[Editors Note: I was reminded of this Q&A when three members of a family died in my community from COVID-19, a mother, father, and daughter. Many are facing multiple familial losses now, and it is likely to get worse.]
Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
The grief journey never goes away. I lost my dad when I was 14, and my best friend when I was in my late 30s. Four years later another friend. My mom passed 15 years ago, and another close friend two years later. I just lost two friends in the past two months. A neighbor I’ve known almost my whole life if very ill with heart problems and thinks she will die soon. I can’t understand why I’m still here?? I have no purpose. No need to be here. I don’t get it. Thoughts?
Thank you, Diandra
The questions you raise about “the grief journey” are profound and recurrent in human life: Time after time, we outlive one set of purposes, and are prompted to find another. As children our purposes often seem simple–to have fun and please our parents. Gradually we learn that these goals alone are not enough, as we are introduced to still other objectives linked to a myriad of subjects in school and an expanding social world. And of course as time goes on, our choices of what will have meaning for us–this career rather than that one, this relationship over another–become increasingly our own, for better or worse. Though the decisions that anchor our sense of identity and direction may stabilize for a time, ultimately all evolve, change form, or pass away, as we “graduate” from one set of purposes (such as raising a child or earning a living) to another. Looking back, we can usually identify some consistent themes in our lives, but we do so against the backdrop of many losses, and many changes.
And so what does this imply for the difficult sort of adjustments that your life seems to be requiring again at this point? Here are a few principles that can be helpful to hold in mind as you seek a new way forward:
1. Be compassionate with yourself. Change is hard, practically and emotionally. To love someone or something deeply is to grieve that person or thing deeply when he, she or it passes from our lives. This is the irreducible reality of loss: Grief is a form of love. To accept this is one key to our humanity.
2. Leave a trace. All lives matter, and to live into the important relationships in your life, with our family and friends, in a way that communicates what these people mean to us affirms the significance of their lives, just as it also invites us to carry forward their positive impact on us. In this sense, all of those who have touched us are with us still, in our mannerisms and our memories, our personalities and our perspectives. Cherishing this, and giving it expression in the world, is a way of passing on their influence to others.
3. Look for who you are in what you do. Taking the long view, what has your life been about? Are you someone who has offered a generous form of attention to others? been a good problem solver? sought creative expression? connected with nature? found meaning in spirituality? Alleviated others’ suffering? Often these dependable strengths, skills and steadfast values typically outlive any single relationship, and find expression with others. Asking oneself deeply, “Who am I?” and seeking at least 5 answers that go beyond a single role will often point toward our abiding concerns, and pave the way to considering how they can be woven into new purposes when we outlive the old.
Your courage in asking the question, “What matters to me now?” is the first step. With patience and persistence, your grief for your friends may meld into an appreciation of them, and also an awareness of what they found uniquely valuable in you. Ultimately, you may find that the world still very much needs those qualities, as you find a way to express them in new ways and relationships.