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Featured this Month:

Presence and Absence: Grieving the Relationship
Thursday, January 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
It is difficult to think of anything more personal than grief.  After a suicide, the essence of the unique relationship we had with the person who died is mourned like nothing else.   We feel inextricably tied to the deceased, but the absence is everywhere.  What was familiar may now feel strange without the anchoring presence of the person who died.  The grief process is so powerful and difficult partly because we grapple with the reality of the absence when our attachment and expectation for presence of the person who died is still charged and active.   

This appears to be true for humans of all ages.  Infants grieve the loss as it affects their internalized sense of the caregiving environment (Shapiro, 1994).  Even with continued attention and care from others, the absence has shaken the core of what the child has come to know as he or she adjusts to being in the world as a member of family.  Older children too will respond to the seismic shifts in the operation of the family after a loss as sudden and devastating as a suicide.  Their grief, like that of teens and adults will draw intensely from the relationship with the person who has died, and to varying degrees, with the conundrum of the suicide and the permanence of death.  Through attention to the grief process, the sense of relationship that we carry forward, and the questions we pursue eventually lend coherence to a grief that that can keep us grounded in a new reality.

As we have mentioned so often in our articles, the gradual development of a compassionate narrative about the suicide and an interpretation of the meaning of the loss as it applies to the life of the survivor, is part of a process that can be supported and facilitated by counselors and support groups, but it can also take place at home between caregivers and children.  Narratives are rich in language, which is a vehicle for the thoughts that arise and evolve through the grief process.   Going back to stories about the deceased, and realizing what they conveyed to us about ourselves is challenging work for dedicated, grieving adults, but for younger children, where language and abstract, interpretive thinking is less available, we can begin to lay a foundation to be used for enriched grief work as they develop.   For now, grief is composed of concrete memories and the unmet need for the presence of the absent parent or sibling.  In a recent article we talked about the use of photos, videos, scrapbooks and conversation to facilitate and capture distinctive memories for children that will inform a sense of the deceased in the years going forward.

Some young children need a lot of help with memories, which can be vague and more about a time or place, rather than a portal to something more essential about the relationship.  Still, any grasp on memory of the loved one will take on power for ideas about the relationship as the child matures.  In therapeutic work with children in our program we have observed that it is possible to help them focus in on more subtle, ambient memories of the deceased’s physical presence in the world that can have later value for interpretation.  For instance, I lost my grandmother over 40 years ago.    I remember myself at the age of six or seven sulking about something while perched in a pear tree in her backyard.  She didn’t try talking me out of my mood, but she began picking pears for a pie, only looking up at me each time she reached for a branch.  I followed her movements and her repeated glances were vividly remembered.  Her eyes conveyed acceptance, a lasting impression that didn’t become a treasure for me until I was older.  At my young age I could not have described the wordless, emotional message that my grandmother offered to me with her eyes. This is an interpretation of an older person with an evocative sense of language.  No, the eyes provided no narrative for me as a child, but that silent interaction was taken in and acquired meaning much later in life.

Younger and older children and teens can be lovingly stimulated to remember the eyes of the person they lost; the looks and emotions ranging from preoccupation, to humor to anger or forgiveness and so many other responses that will convey a felt sense of the loved one’s presence.  We can stimulate our children to notice, to remember, to enhance these memories by reflecting on them together.   

The dichotomy to recalling the presence of the lost loved one is awareness of the absence, the fullness of absence. Survivors of any age can be guided to tenderly hold a sense of the absence of the loved one, a poignant and essential task of grief.  Painful, perhaps, but intimate in the longing it evokes, even children can identify when and where the sense of absence strikes them.  How does a child communicate the sense of absence at bath time or on the soccer field?  In what contexts does absence and longing occur in younger children?   One child was able to draw his dining room table with his father’s empty chair.  In the quiet act of drawing, the felt sense of absence was experienced and this child began to integrate his grief.

The ways in which we learn to recall the presence as well as the unfamiliar absence of the loved one creates an intimacy that characterizes grief and deepens the relationship with the deceased going forward.  Grief becomes a practice that enriches the way we understand ourselves and those we have lost.  It seems to take on depth and mastery over time.  The gift is one of awareness, a capacity for intimacy and a fuller sense of ourselves in relation to the loved one who died.

 
Shapiro, E. R. (1994).    Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice.  New York: The Guilford Press.


Archives:

Presence and Absence: Grieving the Relationship
Thursday, January 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
It is difficult to think of anything more personal than grief.  After a suicide, the essence of the unique relationship we had with the person who died is mourned like nothing else.   We feel inextricably tied to the deceased, but the absence is everywhere.  What was familiar may now feel strange without the anchoring presence of the person who died.  The grief process is so powerful and difficult partly because we grapple with the reality of the absence when our attachment and expectation for presence of the person who died is still charged and active.   

This appears to be true for humans of all ages.  Infants grieve the loss as it affects their internalized sense of the caregiving environment (Shapiro, 1994).  Even with continued attention and care from others, the absence has shaken the core of what the child has come to know as he or she adjusts to being in the world as a member of family.  Older children too will respond to the seismic shifts in the operation of the family after a loss as sudden and devastating as a suicide.  Their grief, like that of teens and adults will draw intensely from the relationship with the person who has died, and to varying degrees, with the conundrum of the suicide and the permanence of death.  Through attention to the grief process, the sense of relationship that we carry forward, and the questions we pursue eventually lend coherence to a grief that that can keep us grounded in a new reality.

As we have mentioned so often in our articles, the gradual development of a compassionate narrative about the suicide and an interpretation of the meaning of the loss as it applies to the life of the survivor, is part of a process that can be supported and facilitated by counselors and support groups, but it can also take place at home between caregivers and children.  Narratives are rich in language, which is a vehicle for the thoughts that arise and evolve through the grief process.   Going back to stories about the deceased, and realizing what they conveyed to us about ourselves is challenging work for dedicated, grieving adults, but for younger children, where language and abstract, interpretive thinking is less available, we can begin to lay a foundation to be used for enriched grief work as they develop.   For now, grief is composed of concrete memories and the unmet need for the presence of the absent parent or sibling.  In a recent article we talked about the use of photos, videos, scrapbooks and conversation to facilitate and capture distinctive memories for children that will inform a sense of the deceased in the years going forward.

Some young children need a lot of help with memories, which can be vague and more about a time or place, rather than a portal to something more essential about the relationship.  Still, any grasp on memory of the loved one will take on power for ideas about the relationship as the child matures.  In therapeutic work with children in our program we have observed that it is possible to help them focus in on more subtle, ambient memories of the deceased’s physical presence in the world that can have later value for interpretation.  For instance, I lost my grandmother over 40 years ago.    I remember myself at the age of six or seven sulking about something while perched in a pear tree in her backyard.  She didn’t try talking me out of my mood, but she began picking pears for a pie, only looking up at me each time she reached for a branch.  I followed her movements and her repeated glances were vividly remembered.  Her eyes conveyed acceptance, a lasting impression that didn’t become a treasure for me until I was older.  At my young age I could not have described the wordless, emotional message that my grandmother offered to me with her eyes. This is an interpretation of an older person with an evocative sense of language.  No, the eyes provided no narrative for me as a child, but that silent interaction was taken in and acquired meaning much later in life.

Younger and older children and teens can be lovingly stimulated to remember the eyes of the person they lost; the looks and emotions ranging from preoccupation, to humor to anger or forgiveness and so many other responses that will convey a felt sense of the loved one’s presence.  We can stimulate our children to notice, to remember, to enhance these memories by reflecting on them together.   

The dichotomy to recalling the presence of the lost loved one is awareness of the absence, the fullness of absence. Survivors of any age can be guided to tenderly hold a sense of the absence of the loved one, a poignant and essential task of grief.  Painful, perhaps, but intimate in the longing it evokes, even children can identify when and where the sense of absence strikes them.  How does a child communicate the sense of absence at bath time or on the soccer field?  In what contexts does absence and longing occur in younger children?   One child was able to draw his dining room table with his father’s empty chair.  In the quiet act of drawing, the felt sense of absence was experienced and this child began to integrate his grief.

The ways in which we learn to recall the presence as well as the unfamiliar absence of the loved one creates an intimacy that characterizes grief and deepens the relationship with the deceased going forward.  Grief becomes a practice that enriches the way we understand ourselves and those we have lost.  It seems to take on depth and mastery over time.  The gift is one of awareness, a capacity for intimacy and a fuller sense of ourselves in relation to the loved one who died.

 
Shapiro, E. R. (1994).    Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice.  New York: The Guilford Press.