Fear of Forgetting: a Therapist’s question

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I am a social worker and therapist , and I attended one of your workshops a couple years ago.  I have a question for you related to a client I am currently treating.  This client is a man in his mid 20s and his father died when my client was in his mid-teens.  His father died from complications from drinking too much.  My client worries he should not be grieving anymore and also worries he will forget his father.  The worry that he will forget his father is quite distressing for him.   Can you provide some general guidance on how I can work with this fear that he will forget his father?   Additionally, if you can recommend any articles to read on this topic that would also be wonderful.

Thank you,

Libby N., LCSW

Dear Libby,

My brief response to your case-based query is that the premature death of your client’s father and his son’s fear of forgetting him speaks to our common need to conserve a bond with the deceased rather than to “let them go.”  In our contemporary, secular age, rituals of continuity and transition once provided by spiritual and cultural practices of remembrance often are radically condensed or relinquished altogether, and we are left needing to invent them in quite personal ways for ourselves.  In this, therapy can provide assistance by joining with clients in imagining how we might keep our loved ones stories alive—especially their preferred stories of proud or close moments shared with our clients, rather than only their stories of brokenness, conflict, or absence.  Of course, the painful parts of the story—including in this case the destructive drinking—must also be acknowledged candidly, but I would join the client in seeking to restore to memory and perhaps to some form of public telling the preferred stories as well.  You might find a variety of resources helpful in envisioning this, from professional books like Klass and Steffen’s “Continuing bonds in bereavement” published this year by Routledge to sensitive popular movies like “Coco,” which traces a young boy’s efforts to embrace imperfect family ties while also finding his own unique way in the world.

All of this is to say that nearly anything, any practice, that honors our loved one helps restore a constructive bond, and in this sense helps as well with our grief by restoring connection in the form that is sustainable now.  Finding and displaying on one’s computer or phone’s home screen a picture of your client and father together (rather than the father alone), sharing stories about times with dad in person or in online memorials, performing small acts of kindness such as paying in advance for the order of the next person in the drive-up line at Starbucks and doing so in the father’s memory, or undertaking some form of legacy project, such as constructing a scrapbook of shared memories or contributing time to a cause that might be relevant to the father (such as speaking about problems of substance abuse on campus) could all serve this function of constructing and honoring an enduring bond with dad.  Such meaningful actions take a strong stand against forgetting, and remind us that in a life that in which we sometimes exercise far too little control over events, in other ways choice and agency are fully available to us—including in how we continue to love someone in his absence.

Dr. Neimeyer

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