Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
As a former student of yours many years ago I have a deceptively simple question. My wife passed away less than 3 months ago. I have not felt her presence since I watched her pass away. The analytical side of me says that death may in fact be final but the spiritual side holds on to hope that there is something after this world that I won’t understand till I am gone. Unfortunately, in the past I was put under for surgery and I fear that it was an example of what life means when you cease to be.
What is the best way to reconcile my conflicting beliefs in order to understand my grief?
You are right that the question you ask is deceptive in its simplicity, as it bears on subtle understandings of the relation between emotional and cognitive “knowing,” or what philosophers call “epistemology,” as well as our human capacity to grasp ultimate reality, or what philosophers term “ontology.” As a psychologist, I won’t try to resolve either of these thorny questions, but instead address briefly what is most compelling in the context of your very personal loss, namely, how you might invite more of a sense of your wife’s presence in your ongoing life, and how you might reconcile this with an analytic part of you that wants this to “make sense,” even if the evidence for an afterlife seems equivocal.
First, let’s acknowledge what we do know: As human beings, we are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. Although everyone and everything in our lives that matters to us will pass away, at least in an earthly sense, we are constituted to strive to sustain the bonds we build with cherished people, places, projects and even possessions, even when they are lost to us in concrete terms. In the context of bereavement, this takes the form of a natural tendency to find comfort, security and meaning in the continuation of the relationship with those we have loved and lost physically, whether we do so in a spiritual sense (as in believing in an afterlife of renewed connection), in a psychological sense (as in opening to internal conversations with the loved one in our minds and hearts), or in a social sense (by memorializing them and sharing stories with others that give testimony to their continued relevance to a larger community). People differ in how they experience such connections, and not all need to feel a mystical sense that the loved one is tangibly with us, although this too is common, especially when our bond to the person in life was strong. You might find, for example, that spending time in places that were special to you and your wife, writing an AfterTalk letter to her and pausing to sense her response, or performing some form of ritual of remembrance, however spiritual or secular, all could help invoke her presence more tangibly for you. The book Techniques of Grief Therapy, though written for professionals, suggests dozens of tools for fostering this sort of healing bond.
Second, given how prevalent across cultures and human history some form of continuing bond is following bereavement, how can we square a heady belief that doubts the legitimacy of the continued spiritual presence of the loved one with a heartfelt hope that it is possible? One response would be to accept that our humble attempts to grasp the complexity of life and the natural (and supernatural?) world are inevitably incomplete, and that our best efforts after understanding leave much that is a mystery. Perhaps in light of this, we can live more comfortably with ambiguity and even inconsistency, acknowledging that our perspective as individual human beings situated in a given culture, place and time will allow us to grasp some things, but not all things—at least in this one, short lifetime. If you cultivate a connection to your wife that survives her death, whatever form this takes, I trust that you can allow yourself to find comfort and affirmation in that special bond, even if you also allow your intellectual curiosity to continue to engage that mystery.