The way we grieve is a result of what we learned about love and relationships as a baby. We all learned certain “rules” growing up about love, such as “don’t give your heart away” or “don’t love too fully or you’ll get hurt.”
Through my work as a grief counselor, I have come to believe that the grief process is akin to the process a young child goes through in separating from his or her primary caregiver (PCG). For the first few months of life, the infant experiences no separation from the PCG – they are one and the same. Little by little, the developing child comes to understand that he or she and the PCG are in fact separate beings. The child starts to experiment by crawling or walking away from the PCG, coming back as necessary for “emotional refueling.” Playing peek-a-boo games teaches the toddler that even though something may be physically hidden from view, it still exists. Around the age of three, the child is able to understand the more abstract notion that he or she can keep a representation of the PCG, in his or her heart, and with that emotional presence and support, can venture out further into the world without the PCG. The development of this capacity is called object constancy, i.e., “a coherent mental representation of important attachment figures.” (Worden, 1996, pp. 9-10, citing Bowlby (1963, 1980) and R. Furman (1964)).
The inability to retain a sense of object constancy, and to remember that the PCG is a resource even when she or he is not physically present leads to many difficulties in forming healthy relationships and good boundaries. For example, those with borderline personality disorder or other attachment disorders were unable to achieve the capacity for object constancy because the mother or other primary caregiver was neglectful or abusive, physically and/or emotionally and did not therefore create a sense of safety and trust in the growing child.
Grief theorist J. William Worden (2002) describes certain tasks a bereaved individual to complete in order to navigate the grief process in a healthy way. The first task is to accept the finality of one’s loss; the second task involves feeling, and not avoiding, the pain of one’s grief; the third task is to adjust to an environment without the deceased; and the fourth task is to “emotionally relocate” the deceased and move forward in life. This process of “emotionally relocating” the deceased loved one is akin to the development of object constancy.
This process of grief and love was illustrated in a poignant way with one of my grief therapy clients, who I will call “Joe” for the sake of confidentiality. Joe came to see me for therapy after the death of his young wife, “Jody” as it became clear that his suffering in his grief was unrelenting. A common theme in Joe’s lamentations was that his wife was quite mean to him, especially as her cancer progressed and affected her brain. Joe was unable to talk about Jody without crying, and he developed some unhealthy coping tools to assuage his pain. As the first anniversary of Jody’s death drew closer, Joe’s suffering increased.
I recently asked Joe if he loved Jody, and with tears streaming down his face, Joe for the first time in our sessions said that he loved his wife. It felt as if a dam Joe had built around his heart had burst, and he was able to open his heart to his love for Jody. This was truly a breakthrough in Joe’s path to healing his grief.
It was clear that Joe needed to find a place for the Jody he loved in his heart in order to move forward in life. For so many of us, like Joe, this is a process of having the courage to love wholeheartedly. Many of us hold back pieces of our love out of fear that doing so will make us too vulnerable. However, vulnerability is not a weakness and does not put us at risk of harm. Rather, the word “vulnerable” simply means the ability to be open. Being open allows us to see things more panoramically and makes us stronger, not weaker. More importantly, being open to loving fully allows us to keep our loved ones with us as a source of strength and support when they are not there in person.
Loving and living fully after loss often entails completing “unfinished business” with our loved one in some way, whether through therapy, journaling or other expressive means. We may need to forgive our loved ones for their human weaknesses, and also forgive ourselves for difficulties in the relationship. No relationship is perfect, and letting go of resentments, guilt or fear is an important piece of the process of finding an open place in our hearts for our loved ones who have passed. Only then can we relocate the deceased emotionally in our hearts, heal our grief and move forward in life.