Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I am a therapist who is seeing a woman who lives alone and without children, for complicated grief, and one of the people for whom she is grieving is her husband. They were married 4 years before he died 19 years ago, Every year on their anniversary, she has a very complicated ritual to celebrate which includes certain flowers, candles, music, his ashes, champagne and pictures. It takes her a week to prepare for this. She says this doesn’t hurt anyone and she sees no reason to stop it. She has been doing this longer than they were married. I’m wondering how she can move past this need and would appreciate any suggestions to help her. By the way, she has been successful in moving through her grief for several other family members since working with me, and doesn’t have such angst over their deaths, which were decades ago.
Yours is a good question, and one that likely arises in some form for many therapists who are confronted with long-term expressions of grief that persist years, or in this case, decades, following the death. Especially in modern Western cultures that place a premium on efficiently “moving on” and reconnecting with life, such behavior can seem puzzling at best and pathological at worst. So let me share a few thoughts that I hope will be helpful.
First, it can be useful to recognize that on the scale of world history and across contemporary cultures, our normative American response to death is among the least ritualized and extended. Much more typically, people in many times and cultures maintain, rather than relinquish, sentimental and ritualistic bonds with the dead, whether through annual prayers and rites associated with many world religions, or through folk practices like the Mexican El Dia de los Muertos, Japanese obon festivals, or Chinese qingming celebrations, all of which symbolically conjure connections or conversations with the deceased or honor their role as ancestors. Although the U.S. has its own Memorial Day, this is far less associated with a family rituals commemorating their dead, and more a public acknowledgement of those who died in the armed forces. For most Americans over the past century, therefore, regular rituals to honor or remember the dead have eroded or been tacitly discouraged.
But it was not always so, and in fact until the advent of World War I, whose enormous losses overwhelmed Europe’s capacity to recognize individual deaths, a broadly “Victorian” sentiment of maintaining ritual bonds with the deceased was the norm in the western world, rather than an aberration. Viewed through this lens, it may be our contemporary American customs that are out of sync with a natural human impulse to periodically revisit the dead, honor them, and reaffirm our sense of attachment and appreciation over time… perhaps a lifetime, or in Asian variations, across successive generations.
While this does not resolve the question of whether your client’s behaviors are deleterious to her adaptation to her husband’s death or not, this does suggest that such rituals of reconnection are not necessarily unhealthy, and indeed may be an adaptive and appreciative expression of love. The crucial question would be whether your client wears her grief in a way that hampers her functioning in practical ways, as in being unable to maintain her home or her health, or that erodes the quality of her work or relationships to others. Is it associated with a morose, ruminative preoccupation with the death, and a sense that life is devoid of purpose or meaning in her husband’s absence? Or is she managing pretty well for her age, maintaining friendships and home, in a way that permits her to experience pleasure or even joy to balance life’s inherent disappointments? Answers to questions like these would help determine whether her grief rituals are serving her well or poorly, and whether they are something to preserve or transform.
If indeed your client seems to be living a tragically constricted life characterized by substantial deterioration in social, occupational or relational functioning, and if this seems to be worsened by her creative rituals of remembrance, then it can be both wiser and more feasible to extend those rituals in healing directions than to abandon them altogether. How, the two of you might consider, could she tip a celebratory glass to their loving past, but also look to carry her husband in some fashion into a fulfilling future? What kind of life would he want to accompany her on in spirit? What would be one or two actions he would be proud to see her take, or goals to which he would be proud to see her devote herself? Is there a way that she can extend his legacy in some fashion into the future, rather than only burying it in the past? Like an earnest New Year’s resolution made as the calendar page turns to a fresh one, how might she take inspiration from the past to embrace life anew, as a dedicated act that honors, rather than abandons the man she loves? In this way, perhaps the lighting of the candles will also light the way to rituals of renewal, as well as those of remembrance.