Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My question is regarding my mother. We lost my father very unexpectedly this past summer, and she is having a very hard time with his loss, as we all are. My question is this: Is it good for her to have her bedroom looking like a shrine to him, so that whenever she looks anywhere in the room, she is reminded of him and starts crying? I don’t know what’s best at this point. Thank you for your help!
“What is best at this point” could have less to do with the number of months that have passed since your father’s death, than with where your mother is in the course of her grieving. It sounds as if she is both striving to maintain his possessions just as they were after many months, and also experiencing great pain rather than a sense of consolation and closeness to him when in their presence. If so, then it could be that she is reaching for some way to restore a sense of secure connection or attachment to him… but that “freezing” his room is not meeting this need. In this case it could help to consider what steps could be taken to reduce the discrepancy between her inner and outer world, psychologically and practically.
First, let’s consider her inner world. How could she be encouraged to develop a more secure bond with her husband, one that can survive his physical death? Many people feel a greater connection when they spend a bit of time each day or each week writing a letter to their departed loved ones–perhaps a letter that not only laments their deaths, but that also updates the deceased on the writer’s ongoing life. Others find that natural conversations that mention the loved one, share a memory, or consider what he or she would do when faced with a particular problem or question helps to convey the idea that the deceased is still, in a sense, part of the family, and not someone whose very name is banished as the family moves forward. If your mother feels that she is the only one who is “loyal” to your father, she may hold fast to his possessions all the more tightly, whereas if she feels that others also welcome his “presence” she might be more comfortable with allowing her relationship with him to evolve in new and less physical directions.
Second, let’s consider her outer world. The idea of creating a shrine to a loved one is not at all odd, when considered historically and across various world cultures. Indeed, it is far more common than the alternative of “cleaning out” all mementos of the loved one, as is often practiced in the contemporary western world. But a shrine that honors the departed is typically something a person visits, not something in which one lives. For example, a small altar with a few cherished photos of the loved one or special mementos is often placed in the living room of Asian homes, perhaps with candles that can be lit as one spends a few minutes a day praying or having an inner conversation with the person before moving on to other valued people and projects that are also part of life. Arranging such a space together as a family with your mother’s participation could contribute to her feeling less alone in her grief, and allow her to begin to change the space she now maintains for him by contributing to the family altar. Rearranging articles in the room, or establishing a “grief drawer” of cherished reminders that she can open and visit at times, but also close, can be further steps toward allowing the room to evolve, and allowing her grief to evolve with it. Embracing change while honoring bonds can be a natural process, as families find a way of moving into a meaningful future in which all those they have loved can continue to play a part.