Relationships don't have to end when one person dies,
says the author of The Infinite Thread.
By Alexandra Kennedy
My father died in my mother's arms after a long struggle with bone cancer. I was at the dentist with my son, agitated that his fillings were taking so long. I wanted to be at home meditating and waiting for my mother's call. When I returned home, there was a call on my answering machine that Dad had just died.
Eight months later, I dreamed I was sitting in a restaurant with my mother when the owner approached our table and told us, "The mister is on the phone." Surprised, I picked up the receiver, wondering if it would really be Dad on the other end. "How are you?" I asked him. He paused and said, "It's been hard lately over here." I began to cry and told him, "I miss you, Dad," as I replaced the receiver.
Throughout history, other cultures have embraced the concept of an ongoing relationship with the deceased. Myths such as the Greek story of Demeter and Persephone and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris remind people that it is possible to reconnect with those who have died. Most ancient cultures and some modern ones have rituals that maintain a connection with the ancestors.
Present-day Aborigines, like their ancestors, rub stones together for three days to gain access to the spirits of the departed with whom they can then converse. Confucian and Buddhist religious practices encourage the use of household altars for daily rituals that promote a reciprocal relationship with the ancestors. A front-page article in the New York Times entitled "For Rural Japanese, Death Doesn't Break Family Ties" tells of a widow in a rural Japanese village who offers her deceased husband rice every morning at the altar in her home and holds conversations with him, hearing his responses in her head.
In this culture, we often don't nurture this inner relationship with the deceased. We sadly lack the rituals that provide us with the tools for restoring a lost dialogue. As a psychotherapist, for years I taught work shops on death, dying, and grieving. But it wasn't until my father's death that I realized the power of maintaining an inner relationship with a loved one after he or she has passed away.
An Inner Relationship
Many of us are left with regrets after a loved one dies: unspoken good-byes, unexpressed love, unhealed hurts, unresolved issues. These regrets can manifest as on going symptoms such as apathy, addiction, chronic physical problems, depression, compulsive behavior, and social isolation. But once we realize that we can still have an inner relationship with a deceased loved one, we can begin to heal our unresolved grief. Using our imagination, we can access this special relationship and resolve old hurts and regrets, express our love, and receive guidance.
After my telephone dream, for example, I meditated on my connection with my father. In my imagination, I embraced him and told him about my dream. He confided that it had been hard for him lately, seeing the hurt he had caused in his life and being unable to do any thing about it. I reminded him that he could forgive himself as well as send love to those he hurt in his life. As I put my hand on his chest, I felt energy and light pouring into his heart.
Afterwards, something had changed in my relationship to him. I had a new acceptance of his humanness, of his frailties and deceptions. My heart had room for it all, and I felt freed of wanting him to be any different than he was.
It is never too late to make this kind of connection. An 92-year-old woman names Marina told me about a dramatic breakthrough that had occurred after hearing a radio interview in which I spoke about the inner relationship we have with those who have died. Through a series of dialogs with her father—who had died more than 40 years before—she began to grieve and heal her past. As a young girl, she had felt abandoned by her father when he moved away after her parents' divorce. Marina had never had a chance to reconcile with him before his death. With each new dialogue, she felt closer to him. As she healed, she not only felt more confident and outgoing in her relationships but she also initiated a number of creative projects. She realized how much of her life force and creative energy had been locked inside her unresolved grief.
It is in our dreams that many of us first experience an ongoing relationship with a loved one who has died. It is common to have such vivid dreams about the deceased that the dreamer awakens disoriented, asking "Is she still alive? I felt I was really with her!" The experience of being with a loved one in a dream can comfort and reassure the dreamer that, although death has occurred, the connection with this person remains unsevered. In spite of our loss, he or she lives on within us.
Ironically, the deceased often take for granted that the relationship is ongoing and even express impatience and surprise that the dreamer is struggling with this concept. Laura was overjoyed to see her grandmother in a dream, but when she told her grandmother, "I thought you had died," her grandmother insisted, "I never died."
Dreams concerning our inner relationship to the deceased fall into several categories: dreams that reassure the dreamer that, although death has occurred, the deceased lives on within and can be contacted through the imagination; dreams that demonstrate that death has transformed the deceased and changed the nature of the relationship with the griever; dreams in which unresolved issues with the deceased either arise or are actively addressed; and dreams in which the deceased gives the dreamer support or guidance.
The changes in the deceased in our dreams can be surprising and even disconcerting to the dreamer. The person who has died often appears healthy, vital, and younger than last seen in life with physical ailments and illnesses no longer present. The deceased may seem detached, which can be very disconcerting to the person who is grieving, especially when the relationship had been very close. There may also be a dramatic change in values, evidenced by evaporation of old interests and more concern with spiritual matters.
After Flo's mother died, Flo was not prepared for the changes she experienced in her mother. In her dreams, her mother appeared as her teacher; she would not allow Flo to call her Mother any longer. "She was teaching me that in the afterlife she no longer identified her self as my mother; she had moved on and our relationship had changed. I felt a sense of freedom after these dreams. I knew that she had truly found her self because she had gone beyond what she was able to do in this lifetime - to put herself first at the risk of disappointing someone else."
On the other hand, some grieving people report dreams and even nightmares in which the deceased is still suffering from illness. In my experience, however, these dreams often shift as the person responds to whatever is unresolved in his or her grief. For example, Susan had a recurring nightmare in which her emaciated father, who had died 20 years before, was in great pain from colon cancer. As we explored these dreams together, she realized that they were alerting her to her unresolved grief. Her father had died when she had just left home for college. She had never grieved his death. As she began to do so, the nightmares stopped. The more she healed, the healthier her father became in her dreams.
A good friend named Gail was devastated when her cousin Peter was killed in a plane crash three years ago. She had loved her cousin deeply and had no opportunity to prepare for his death or say good-bye to him. When she thought of him, she pictured mangled body parts, scattered over a field in Indiana.
Shortly after his death Gail had a dream in which Peter was standing inside a glass dome. Separated from her by this invisible barrier, Gail could hear him tell her that he was OK, but she agonized that she could not reach him.
Three years later Gail had a breakthrough dream that transformed her grief. In this dream Peter was present at a family Thanksgiving gathering. When it came time to part, Gail approached Peter and shared with him how devastating his death had been for her. Holding one another, they cried together and expressed how much they missed each other.
Before that hug, everything about death had seemed far away, and Peter had seemed unreachable. That moment of contact restored Peter to her as a living inner presence. And ironically, contacting Peter in this way enabled her to finally say good-bye to him and release him as he had been. When she awakened from the dream, she lay awake savoring the warmth of that hug. She knew that the struggle had lifted; nothing was now left unfinished. For the first time, she felt that she could visit the field where the crash had taken place.
You can nurture dreams of your loved ones in several ways. Before you go to sleep, ask for a dream and be open to whatever the unconscious may present to you. You may not dream of your deceased loved one at first, but the dreams you have may well be critical to your healing. Put a pen and paper (or tape recorder) and flashlight by your bed and make the commitment to write down what ever fragment or dream that you remember. You can also visualize going to sleep, having a dream, and then awakening in the morning with a clear memory of the dream.
If you awaken in the middle of the night with a dream, immediately write it down, for you can't assume you will remember this dream in the morning. In the morning, take time to reflect on your dreams and write them down briefly before you get up or even speak. You can record them in more detail later in your dream journal.
Take time to reflect on your dreams. Avoid snap judgments, since the dream often works on many levels at once. It is natural to feel baffled, disturbed, even resistant. Ask questions of the dream, let the images work on you, reenter the dream and dialogue with your loved one. Be patient if you have trouble remembering your dreams; don't give up. Continue to ask for a dream.
Your dreams will guide you through your grief, reminding you of what you are suppressing and what you need to tend to in order to heal. Trust the wisdom of your dreams, for they connect you to the vast realm of the unconscious where resources for healing abound.
While dreams may comfort us, we may feel frustrated that they occur too infrequently or that we lose the connection after the dream is over. Some people have no dreams at all about their deceased loved ones. But we don't have to wait for dreams. We can nurture our inner relationship with a loved one by using internal communication techniques such as writing a letter, engaging in a dialogue, or working with imagery.
Internal communication techniques go far beyond the scope of everyday communication. In privacy you can freely express repressed feelings, speak up about issues that had been silenced, heal rifts, build bonds, express love—all without the other person's external presence. It is even possible to step inside the other person and experience the relationship from the other's perspective.
As you make the commitment to reconnect with the inner presence of your beloved, it is helpful to create a sanctuary, a private place where you can explore this relationship. Find a place where you can be alone and uninterrupted; set up an altar there with pictures, special objects, candies, flowers. Similar to the alchemical vessel in alchemy, this protected space contains, intensifies, and stimulates forces from within the psyche that will help generate healing and transformation. Dedicate some time each day to sit in your sanctuary. Meditate, pray, reflect, write.
Writing a letter is the easiest approach to begin building an inner relationship with a deceased loved one (see sidebar). A letter allows you to reflect, revise, rework, and take as much time as you need. In privacy, you have the freedom to express yourself honestly and directly without worrying about the other person's response.
You can write about what you miss, what you appreciate and resent in your relationship, what you want to carry on. You can also share what you have been through since the death of your loved one and what you have learned in your grief. If there are any issues that were never addressed when the person was alive or if any new issues have surfaced in your grief, write about these.
Express yourself honestly and authentically. You may need to express uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, or memories before you can move on to feeling compassionate or loving. Indeed it is not uncommon for people to express anger in their first letters - anger at the loved one for dying, anger for all the disappointments and hurts. As soon as you start writing a letter, you are initiating a process of healing that will proceed at its own pace. Trust what unfolds.
Once you have written a letter, you may want to write a response or a dialogue. Writing a dialogue is especially effective when your letter has turned up particular issues you want to explore. Initiate your dialogue by identifying a concern and expressing your feelings about it. Then write the other person's name and open your imagination to his or her response. You can ask questions to help the dialogue begin. If a written dialogue feels awkward, you can use your imagination to speak to the deceased directly (see sidebar).
Ellen's father had died 29 years before of a heart attack. In her letter Ellen shared her feelings about their relationship: "I was resentful and angry that you ignored me most of the time. You looked right past me. I didn't exist for days at a time." She wanted to know why her father had ignored her, why he didn't love her, why he had been so hard on her. She knew through others that he had suffered greatly during the war—his father had died, his mother had been taken to Auschwitz, and he had been interred at Dachau. Finally he had fled the camp and his homeland and started a new life in the United States. But he had never spoken of the war.
In her dialogue, Ellen wrote her father's response:
Why did ignore you? I didn't know how to give to you, so I gave nothing. Times were hard for me then. I didn't know who I was or where I was. My life had been over and then it started again. I didn't know my direction. I was tired, confused. Your mother was hard to live with; she demanded so much. I didn't know how to give to her either. I'm sorry I ignored you. I didn't know how not to.
As Ellen continued to ask questions, she discovered that her father avoided her because he couldn't take any more pain. He told her that Ellen had a harsh tongue and could hurt him easily. He couldn't risk being her friend because she might turn on him. This was all new in formation for Ellen, and it provided a new context for understanding their complicated relationship. As the dialogue unfolded, Ellen discovered that underneath all that self-protection, her father loved her and felt she had turned out "splendidly." He admired her for taking happiness for herself, something he couldn't do for himself. Ellen was shocked by the healing that took place 40 minutes of writing this dialogue - after years of anger, confusion, and resentment, she finally felt relaxed and peaceful with her father.
Recently I visited with my father in my imagination. It had been nine years since his death and months since our last visit, and I was overjoyed to see him. I often don't realize how much I miss him in my everyday life until I am once again in his presence. His death in 1988 severed our outer relationship. But he lived on within me, though death had transformed our relationship. He was softer and more vulnerable with me in my dreams and inner journeys than he had been in life. He was wiser.
When I asked him for advice about issues I was struggling with, he seemed to see invisible connections between things and had a much larger perspective. He was detached from our family dynamics and with good humor could advise me on my relationship with my mother. His old hurts didn't seem to matter to him any more. He was also freed of the interests that had consumed him in life. In the last three decades of his life, he had felt driven to succeed in the corporate world, rising at five a.m. to go to work and returning home late - even after the cancer had eaten into his bones. Within me after his death, he seemed at peace with himself.
This time he spoke about love - how love is within us and all around us, that if it were not for love the electrons would not move in their orbits nor the stars in the heavens. He squeezed my hand. We looked up. Thousands of stars shimmered above us against a black backdrop of space. Standing there beside him under a dome of limitless stars, I felt surrounded by mystery and profoundly grateful that he lives on within me.
Writing a Letter
Writing a letter is a powerful way to reconnect with a loved one after he or she has died. Here are some sample questions you might ask yourself as you write:
Ask yourself the following questions after you have written your letter:
As you write or talk to your loved one, you may experience spontaneous images of this person. You can work with these images intention ally to connect with the inner presence of that person. It then becomes possible to see, hear, and touch that person. In fact, you may be surprised by how real he or she seems.
One of my favorite guided imagery exercises goes like this: Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and focus on the movement of each breath as it flows in and out of your body. Let the breath be your bridge as you shift your attention from the outer world to an inner world of the imagination.
Imagine that you are standing in a large field that rolls out to the horizon You see a figure approaching across this field. As the person comes nearer, you realize this is the one you hoped to meet. Be aware of what you are feeling. Notice how this person looks and moves, what he or she is wearing. Has the person changed? Be willing to let go of old pictures; your loved one may look and act in a different way than you remember.
Stay in the present with this person, letting your interaction untold without editing or interfering with what happens. Let your loved one know how you have felt since the death: what you miss, what you regret, what you appreciate about him or her. Update the person on what has changed for you since the death, and take time to listen to all responses and messages. Follow this exchange wherever it may go.
When you feel ready, tell your loved one good-bye. Watch as the person leaves, remaining aware of how you are feeling. Spend some time alone with yourself, reflecting on this experience. Then open your eyes.
Alexandra Kennedy is a psychotherapist in private practice in Soquel, California, and author of Your Loved One Lives On Within You(Berkley, 1997), Losing a Parent (HarperCollins, 1991), and The Infinite Thread (Beyond Words Publishing Co, 2001).
From Yoga Journal, October 1997