How to Nurture a Relationship After Someone Dies

Beauty
woman looking at ocean iceberg

woman looking at ocean iceberg

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Grief is love with nowhere to go.” One minute, our person is here, and the next they’re just…gone. But the love, passion, anger, sadness, and everything else that make a relationship dynamic still exist.

Know that the relationship changes but lives on. If you’re in the early days of grief, this might be hard — even impossible — to imagine, because those days tend to be wrapped up in memories of illness and death and early loss. You’re busy with preparations and logistics. But even when someone dies, you are still in a relationship with them, and you will continue to understand and nurture it in new ways as you move through the long arc of loss.

Nobody can take away the connection. If your child died or if you have a miscarriage, you will always be that child’s parent. If your partner died, you will always be their partner, even if there are others down the line. If your parent or sibling died, you will always be their child, brother, or sister. If you lose a friend, you will always be their friend.

We say people are “gone.” But they are extremely alive in our thoughts and memories, and that stuff is real. You can have rituals that honor them. One man read children’s books at his daughter’s grave for a year. One woman started an Instagram account to share all the dumb-yet-hilarious memes she’d have ordinarily shared with her late brother, and another went alone on the dream trip she had planned with her husband and brought along his ashes to scatter.

Here are ideas for the big days after loss…

THEIR BIRTHDAY

* Make their favorite meal or bake them a cake. This is a great opportunity to involve kids in the memory. It also creates space for you to share with others what you loved about your person, their own ways of doing that activity, the ways you miss them, or what they would have said or thought about recent events, sports, or pop culture.

* Buy your person a gift and write them a card. You can always donate the gift or give it to someone who’d appreciate it. Consider buying something for yourself, too — a small token to make you feel like you’re going through the motion of gifting something to someone who matters (that’d be you).

* Organize a toast. Ask people to raise a glass (with you or virtually) to the memory of your person.

* Spend one day eating their favorite foods (even if it’s cheesecake and tortillas… especially if it’s that).

* Wear something of theirs. That ring, dress, or frayed In-N-Out shirt.

* Ask people to share memories and anecdotes. It’s easy to do. Just post a request on social media asking that people either comment or contact you privately, or send a mass bcc’ed email.

* Include everyone. I once received a fabulous response from my mom’s dental hygienist. No idea why she was in my mom’s email contacts, but the story was priceless.

* Do something they always wanted to do but couldn’t. That card game, magic trick, rafting trip, marathon, museum visit, sport they were never well enough to try but enjoyed watching on television — and dedicate it to them.

DEATHIVERSARIES AND DIAGNOSISVERSARIES

It’s natural for these days to be really, really hard. After all, you’re remembering an exact moment in which your person did not survive or in which they learned about an illness that would eventually end their lives, as opposed to a holiday or birthday that might be associated with happier memories.

* Perform an act of kindness in their honor. If they were a book lover, donate books to your local elementary school. If they loved animals, volunteer at a shelter and commit the day to their memory.

* Visibly mark your mourning. Victorian black and rended shirts aren’t the only ways to do this. Consider a memorial tattoo, a new hair color, a nose ring, or just wearing something that feels meaningful to you.

* Reconnect with the crew. Do you miss your person’s close group of friends? It’s normal for some to fade away after a death; it can be a painful secondary loss. But this is an excellent opportunity to reconnect. You miss your person; they miss them, too. Acknowledge the immortality of love by inviting them to a meal or drinks in your person’s memory. Gather somewhere they’d have chosen, whether it’s their go-to restaurant, a biker bar, or the cozy living room.

* Give an object new meaning. One of our readers had a massive stuffed sheep that comforted her young son when he was dying. One year, she and her family took it to FedEx, where they hugged the sheep and cried, then sent it toward its new home: that of a friend who had just given birth after trying for a long time.

* Write a letter to your person. Fill them in on your life since they’ve been gone. Catch them up on the stuff you might have talked about over lunch, in bed, or on FaceTime. Tell them about your day, what you’re sad they’re missing, what you’re glad they’ve missed (global pandemics, etc.), and anything else big or small you wish you could share.

* Master the art of distraction. What does the trick? Cooking? Batting cages? Ted Lasso? Do it.

TIPS TO GET YOU THROUGH

* Be intentional. Some years, you might want to make big plans; others, ignore the day altogether. Don’t let anyone pressure you into feeling a certain way or making a certain plan. It’s okay to say no to events organized by others who were close to your person or make a quick appearance before peace-ing out and getting back to the business of taking care of you.

* Assign yourself a grief buddy. Ask someone you know who has experienced loss to support you for the day, either virtually or in real life. A lot of people would probably love to be helpful by making space for you.

* Manage your online intake. This is especially important before all those Hallmark days and holiday periods. You can opt out of potentially triggering newsletters, adjust your online ad settings, and unfollow any brands whose marketing campaigns feel like torture.

* Remember that every year feels different. This, too, shall pass, remember? If this time around is particularly hard, it doesn’t mean every year will be.


Thoughts? Sending love to anyone who is missing someone today. xoxo

modern loss handbook

Rebecca Soffer is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Modern Loss, a website, book and community on loss and grief. Her new book, The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, came out this week, and you can find it here. Rebecca lives in New York and Massachusetts with her husband, two boys, and dog. Follow her on Twitter, if you’d like.

P.S. More on grief, including how to write a sympathy note, how to talk to kids about death, and 17 reader comments on loss.

(Photo by Dylan Leeder/Stocksy. This excerpt is from the book Modern Loss Handbook by Rebecca Soffer. Reprinted by permission of Running Press, part of the Perseus division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Soffer.)

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