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Staying connected with those we’ve lost

December, 2009

When we lose a loved one, the pain of loss is accompanied by a feeling of disconnection: “I will never see him again. I won’t be able to talk to him, tell him about my day, share news with him.”

However, it is not only possible but healthy and normal to maintain a sense of connection with those we love, even after the loved one has died. Close bonds, especially those forged and enriched over many years of shared experiences, are altered by death, but not necessarily severed. I’m not talking about ghosts, spirits or any specific religious beliefs, but rather about the reality that loving human relationships are enduring and continuous.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to a friend whose sister had died after a long illness. She was grieving this loss and commented that the most painful part was that she could no longer pick up the phone and talk to her sister. I commented that, although this was true, she could certainly write letters to her sister and maintain her connection that way. (I happened to know that this woman enjoys writing and is accustomed to sharing events, thoughts and feelings through writing.) She was initially stunned by the suggestion: many people would regard writing letters to a deceased person as “crazy.” She quickly warmed to the idea and has found both comfort and value in “staying connected” this way. It may well be that being encouraged to do this by a friend who happens to be a psychiatrist made it easier to see this as perfectly reasonable behaviour: if the psychiatrist doesn’t think it’s a sign of mental illness to remain in touch with my sister this way, I guess it is ok.

Not everyone is a writer, but everyone can maintain these important bonds. Certainly, death changes our relationships with our lost loved ones, profoundly and, at least within our usual understanding of day-to-day life in this world, permanently. However, we don’t stop loving a person just because he or she has died. Similarly, we don’t stop feeling connected with our loved ones. We can respect both the need to stay connected and the reality of enduring bonds, altered but not severed by death.

Michael Eleff is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba.



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