The days, months and years following the death of a loved one are an interesting experience. We all live such experiences in our own unique ways. Some live those years well, while others struggle to ever thrive again. Certainly, as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist, I find that many of my clients see me for support around bereavement and the impact of the loss of a loved one, on their lives.
I believe that when we lose a loved one, we are changed by that loss. In some ways, the person we were dies along with the loved one we have lost; for the loss changes us. In some way, we are different after each loss. The person we become is a new version of who we had been before. The life of our loved one influences who we are and so the death of our loved one influences who we go on to be.
This idea suggests that change is, therefore, an inevitable part of losing a loved one. The key is to find a way to think of each loss as the ‘passing on of the baton’; meaning to find the ‘gift’ within each loss. Your loved one has left you with a gift. The key is to recognise that and to use that gift as a part of your new life after loss.
What do I mean by ‘gift’? Well, for example, when you think of the person you have lost, you may find yourself smiling at a treasured memory. That smile is a gift. You may be feeling troubled by something and, when you think of your lost loved one, you may get a sense of the advice they would have given you. That sense of knowing is a gift. You may have been inspired by the actions of your departed loved one and you may choose to live better, or do better things, as a result. Their inspiration is a gift. Your departed loved one may have been a kind person, or someone who did things for the benefit of others. You may reflect on this and become a kinder person yourself. Their humanity is a gift. Your loved one, now gone, may have been a wealth of knowledge on a particular subject, or on many things. That knowledge may have been shared with you during their life. That knowledge is a gift. Your lost loved one may have been funny, the joker of the group, the one who made you chuckle time and again. When you need to, you can remember their humour and laugh. Their laughter is a gift and so on…
You become the custodian of the parts of your loved one that you choose to carry on into your own life. Your receive these gifts and they will become part of the new version of you, that you become through the loss of your loved one. You will be changed. You will find that there is a continuing bond between you and the person who has passed away. In this way, your loved one is ever with you. You will see the world through your own eyes and you will see the world through theirs. You will be able to recognise the opportunity to experience new things in your life, that your loved one has not been able to experience and so you may value each experience more than ever before. You will be enriched, as a result.
Looking at loss in this way, offers another opportunity. What ‘gifts’ would you like to one day leave your own loved ones, when your time comes to pass on? In this context, the expression ‘to pass on’ is enriched with new meaning. This is about passing on something of value to those you love; aspects of yourself that you can share with those close to you.
What method/s would you choose to pass on your values, your knowledge, your ideas and your memories? Some people like to write journals that can be left with their loved ones. Some people like to write letters or e-mails that help express thoughts, feelings, knowledge, experiences and ideas. Indeed, I have many treasured letters from loved ones no longer here and these offer a wealth of love, insight and shared experience. I wonder, in our age of electronic communication, how much of such treasures will there be to hold onto, for electronic communication is so often not saved or printed. Some people like to leave art, gardens, music, stories and poetry. There are so many ways in which to impart your life experience to those you hold dear.
The process of mourning our departed loved ones can be painful or even distressing. When we mourn those we have lost, in my experience, we tend to seek something to hold onto; we are comforted by the sense of still being able to connect with our lost loved one. Having something that enables us to connect, can help us to move into the beginning of forming the continuing bond; that sense of still relating to the person who is now gone, the ability to hold something of them present in our lives as we move forward without them. I believe that recognising the ‘gift’ that we have been left with and by understanding we change and we incorporate the most treasured aspects of our loved one into who we become from that point, enables us to go on and function well through mourning and then through the rest of life. We carry that person with us, always and we are enriched by the gift they have left us with.
When I work with people who are, themselves, soon to die, I ask them to think about what they would like to leave behind. Alongside the idea of leaving letters, journals, various forms of created self-expression such as poetry, music, stories, memoirs, I ask the person to consider connecting with the Earth; our world, our planet, the nature of things and the place to which our bodies may be returned. Dying is also a physical process and so it can be healthy to think of our physical world, without us. Many of my clients say they would like to leave a tree.
A tree, they tell me, represents the roots that connect with the Earth that we are part of. The tree itself represents human growth, the branches of life; family, friends and the changing of the seasons.
How beautiful to see life and death in this way. Passing on means the leaving of the gifts that people will remember us through, when we are gone. That a tree represents so much about our lives, the seasons of our lives, our connection to the Earth and the branches of our families and friends.
To know that our loved ones will be in a continued bond with us when we are gone, through the gifts of words, experiences and memories we leave behind and that those treasures will be passed on, like a baton, to others.
Perhaps we are all beautiful trees.