One of the most painful parts of grief is facing a string of tomorrows without your loved one. Whether you lost the love of your life last month or were in utero when your dad was killed. Whether your older brother lost his battle with depression three years ago or your mother slipped quietly away while in hospice care — the past is all you have with them.
Or is it?
I firmly believe memories can still be created today, tomorrow, weeks, months and years after the death. Relationships change as people change. Why should that evolution stop just because our loved ones aren’t with us in physical form?
Whether you believe in life after death or not, whether you knew your loved one or not, these five steps can help you capture a precious relationship and continue to create memories that keep love alive beyond the grave.
1. Believe what you feel or think you might almost remember … you’re probably right.
It’s so easy to second-guess when a fleeting thought or “almost maybe memory” comes to mind. I wasted a couple of decades getting to know my dad by brushing off thoughts and feelings that were actually spot on. When I heard “Back to Pooh Corner” or saw a Shell Oil sign, the thought “Daddy!” raced to mind. I would quickly chase it away. Come to find out, Dad used to sing that song to me and didn’t buy his gas anywhere else. Believe what you think you might almost remember. You’re probably right.
2. Ask battle buddies, family, and friends from all chapters of his/her life to share who he/she was.
Almost everything I knew about my dad while growing up came from my mom’s stories. When I was in my 30s, I boldly reached out to Daddy’s shipmates who fleshed out the character of my father, filled in the gaps, and added the missing dimensions that helped me see who he really was. Yes, it was painful, for me and for them, but also healing. I now have half a dozen salty sailors who have adopted me as family. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who knew and loved your hero. Honor their decision to share or not. It may be hard and they may not share, but if they do, the memories will be priceless.
3. Find a sacred place to “visit” your loved one.
No matter where your loved one is, find a place to visit with him or her. If your loved one is cremated or missing, or if you're like me and live 2,000 miles from his grave, find a veterans' memorial, church, special park bench or boulder in the mountains that is your sacred spot. Go visit with and talk to your loved one.
Be open to peace and connection you are entitled to, no matter where you choose to “visit.” When possible, go to your loved one’s grave. The experience will most certainly be memorable if not miraculous. The key to spectacular events is allowing them to come and letting even something tiny be a sign or God Wink from your hero.
4. Pick up one of your loved one’s hobbies and “go there” with him or her.
If your brother loved to run, train for a race and run/walk in his honor either at an Inner Warrior event or during one of the virtual races. If your fiancé was a scuba diver, take a class and go scuba diving at a place he always wanted to go. If your mom loved Broadway shows, go watch one with her. Invite your loved one into your thoughts as you do the activities he or she loved and build beautiful memories together.
5. Incorporate them into family traditions, whether old or new.
Whether you are a family of one or one dozen, you can start new or continue old traditions in your loved one’s memory. Have a special meal or specific activity on birthdays. Start a 5K or scholarship in your hero’s honor. Pay it forward by buying a stranger a movie ticket or the car behind you lunch on your loved one’s angel-versary. Let’s face it, we are survivors of service members who probably would most like being honored with service in their names. Incorporating traditions around special days to include your loved one can take away some of the sting from his or her obvious absence.
Be creative and open to how you are able to feel a connection. As Bonnie Carroll says in her God Winks class, “Love is eternal.” So you are living — keep living, keep loving and keep creating memories!
From the pen of…
Author/Speaker/TAPS Peer Mentor Allicia Johnson is the surviving daughter of Navy Lt. j.g. Burr N. Johnson III who died by homicide when she was just 2 years old. Allicia is a health, fitness and chocolate enthusiast who found TAPS in 2015 and was part of the 2017 TAPS Cape Cod Ragnar Team.