Excerpt from The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love


Death ends a life, not a relationship.
          - Morrie Schwartz

As a teacher, speaker, and author I've listened to countless grieving persons in the last twenty-five years. Most of what I know about grieving I've learned from their stories. I've never spoken to anyone who mourns for someone they love who does not want to continue loving them in some way. Not knowing how to continue to love brings great pain and anguish.

Recently a man came up to me at a conference to say, "I want you to know how much I hated you years ago." I'd never been approached quite like that before by someone with gentle eyes. He seemed as eager to explain as I was to hear what he had to say.

He said he was in an audience seven years earlier when I spoke about what it is like after someone we love dies. He said it was as if I was looking directly into his raw grief over his daughter. He remembered my talking of how we naturally want someone we love to be with us. How we fear that if we stop wanting their return when they die, we will stop loving them. Then he said, "There I was wanting my daughter back more than anything. And you put your finger on my deepest fear."

He recalled how I said that the worst agony of intense grief comes when we realize that the return we want more than anything is the one thing we cannot have. "I was in the darkest place I'd ever been in my life. And you told me that the only light I could imagine was one I could never see. I felt so desperate I wanted to scream and rush you at the front of the room."

I asked him why he hadn't. He began, "Deep down, I realized you were right. I hurt so terribly because I wanted what could not be. But I still wanted it. Your words brought me face-to-face with the futility of staying where I was in my grief. Thank God you didn't stop talking."

He recalled other things I said: Grieving persons who want their loved ones back need to look for some other way to love them while they are apart. Desperate longing prevents their finding that different way of loving. Letting go of having them with us in the flesh is painful and necessary. But it is not the same as completely letting go. We still hold the gifts they gave us, the values and meanings we found in their lives. We can love them as we cherish their memories and treasure their legacies in our practical lives, souls, and spirits. He said, "Through my hurt and anger I began to see how I would always be different because I had those precious years with my daughter."

I thanked him for approaching me and asked how he was doing currently. He said, "Things are going well with my wife and son. I'm afraid I got lost in my grief for a while, and I'm glad they waited for me. I still miss my daughter, and I always will. But I miss her in a different way. It's not the gut-wrenching longing it was. I've found other ways to keep her in my life. It's not like I lost all of her. Still, every once in a while, like right now, I wish I could just see or hold her again." He did not elaborate about how he keeps her in his life. But I could see the gratitude and love in his peaceful eyes.

At another recent conference, I spoke to a large audience about how lasting love for those who die is both possible and desirable. A woman caught my arm as we were all leaving the session, "I want you to know that I never allowed myself to grieve my mother's death. I didn't want to let go. Now I'm going to let myself grieve." Before I could respond, she withdrew into the crowd.

Behind her tears I saw relief and gratitude in her face. She seemed released from a painful refusal to grieve. It was as if she had believed that if she grieved, she would have to let go of her mother, to stop loving her. That was the last thing she wanted to do. Her tears expressed the agony of a paralyzing refusal, relief from that agony, and the beginning of grieving itself.

It didn't matter whether she was brought to believe that grieving requires complete letting go by a counselor or therapist, through her own professional training, or by well-meaning family or friends. The belief is widely held. I have always thought it is profoundly mistaken. What mattered was that she now saw how the belief had misled her and cost her dearly. She broke free from it. And she seemed grateful to realize that grieving can lead instead to lasting love.

The next day she approached me again in a crowd, "I don't think I made myself clear yesterday. My mother died twelve years ago." She checked my eyes to see if her words registered. She managed a reassured smile through more tears and disappeared again.

Her words helped me see more clearly the extent of her hurt. She had chosen to dwell for years in the pain of missing her mother rather than to endure the unacceptable pain of completely letting go. Her refusal to grieve her mother's death had kept her distant from the lasting love she might have found in those dark years. She seemed eager to open her heart again to her mother's goodness. She saw room in it to carry both the pain of missing her mother and continuing love for her.

I couldn't help wondering what life had been like for her and those who loved her through those twelve years as she stifled her grief. Did she have a husband and family? Had she been distant and withdrawn from them? How might her agony have affected her own children? I shuddered at the thought of the possible costs of her belief about grieving and letting go.

I shuddered, too, when I thought that hers is only one story among thousands, perhaps millions, of those whose lives have been changed for the worse by the belief that grieving requires that we let go of those we love. Some, like her, swallow their grief, linger in the pain of missing those they love, and never experience the consoling benefits of lasting love. Equally tragically, many others struggle to sever, forget, or ignore meaningful ties to those they love for the sake of grieving "properly" as they believe they must. Still others feel uneasy or become secretive about enduring connections they still maintain with those who have died. Some actually feel shame about lasting love.

Such stories are among the saddest that grieving persons tell me. They are stories of missed opportunities and deep anguish. Whenever I hear them, I respond with assurance that loving need not stop with separation in death. We can find lasting love for our children, parents, spouses and companions, siblings, other family members, and friends. This assurance most always brings comfort. The capacity to find, acknowledge, appreciate, and cultivate enduring connections with those we love is unbounded. It is never too late to revive love deeply felt. Much of the damage caused by the belief that grieving requires complete letting go can be reversed.

I offer such reassurance because I have seen life-affirming and life-enhancing lasting love in the eyes of so many other grieving persons and heard it in the stories they have told me. Love that was real does not die when those we love die. Many have told me of places in their hearts where they hold and love those who have died. I have learned how cherishing memories and continuing to care about some of what they cared about has enriched survivors' practical, soulful, and spiritual lives. What I have learned has enabled me to recognize such love and its benefits in my own heart, in members of my family, among my friends, and in the culture around me. And I have witnessed how the hope for lasting love can motivate us to grieve in ways that bring consolation and restore our wholeness.

This book is primarily for those of us who are grieving. To them it offers encouragement and guidance in seeking and finding lasting love. And the book is for those who care for and about us as we grieve, including our family and friends as well as caregiving professionals and volunteers. To them it offers understanding of why finding lasting love matters so much to us. The ideas it contains can help them to encourage and support us as we do what we most want to do when someone we love dies.

My instinct has always told me that wanting to continue loving after death is fully natural and appropriate. My teaching and contributions to professional dialogue have consistently run counter to the predominant and powerful stream of thinking that as we grieve we must let go completely. As an applied philosopher, I have not been captive to the prevalent theories, training, approaches, and vocabularies that encourage complete letting go. I have long tried to prod theorists to reconsider their ideas about grieving and letting go.

Over the years, I have found and developed vocabulary that fits comfortably with and reflects the richness and depth of what I have heard and learned about such lasting love. I've ventured into new territory in articulating what most professional literature on grieving neglects and what most of us find difficult to put into words in everyday life. I have found apt and effective ways to speak and write about love in terms of heart, soul, and spirit. Real-life stories and accounts of personal experiences make the possibility and desirability of lasting love transparent and concrete. I have use detailed stories and accounts to ground these matters of the heart. Audiences of grieving persons and professionals have responded with similar enthusiasm to these fruits of years of listening and reflection and encouraged me to bring my thinking to you.

No doubt we do need to let go of what stalls our grieving, hinders our ability to thrive, or blocks our returning to the fullness of life. Sometimes we are gripped by deep and often unconscious desires to avoid the pain of grieving, deny the finality of death or the reality of separation, dismiss ambivalence or serious difficulties in our relationships, or delay moving into a daunting future. Sometimes we are held by destructive aspects of our relationships, including dependence, possessiveness, abuse, or control and manipulation. Sometimes our holding on to the past or those who have died is obsessive, preoccupying, or excessive. And no doubt therapists, counselors, and writers about grief have served us well in identifying such hazards in grieving and developing strategies to help us avoid them.

But there is nothing in all of this that implies that we must let go completely. There is no reason to let go of the good with the bad. The great majority of our closest relationships with family and friends have good in them. Those we mourn lived lives filled with value and meaning. What we have shared with them in the past powerfully influences who we are and become. Death does not erase our past with those we want to continue loving. We can constructively hold on to the good in lives now ended and sustain rewarding connection to the past.

Of course, stories of grieving are not simply stories of life-affirmation, hope, and an easy transition to lasting love and the consolation it brings. We will experience pain and anguish. We will meet daunting challenges. The stories I include here reveal the shattering effects of losing those we love: the anguish of longing for an impossible return. Broken hearts, homesick souls, and grounded spirits. Encounters with worlds transformed by loss. Wrestling with the great mysteries of life, death, and suffering. Learning to carry pain. Finding the courage to go on living without those who have died by our sides. Struggling to feel at home again in our physical surroundings, with fellow survivors, and in the greater scheme of things. Reshaping our daily lives. Redirecting our life stories. Changing ourselves. Reviving our souls and spirits.

Stories show us how different we are in our grieving. Each of us experiences loss, even of the same person, uniquely. No two hearts ache the same way. We each face distinctive challenges in our own corners of the worlds we inhabit. No one can respond to loss and challenge for us. We alone can change our lives and our selves. We play our own parts in reshaping and redirecting life in our families and communities.

Love is the heart of these stories of grieving. Love is the bond that connects family and friends. So it's not surprising that everything within us is poised to keep love alive. Our feelings and desires for them do not change the moment they die. Neither do our motivations, habits, dispositions, expectations, and hopes. We fear that if we change these things, we may forget or stop loving them. Nearly all of us want to keep our love alive. But we are at a loss as to how to do it.

Most of us want to continue loving because we have had the good fortune to love and be loved in return by those closest to us. This is not to say that many, or any, relationships or persons we love are perfect or ideal. They are all human: at once wonderful and flawed. We are ambivalent about most of our loving relationships. The familiar John Denver song "Perhaps Love" captures their sometimes placid, sometimes stormy, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, sometimes enriching, and sometimes challenging character. His lyrics reflect what we all know: that loving relationships can be both powerfully constructive and often troubling forces in our lives. Typically, we continue to love others while they live because what we love about them or about sharing life with them matters more to us than what disappoints or bothers us. We struggle to hold on to and cultivate the good and to let go of the rest. We continue this struggle when they die.

Sadly, some of us survive relationships that were deeply troubled and even profoundly destructive in which there is little love to continue. Your story of grieving may be dominated by tales of such troubles and your struggles to break free of their lingering effects. If so, I am sorry to say, this book is not likely for you. At least not at this time. It may become useful for you later, if and when you reach a point of wanting to find a saving grace within your dark tales.

Grieving is a journey that teaches us how to love in a new way now that our loved one is no longer with us. This journey from loving in presence to loving in separation is possible because the lives of those who have died remain real in the lives of those of us who knew and loved them. The times we spent together are not erased from history. We retain our unique acquaintance with those we love. We still hold memories that we can review privately or share with one another. We still feel the imprints of their lives upon us where we hold their practical, soulful, and spiritual legacies.

If our journeys in grief are to lead us to lasting love, we must reshape our feelings, desires, motivations, habits, dispositions, expectations, and hopes. Hopeful paths beyond the worst of our suffering lead through often painful transformations.

The paths on this journey are both arduous and hopeful. Walking them requires that we mount the courage to move through our hurt. And that we open ourselves up to receive what those we love still have to give. The paths lead through heartache, soulful pain, and spiritual pain unlike any other suffering we know. Staying the course on the grieving journey requires that we believe that lasting love can penetrate our worst suffering and move us beyond it. It calls for steady resolve to move toward treasuring what we retain from knowing and loving those who have died. And it requires trust that when we work through the worst of our hurt, what we have not lost will return to us.

In the most intense agonies of grieving, it is tempting, very tempting, to believe that "All is lost." In the midst of the worst of our pain and anguish, it can seem as if we are losing again. Fear that hurt will overwhelm us keeps us from confronting painful reminders of the life now ended. This retreat adds distance not only from what triggers pain but also from what rouses cherished memories and feelings of connection. Our tears cloud our memories. The past recedes painfully behind our desperation for its return. If only they could be here once more for a brief while. We could then experience their sharp reality in person. But, alas, we cannot. It can seem as if those we love are leaving us a second time.

But if we can let go of our anxiety grounded in the belief that all is lost, we will find there is little basis for either the anxiety or the belief. When we hurt least, we remember best. Our memories become vivid and detailed again. When we long least for its return, we recover access to the past we shared with those who have died. The good that is in that past can still touch and move us. And we can discover and make our own the practical, soulful, and spiritual legacies it contains. Our journey in grief can bring us to lasting love that honors those who have died, enriches our lives in survival, and takes a place alongside our other relationships with fellow survivors and new people who enter our lives.

We have no choice about whether we will grieve. The world changes irretrievably when those we love die. Respond we must. We only have a choice about what paths we walk in response. We will suffer, no matter which paths we choose. When we walk paths toward lasting love and find it, its many rewards make the journey worthwhile.

Stories of personal journeys toward lasting love are the heart of what I offer in the pages that follow. Stories that show how to find and embrace life-affirming and life-enhancing legacies. Stories that show how to avoid the hazards of obsession, preoccupation, and excess. Stories of holding on to the good and letting go of the rest. Some are stories people have shared with me. Some come from my own experiences. None of us walk identical paths on such journeys. Still, we can learn a great deal from such stories. I know I have. So, too, have others with whom I have shared many of these tales in my years of teaching, speaking, and writing about grief and loss. It is a privilege to know these stories and share them here with you.

We can identify with the longing for lasting love in these stories. With the suffering that bereavement brings. With the anxiety about whether we can find lasting love for ourselves. With the anguish that accompanies the reshaping and redirecting of our lives in the process. We can know that others have walked similar difficult paths and met similar challenges.

We can also resonate with the hope that pervades these stories. With the promise they offer. We can take heart from others' finding consolation and reward on such journeys. We can find inspiration.

We can also imagine and begin to find ways to help others. Others who survive with us. Family, companions, friends, or others we know who are grieving losses that do not affect us as directly or as powerfully. Or those whom we serve as volunteers or professionals.

It is hard writing a book when you really wish you could sit down to have a conversation with each and every reader. I hope you can take away from your reading something of what good conversation offers. Look in these pages for encouragement, suggestions, and hope. Go at your own pace. Enter the conversation wherever it looks most promising or helpful to you. Pick it up at other points where it appeals to you. Or follow it through from beginning to end. I hope you will find it a good companion on your journey.


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