2023 - July - Gazette - Death is the Memory of the Living

By: Jackie Naginey Hook
Thursday, July 27, 2023

Death is the Memory of the Living

My sister-in-law passed away a year ago. Last week on the anniversary date my thoughts returned to all the events that led up to that fateful day. Our heads remember.

People will often feel grief flooding back in as the birthdays, wedding dates, graduations, death anniversaries, etc. of their lost loved ones approach. Our hearts remember.

A woman described to me that she felt physically out-of-sorts one day without knowing why. When she looked at the calendar she realized her sibling had died years ago on that very day. Our bodies remember.

On several occasions, people have pulled me aside and quietly shared stories like, “When I was in bed last night, I’m convinced I felt my spouse’s presence. Our souls remember.

Our heads, hearts, bodies, and souls remember our deceased loved ones, but sadly our culture hasn’t always been supportive of this remembering. Thankfully today, there is a well-respected grief paradigm entitled Continuing Bonds Theory that does.

In many cultures, connections to ancestors is valued - think of Día de los Muertos. The Continuing Bonds Theory encourages these kinds of healthy relationships with our lost loved ones. The premise is that relationships are complex and they don’t end with a death. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., describes it as moving from a relationship of presence to one of memory.

I’ve heard many stories of connections that people felt for the deceased as they went about their daily lives. When a red cardinal landed on a nearby branch. When a rainbow was seen at a significant time.  When lost items were found after asking for a deceased loved one’s assistance. When words were spoken and letters written to ancestors.  When loved ones appeared in dreams. When meaningful memories came to mind. Comfort is usually the end result of these connections.

Having an ongoing relationship with your deceased loved ones is part of the grief journey. However, it can become a problem if that is all that you do instead of spending some energy making your life good again.  Mental health providers can help in these situations.

Mental health providers can also help when some of the connections aren’t comforting. In certain situations, traumatic images and memories plague mourners. Gratefully, different kinds of therapy can help.

My role as a spiritual director, celebrant, and end-of-life doula is to companion people – to walk beside them and create safe spaces to be present to what is stirring inside. When it comes to companioning while they continue bonds with deceased loved ones, every person is unique. But what is consistent is memories of loved ones live on in them.

At the funeral and memorial services I officiate, we sometimes have a candle lighting ritual. We begin by lighting a center candle representing the life of the person who died. During the service, others come forward and light candles from this center candle to represent the light that their loved one brought to them.  As we near the end of the service, some people extinguish the center candle to signify the end of their loved one’s life, others keep it lit. In both cases, I draw people’s attention to the light of their loved one’s life that lives on in this world through them as seen in the many small candles. Our loved ones live on in us and through us as we remember and continue our bonds with them. As poet and songwriter, Naomi Shihab Nye, wrote, “People do not/pass away./They die/and then,/they stay.”

You are invited to join us at the following gatherings where we’ll continue to talk about bonds with our deceased loved ones:

More information can be found on the Bereavement Gatherings and Events page of the Koch Funeral Home website. To reserve your spot and receive the invitation links, email Jackie@JackieHook.com, call 814-237-2712, or visit the Koch Funeral Home Facebook page @kochFH.

Jackie Naginey Hook, MA, is a spiritual director, celebrant, and end-of-life doula.  She coordinates the Helping Grieving Hearts Heal program through Koch Funeral Home in State College.  For more information, please call 814-237-2712 or visit www.kochfuneralhome.com.


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