Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Why do I feel guilty when I laugh or have fun, knowing my daughter isn’t here, and I shouldn’t be having fun?
There is an unwritten code in our culture–one that is an explicit prescription in many world cultures–that presumes that we honor the dead when we wear our grief like a dark shroud, visibly signaling to others our pain and longing and separating us from the world of the living, especially on more joyful occasions. And of course this can correspond to our own felt need to maintain our bond with our loved ones, in which our preoccupation with our past relationship to them and with the pain of their absence can bring an ironic sense of comfort and connection. Sometimes it might even seem that our grief is the bridge that links us to them most closely, and that to relinquish our grief, even for a time, feels like abandoning or betraying the loved one. In this light, it is hardly surprising that grief can be prolonged and complicated, as a part of us actively resists reaching out to find happiness and meaning in the life we now have in the wake of loss.
But as the writer C. S. Lewis once remarked in his memoir of his own bereavement, “It was when I grieved [my wife] least that I remembered her best.” That is, allowing ourselves to once again embrace life in its full emotional range can carry the surprising dividend of gaining fuller access to the happy memories of times with our loved one, the special moments, the humor, the pride, the shared joy–all of which can be obscured or muted by the shroud of grief. In many ways we might understand the fuller process of grieving as finding not a way of letting go of our loved one, but of discovering how to hold on in a new and sustainable way to all that they meant and continue to mean to us… and that includes inviting them into our ongoing lives, as well as joining them in the past in the form of memories. If we do this, it makes sense to recreate a life that is charged with both purpose and pleasure, as well as tinged with grief, rather than recruiting them merely as witnesses to our unending despair.