Guidelines for Going On After the Loss of a Loved One
The loss of our loved ones changes us forever. “You don’t think you’ll live past it,” is how author Barbara Kingsolver so eloquently explains it, adding, “and you don’t, really. The person you were is gone.”
So how do we go on after losing someone we love? How do we keep from letting our despair become the center of our lives? Combining everything I’ve learned from the loss of my daughter, Jenna, and from the families I’ve had the privilege of working with, I created The Six Honorings. Each of the honorings is a guidepost for surviving the death of a loved one, designed to help us honor them, heal our broken hearts, fight our way back into the stream of our own lives, and summon the strength to go on.
My heart goes out to the 76,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID-19 in the past 60 days and their families, friends, neighbors, co-workers and communities. To them and all those who will join them in the hours, days, months and years to come, I dedicate this roadmap for healing.
The First Honoring: Your Survival
The first way in which we honor those we’ve lost is to survive their deaths. We do this by acknowledging that grieving is as natural and normal as bleeding when we’re cut, and giving ourselves permission to feel turned completely upside down and inside out. Allowing feelings like sorrow, fear, anger, and guilt to surface, rather than hiding, denying, or repressing them, allows us to begin addressing them in a constructive manner. And, it clears the air for beginning to move forward. Showing ourselves understanding, kindness, patience, forgiveness, and self-compassion, rather than criticism, judgment, and blame; surrounding ourselves with loving, supportive people; and keeping the individuals and situations that drain us at a distance, we slowly begin to summon the courage, clarity, strength, and faith to go on. One breath at a time, broken heart and all, we survive.
The Second Honoring: Do Something Good in Their Names
To honor your loved ones in this way, you may choose to do something as simple and elegant as lighting a candle or planting a tree, or as elaborate as championing a cause. Families who lose loved ones to alcoholism, addiction, depression, or cancer often speak out and do whatever they can to prevent other families from having to suffer these kinds of losses. Doing good in the name of the people you’ve lost and turning a tragedy into an opportunity to make the world a better, safer place, is a good and noble thing.
The Third Honoring: Cultivate a Spiritual Relationship with Your Loved Ones
As we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we aren’t going to see or hear our loved ones again — at least, not in the way we always did — what are we supposed to do? We can try to make ourselves stop loving them so we don’t have to feel the pain of missing them, or do the next best thing and find ways to express the love that never dies. Continuing to express our love for them — and feeling their love for us — without 100 percent certainty about the true nature of death is an act of faith.
In my own case, I’ve chosen to cultivate a spiritual relationship with my deceased daughter, Jenna, by continually telling her how much I love and miss her . . . and allowing myself to feel her love. Without 100 percent certainty that there is a spiritual realm in which this is possible, I bet my faith and do it anyway. I also do so with my mom, who passed several years ago. Randomly asking, “How’s my favorite mother today?” the way I used to do every morning on the phone, is my way of telling my mom that I love and miss her. Love lives on as we learn to give and receive it in a spiritual way.
The Fourth Honoring: Embody an Element of Their Spirit
Whether it’s our loved ones’ love, kindness, sense of humor, enthusiasm, loyalty, or even irreverence, choose a beautiful, eternal aspect of their spirit and cultivate it in yourself. “I’m going to learn how to be a kinder person,” we may say to ourselves, remembering the light our loved one brought into people’s lives by being as kind as they were. We aspire to become the better version of ourselves by embodying that special quality.
The Fifth Honoring: Write New Chapters of Life
This honoring is perhaps the most challenging: to the best of our ability, we summon newfound strength and courage to go on with our lives, writing new chapters and making new memories. Determined to live out the rest of our lives as expressions of our love, rather than our despair, we resist entering the “Torture Chamber of Guilt,” where we obsess over what could have or should have been. Rather than beating ourselves up or blaming ourselves for what we did or did not do, we search for ways to make peace with what happened; celebrate the blessing of having had our loved ones in our lives; and acknowledge the ways in which we were good sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, or friends. We give ourselves the permission and encouragement to write new and wonderful chapters of life. By living out our own lives and making the most of each day (as they would have wished), we honor them.
The Sixth Honoring: Taking the High Road
Too many families are torn apart in the rawness of grief. Overcome with sorrow and broken-heartedness, we sometimes say and do things that hurt our other family members. When this began to happen after 9/11, I created a program called “Take the High Road.” Family members agreed to treat one another with patience, kindness, compassion, respect, humility, understanding and forgiveness as an expression of their love for those who’d died. Rather than allowing anger, despair, guilt, frustration, jealousy, blame, and helplessness to shatter and destroy their families, they took some deep breaths, stepped back, cooled down, restrained themselves and chose instead to take the high road.
Given the fact that none of us — or our families — are perfect, and each of us grieves in our own way, there will always be the temptation to deal with our differences by taking the low road (i.e. impatience, resentment, criticism, condemnation and blame). Shows of respect forgiveness, understanding, compassion, and humility in times of great sorrow are proof that taking the high road is always the smartest and best path forward. It’s also how our loved one would want each of us and the family to go on.
Please feel free to add to this list of honorings as you discover other guideposts that promote love, healing, and integrity on your grief journey.