Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I just lost my uncle, and I can’t even see a picture with him in without breaking down. He and I were very close, but I didn’t even get to go to his funeral. I feel like I let him down by not going. The last time I saw him was the day before the accident. I couldn’t visit him in the hospital because I’m not really his family. And then my aunt told me he was brain dead and they were cutting off life support, and I couldn’t be there. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye, and it was all so sudden that I didn’t’ know what to do. Then it was decided that his funeral would held at some bar, and I’m underage. And now I feel like I’m never going to be able to come to terms with the fact that he’s gone. How can I do that without having been able to tell him goodbye?
From what you say you enjoyed a very special, perhaps almost father-daughter relationship with your uncle, one whose warmth and meaning was not fully appreciated by others. And of course in a moment of crisis and loss, when they too are losing a unique person in their own lives, other adults in the family may find it especially hard to think through the unintended consequences of their decisions about end-of-life care and memorial services on others. This is part of what is meant by the concept of “disenfranchised grief,” a grief that is unseen, minimized or discounted by others. Like disenfranchised citizens at an earlier point in our political history, it is as if you didn’t get a “vote,” and had no say over how or even whether to connect with your uncle and others in those critical moments of transition. I can easily imagine that this deepens your sense of loss, by adding lost opportunity to express love to all of the other things that seem to have slipped away with your uncle’s life.
But with some creativity and courage, perhaps you can craft a way to not only say “goodbye” to your uncle, but also to say “hello” again. In our best understanding, those who have experienced brain death cannot literally hear or process the words of love being whispered to them, though they may have great meaning to the speaker. Similarly, might you find a way, in a letter that you write and perhaps send to the heavens in a ritual fire, to affirm your love for your uncle, just as if he could read it with pleasure and pride? Could you share a cherished story about him with your friends on your Facebook page, and in this way help keep those stories alive? Might you find times in family gatherings to share both the sadness of his dying too soon and the treasure of your having him as long as you did, at a time that they could better hear what he meant to you, and share with you what he meant to them? Could you find a photo of just the two of you, perhaps from the time that you were small, and post it on the wall of your bedroom, or your wall in social media? In all of these ways and more, we can honor those we have loved and lost as physical presences in our lives, while still holding them close in many ways that matter.
From your description of your relationship with him, I imagine your uncle would be deeply touched by your love and loyalty.