If you’re lucky, like me, soon after your loved one dies, a swarm of friends will embrace you in all sorts of meaningful ways. They’ll pack the funeral home, attend the wake or shiva, and a few may even leave homemade meals wrapped in tin foil by your front door so you won’t have to cook for a while. Rituals surrounding loss tend to kick into gear automatically and I benefitted from being the passive recipient of support when each of my parents passed away. Yet my greatest fortune ultimately caused me the most pain.
Simply put: Transitioning from passive mourning to active remembering is key to building resilience after loss. I got used to support just being there. In those first few awful days and weeks after my parents died, I didn’t have to work hard to find a friend to talk with about my mom or dad. But consider the vacuum that happens later. Five years later, fifteen — those conversations often didn’t occur without effort. That silence was one of the hardest and unexpected post-loss blows. I also felt paralyzed and choked by my parents’ belongings. What should I do with my father’s collection of neckties and my mother’s colorful assortment of scarves? A mountain of bric-a-brac moved with me from home to home, following me around like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud. At times, my sadness and isolation seemed inescapable until I figured out what I needed to do: I had to approach remembering the same way I’d pursue finding a new job or buying a car. It was up to me to take control. I needed to shift from being passive to being proactive.
So I brought my parents up in conversation. Over dinner with my children sometimes, I’d nonchalantly, but very much intentionally, recall an anecdote about Grandma or Grandpa that seemed germane to whatever we were discussing. I also began to cook a few reminiscent foods, frame unusual objects like passports and business cards to spark even more discussion, and plan a small number of outings to the neighborhoods where my parents grew up and the offices where they worked. I ditched, donated, and gifted many of their possessions and transformed others so they could bring me joy. I got help turning my father’s neckties into a quilt and my mother’s scarves into the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy, under which I got married. Yes, these activities required some planning. But they made me stronger and happier.
For a long time, I couldn’t articulate why I’d struggled so deeply years after my parents died and I couldn’t find the words for what helped me heal. It turns out I failed to take ownership of keeping their memory alive. Grief experts like J. William Worden and Therese Rando have long argued that sustaining connections with loved ones is essential for moving forward. I had to crack open these opportunities. It was up to me to help my children appreciate the maternal grandparents they never got to know.
Recognizing and accepting the task of proactive remembering is critical for driving our capacity to rebound from adversity, especially the deaths of family and friends we miss most. If I had learned this lesson earlier, I would have leapfrogged years of heartache.
Allison Gilbert is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on grief and resilience. The author of numerous books including the groundbreaking, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, her stirring work exposes the secret and essential factor for harnessing loss to drive happiness, spark creativity, and rebound from adversity. Learn more at www.allisongilbert.com.