Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My teenage daughter Daniella died in a car accident almost two years ago, and even though I have been able to go on raising my other two children and working in my office job, I continue to feel a great deal of grief and also some irrational guilt about her death, because I gave her permission to go out with friends on the night she died. My husband is also visibly sadder and quieter since her death, and although he tolerates my leaving her room pretty much as it was when she was living, I know he would prefer that we do something with her things and move on. My friends are obviously uncomfortable when I bring up Daniella in conversation, and I know I should be getting over this by now. My question is, is there something wrong with me, and what can I do about it?
There is nothing wrong with being a mother who continues to love her child intensely beyond her death, and who wants to preserve a sense of connection to her in tangible and conversational ways. As human beings we are wired for attachment to those we love, and the caregiving bond between a parent in child is what allows our children to grow and thrive with a secure sense that they will be cared for and supported in confronting life’s many challenges. It is hardly surprising, then, that this urge to care for your daughter survives her physical death, even if it must now somehow accommodate the reality of that death and change the form in which you express it.
For example, rather than eliminating all of your daughter’s belongings from the house, might you make some of them, along with one or more pictures of her, part of a shrine that honors her memory and continued presence for you? Of course, this sort of shrine need not be frozen in time, as in many cultures such places that honor deceased loved ones might change with the seasons of the year or the seasons of our lives, as through decorating them with flowers or different memorabilia over time. You might find that doing so frees you psychologically to then begin–perhaps along with your husband and other children–sorting through Daniella’s things and deciding which to pass on to others, which to display, and which to put in storage.
Finally, as implied by the shared activity of sorting and remembering noted above, finding conversational and social spaces that are “safe” for including Daniella are also important. For good friends, simply thanking them for allowing you to speak of your daughter in natural ways may be enough, even if that conversation is filled with sadness as well as love or pride. But many bereaved parents also find benefit in online sharing and memorialization of their children (as in the Open to Hope site), writing symbolic letters about residual issues like guilt to their children in AfterTalk, or connecting with other bereaved parents who respect and value the natural importance of a continuing bond, as in the Compassionate Friends. In short, although there is nothing wrong with your urge to maintain a loving attachment to Daniella, there is much that you can do to cultivate it in a form that is sustainable, even beyond her physical life.