left ring finger perfectly. I wear the ring every day — even now, two years and eight months after Ana died. It is a soothing and ever-present reminder of Ana.
Aging in a world without my daughter
As the world grows older and I grow older with it, I often wonder what Ana would have looked like, who she would’ve become. It’s the wondering that recalls the familiar pain of early grief.
Would she recognize me now with extra weight on my body and extra grey in my hair? Would she be upset at the changes we’ve made to her room and our house? Could she forgive me for the sin of moving forward without her? Can I forgive myself?
It’s during these moments of doubt, guilt and fresh grief that I inevitably think, “How can this have happened? How can I buy new curtains or paint the living room when she’s not here to see these changes?”
Sometimes I’ll cry , though not the shuddering, wretched sobs I cried in those early months of grief. My tears are much gentler now, but they are sudden. I will catch a glimpse of my aging face in the bathroom mirror or hear my younger daughter say something the exact same way Ana once said it, and the lump will form in my throat, the tears will instantly appear. It’s these moments — the moments where time is so obviously moving forward while Ana remains 15 years old forever — that have the power to undo me.
But, time works both ways. As the months without Ana turn into years, I’m learning to honor these moments of sudden grief rather than avoid them. I do that by lighting a candle and saying Ana’s name or sitting quietly and watching the birds at my feeders. I try to imagine Ana as an actual presence sitting with me, letting me know it’s okay to keep living and changing. “I’m glad you bought new curtains, Mom” I visualize her saying, “I hated the old ones!”
Moving forward means staying connected
In grief, moving forward is not the same as moving on. This is true for bereaved parents, but I suspect it’s also true for anyone who has lost someone extremely dear to them. It is absolutely possible to move forward and still maintain the connection to the person we’ve lost. There are, after all, some losses you can never get over.
I still wear Ana’s ring every day, but I’ve begun to anticipate a time when I won’t need a physical object to maintain my bond with her. I don’t feel impatient about getting to this point. I recognize now that my bond with Ana — and my grief — are aging with me. This realization is itself a kind of solace. It suggests that even if my house burns to the ground, taking every object that Ana once loved with it, my connection to her would remain.
As time goes on, I’ve begun to internalize my connection to Ana’s physical self. Since she no longer has a physical body, this is the only way I can maintain my bond with her. She’s becoming part of me in a way that’s reassuring. My grief, and my connection to Ana, are aging with me.
Time has made it clear that letting go of Ana’s memory won’t resolve my grief. It’s holding on — to her memory and my connection with her — that will enable me to move forward.