In Sigmund Freud’s seminal work, “Mourning and Melancholia,” he suggests that for mourning to be successful, the loved one must be totally relinquished.

For those who have not read his later works, Freud evolves from this thinking as well as from other assertions he made in this early work. To read “Mourning and Melancholia” is to read the first in a body of work that moves away from certain positions. Additionally, others came later and developed more of the ideas that began with Freud.

One of those ideas that evolved was Freud’s idea that for mourning to be successful, the loved one must be relinquished. Freud himself revised this idea, after his own daughter died and he realized total relinquishment was not possible. Instead, he asserted that for mourning to be successful it is not necessary for the loved one to be relinquished so much as internalized. You relinquish the relationship as it was, the physical relationship, the mutual relationship. A process of healthy mourning is, instead, to internalize the person…to work through the pain, the sorrow, the loss, and be left with an internal reference where you can go and have happy memories or, at least, non-painful ones.

Successful internalization allows the relationship to be reframed in a context that permits the bereaved to go on with pleasant memories instead of being constantly besieged by painful flashbacks of the shared past. When the grief work is complete, a new, redefined interpsychic relationship is possible that is of great benefit to the bereaved. This redefinition has occurred when “deference for reality gains the day.”

Many of those who came after Freud to write about mourning did so with similar attitudes that the idea of mourning is to resolve the relationship, to let go the physical attachment, and replace it with an internalized view of the loved one. Helene Deutsch who wrote “An Absence of Grief” wrote that the process of mourning as reaction to the real loss of a loved person must be carried to completion. She said that so long as attachment exists, painful emotions will continue, and mourning is never complete.

In order to evolve the relationship to one of great attachment to internalization, the review is necessary. If you just “let the process happen” as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross suggested, the review happens on its own (as it’s been happening to me). Therese Rando, in Complicated Mourning, said that in order to relinquish old attachments two things are necessary:

1. review and remember realistically
2. revive and reexperience the feelings associated with the loved one and the lost relationship.

She writes, “Remembering realistically involves a complete review of all recollections about the deceased and the mutual relationship. ALL means precisely what it says: the full range of memories, and all of the feelings about them–good and bad, happy and sad, fulfilling and unfulfilling, comfortable and uncomfortable, and so forth.”

She also writes that feelings, both positive and negative, are what keep us bonded to another (a lot of this theory shows up in my writings on breakup grief). Again, in order for the attachment to be severed, feelings must be felt.

As the review, remember, revive and reexperience happens, the emotion starts to subside as the lost one is internalized and the attachment to what was diminishes by review and emotion about that review.

Rando writes, ” [S]uccessful mourning does not require a complete withdrawal of emotional investment. Rather a modification of it and a transforamtion of the relationship from one of presence to one of memory. (Treatment of Complicated Mourning, p. 48).

As Rando says, the mourner is tied to the deceased by thousands of attachment bonds. Freud said it is the painful bit-by-bit letting go that is so difficult. This is the untying of the attachment bonds. You let go that special person, your unique relationship, all the joy and comfort you received from it, and all thoughts and hopes for the future. A big chunk if it’s a significant relationship. To detach, the first order of business is to review.

While the review is painful, the emotional intensity lessens each time (actually not each time…it’s not a gradually declining thing but more of an up and down thing). Beverley Raphael wrote that it’s the reversal of the attachment process. And when it is not welcome, as most deaths are not, it is a very difficult unbinding.

For widows, Colin Murray Parkes writes: the widow has lived with the assumption that someone is there to share and to care. With the husband’s death, all assumptions are shattered including that someone will be there for you in times of trouble. Here you face the biggest trouble you have ever known and you constantly turn toward and look for the person who is not there. The familiar world is not familiar and no one is there to guide you.

I find this true in my own process. So many times I have a day where I feel just drained and want to pick up the phone and call Michael…and he’s not there. And I don’t know what to do. And my day is bad because he’s not there and made worse by the fact that the one person I want to tell about my bad day isn’t there. It’s not even as if I shared all my bad days with him. A lot of times I was just comforted knowing I COULD and felt no need to run to him with every little thing. But when you can’t run with ANYTHING, it leaves a total void.

In the unbinding of attachment ties, the ties are not forever severed but rather changed to reflect that the loved one is dead and no longer an active participant in the giving and sharing of love and affection.

A new relationship must be forged. Evolving the relationship does NOT mean leaving the past behind or forgetting the loved one. It does NOT mean cutting all connection. Because so many people think it does, they find new and inventive ways to hold on. But if they knew that it didn’t mean letting go or forgetting, they could move on easier.

Death does not end the relationship. It alters it. one can have a relationship with a dead person that is not weird, strange, pathological or unhealthy. Therese Rando gives this example of psychological healthy continuation and psychologically unhealthy. A widow is met with a challenge. She considers what her husband would do in a particular situation as input into her own decision. That is healthy. But to just think of what he would do and then blindly do it, trying to please him or honor his memory, is unhealthy. Adaptation to the death includes understanding that you have to make decisions alone. You can call on the experience you knew with your spouse to help you in that decision but to say “Well he would have wanted it done this way…” is to abdicate responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings and decisions.

The relationship continues as the person uses his or her experience with the deceased as an influence in future endeavors. Sometimes a shy person might have gone to functions with a more out-going spouse. The outgoing spouse encouraged the shy one to mingle more, don’t be so shy, eveyone will love you when they get to know you. When the more gregarious spouse dies, the shy one is left on her own. She can shutter herself away and refuse to go anywhere, or she can internalize the prompting and encouragement given by the spouse and use it as an emotional support as she makes her way to the social events alone. This is not to say that the person should go places that were special to the deceased spouse for them as a couple (no, that might be trauma inducing) but to go to “normal” social events alone.

Identification with the deceased person can be a slippery slope but it’s possible to take up something the deceased like or to adopt some preferences of the deceased. Another thing (that I do all the time) is incorporate his sayings into every day speech. (I’ve actually done this with a few of my ex’s as well….it’s keeping the good parts of the relationship while letting go the bad.)

When it’s over-identification, it’s too much and it’s pathological. If you’re wearing the deceased person’s clothing instead of your own. Michael and I had a certain set of running pants and tee shirts that we didn’t seem to know who really owned them (we were of similar size) and routinely wore them to the tune of the other going, “That’s my tee shirt.” or “those are my running/sweat pants.” So I have those (still unclear as to who owned them.) In fact, when I was going through his dresser, I found several tee shirts that I said out loud, “Honey, this is MY tee shirt. Bad honey.” So I am definitely keeping the ones that used to somehow (“somehow”) wind up in his drawers. The ones that were sorta “ours.”

But if I suddenly started wearing his NASCAR tee shirts, that would be weird. And bizarre. And unhealthy.

Another area that can trip us up is keeping things. We all know someone who has kept a “shrine” to a deceased love one and some of us find that to be unhealthy, creepy even. I know I battle that with my own bedroom as I’ve written about on here before. I know that I have to, at some point, pare down what I have, to keep enough to honor Michael and our marriage but put enough away so that I’m not keeping the attachments unhealthy. I put a few of our couple pictures downstairs with the various pictures of the kids. I moved stuff around on the dresser but I can still tell what two pictures are missing. They were there for 12 years.

We have a slate plaque that reads, “An old fisherman lives here with the catch of his life” that Michael bought shortly after we were married. It hangs over the doorway to our bedroom and I really get stuck on that one. I love it and the fact that he bought it. But he doesn’t live here anymore. But I’m not ready to take it down. But I will. Another slate plaque under the honeymoon pictures is in the shape of a heart and reads “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be.” and part of me is almost ready to take that down. In anger maybe. We were robbed of our growing old together.

I still sleep with his pillows because I envision that there will be other nights when I have a complete meltdown and want to weep into them. At some point they will have served their purpose. The night I watched “Dances with the White Dog” I wrapped myself in his blanket as I had an emotional meltdown. Since then, I’ve incorporated the blanket into the repetoire of blankets on my bed. It’s now one of the group, no longer THE blanket (the one he used the whole time he was sick).

So the untying is a process. And it’s a balancing act on the way to a new identity and a new relationship.

I suggest that others do what I do. I check myself. I have constant conversations about healthy, unhealthy. The painters took down Michael’s belt that had hung on the back of the bathroom door since the night of his seizure. I tried to take it down once but couldn’t. It’s down now and what I did was replace the hook where it hung.. So that the old hook doesn’t mock me. The new hook has no connection to Michael. So it’s not as painful.

It’s a process. An important and exceedingly difficult process. How much to hold on to, how much to let go of.

Review and relinquishment.

Difficult but necessary.

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