Bonds with the Deceased Don’t Have to End

Author: Gloria and Heidi Horsley

“Scott is dead!”

These are the dreaded words that no parent or sibling should ever have to hear, words that irrevocably changed our lives forever. We heard these words in 1983, when Scott Horsley, our beloved son and brother, died in a fiery collision when the car in which he was a passenger hydroplaned and slammed into a bridge abutment. In an instant, Scott’s life was snuffed out. Our lives suddenly turned upside down, plunging us into the dark depths of grief.  

Gloria C. Horsley, PhD, MFT, RN, and Heidi Horsley, PsyD, MSW, MS

As our journey of grief began, we looked to others further along in the grief process for guidance and strength. The journey was bumpy; we had no roadmap. Grief came in choppy, unpredictable waves, not neat, organized stages. Well-meaning people told us we would eventually move on with our lives, get over it, and find closure. These concepts were not comforting and did not make sense to us. We didn’t want to “get over” Scott. To “get over” him felt somehow like we were erasing him from our lives. Scott is the only son and brother we will ever have, and we don’t want to eliminate our relationships with him. To deny them would be to deny an important part of ourselves. Yes, the pain has substantially decreased over the years, but in the years that have passed, our connections to Scott have continued.

Our memories bring us comfort and emotionally sustain us. We would like to share with you what we have done over the last 25 years to honor Scott’s memory, incorporate him into our lives, and keep him forever in our hearts. We will also share with you what others have done to honor and remember their deceased loved ones. It is our hope that through these ideas you will be encouraged to create your own lasting and continued bonds with those who are gone but not forgotten.  

In the past, bereaved families have been told that moving on, cutting ties, and disengaging from deceased loved ones would help them get on with their lives. In fact, many mental health professionals saw this as an important part of the grief process. Up until recently, the majority of grief books talked about progressing through the five Kubler-Ross stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Acceptance was seen as the final stage and the goal to recovery. However, these stages were originally developed for terminally ill patients and were not meant to be used with bereaved individuals. After all, how does one accept that children die before their time? How could we accept the fact that Scott’s parents and even his grandparents outlived him? How could a happy, healthy 17-year-old boy suddenly die? This was not the natural order of things. In addition, there was nothing in the bereavement literature that gave us permission to continue having a relationship with Scott. The bereavement models simply did not work for us.

Thankfully, since that time there has been a major shift in bereavement literature. Research shows what bereaved families have always known: maintaining a connection with the deceased is actually adaptive, and emotionally sustains people. In other words, rather then cutting ties, we are now given permission and even encouraged to maintain emotional bonds by incorporating the deceased into our lives, while simultaneously investing in new relationships and moving on in productive ways.

At this point you may be asking, “How do I incorporate my deceased loved one into my life and move on to new relationships?” It does take time and patience, especially with yourself. If you are in the early stages of grief or under stress, we suggest you start by first taking care of your personal welfare. Find opportunities to tell your story and talk about your deceased loved one. Grief groups provide a great forum for this. Talking about your loved one allows you to begin developing those lasting memories that will sustain you and become part of the tapestry of your life. It is our experience that as time goes on, your journey will become less painful, and you will naturally begin to recognize and cherish memories or little moments that will bring you comfort and joy. In other words, the continuing bonds will become bonds of light that will help ease the fear that you will forget your loved one.

You may be beginning to think of some of the things that you have been doing to maintain your connection to your loved one. One of the projects we have undertaken in memory of Scott is to collaborate on a book, Healing the Grieving Heart: A Message of Hope for Grieving Teens. Also, as a mother-daughter team, we host a weekly radio show called Healing the Grieving Heart and dedicate each show to Scott. On the show, guests discuss their journey through grief and share wonderful and creative ideas about continuing bonds with loved ones. Our guests, listeners, and friends have found many creative ways to keep the connection with their loved ones: 

  • Chet got an extraordinary gift from his daughter, Patti: her heart. Thanks to Patti’s heart, Chet is still going strong after 11 years. He honors his daughter’s name by advocating organ donation. 
  • Dan, whose son died by suicide five years ago, is a golfer. He and his son played together often. Dan now carries his son’s hat and favorite club cover with him whenever he plays the game.
  • Ronda’s daughter loved sunflowers. It has been two years since her daughter died of a brain tumor. This year, Ronda planted sunflower seeds in little pots and gave them to her daughter’s friends for graduation. Ronda also has a garden filled with sunflowers. 
  • Henry and Patricia’s son and Lauren and Kerri’s brother was a firefighter who died in the September 11th World Trade Center attacks. The family has created a picture book that they distribute to honor his memory. 
  • Heidi, Rebecca, and Heather, whose brother died in an automobile accident, each wear a gold heart on a chain with an engraving of their brother’s name. 
  • Joyce, whose daughter died by suicide ten years ago, wears her daughter’s army boots every year on her birthday. 
  • Lisa and her sister loved to listen to music. When her sister died of cancer, Lisa made a tape of their favorite songs. She and her best friend listen often and have a good cry as well as a laugh. 
  • Karl and Sue, with the help of their hospice nurse, Eileen, created an online memorial through The Library of Life for their son, who died of thyroid cancer. 
  • Mitch saved his twin sister’s purse after she died in an automobile accident. He gave it to his sister’s daughter on her sixteenth birthday. 

As you can see, there are as many creative ideas as there are people. Many of these ideas take some effort, but something as simple as thinking about your loved one provides a connection. They will always be in your hearts, especially during life transitions such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, and births. Harriet Schiff, author of The Bereaved Parent (1977), put it well when she said: “I don’t think it’s reasonable to say, well a year is up, time to go forward. Our emotions don’t work that way. We love our children and they’re going to be with us forever and it doesn’t just all go away in a matter of 12 months when you’ve had so much love.”

The reality is that we don’t forget, move on, and have closure, but rather we honor, remember, and incorporate our deceased children and siblings into our lives in a new way. In fact, keeping memories of your loved one alive in your mind and heart is an important part of your healing journey.

Although they are no longer living on this earth, we will always be their parents or siblings. Those relationships never end. Thankfully, our deceased loved ones are a continuing presence in our lives and always will be. Remember, you don’t have to walk this path alone. If you’ve experienced a loss, there are many groups and organizations that can help you. Some of them offer education and information, and some offer guidance, friendship, support, a listening ear, and a caring heart. We wish you peace, joy, and love on your healing journey, and may your ongoing connections with those you have loved and lost sustain you during your darkest hours.    

By Gloria C. Horsley, PhD, MFT, RN, and Heidi Horsley, PsyD, MSW, MS: A mother/daughter team, Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley are co-founders of the Open to Hope Foundation which operates the website, www.opentohope.com. They also are co-hosts of the “Open to Hope Radio Show,” heard weekly and archived on www.opentohope.com . Their latest book is Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss. Visit the website to find more books, articles, and hope.