Our Relationship With the Dead

Me and my Grandpa Yates. I mention he and my other grandparents who have died later in this post. ~ RDK

I once worked with a woman who was the youngest of several siblings, all of whom had been sexually abused by their father.  She was in her 40s, and struggled with guilt because she hadn’t “done something” earlier to begin helping her family heal from the trauma.  She, however, was the only person who had been brave enough to disclose the behavior, and to do what it took on her part to make the abuse stop.

One of our last sessions together involved a fairly elaborate ritual; it was an emotional intervention wherein I took the role of her father and tied up each family member (represented by chairs in a circle) with secrets and suffering (represented by a rope, looped through and around each chair).

As she made the decision to forgive herself for not disclosing the abuse sooner in her life, she took a pair of scissors and cut “herself (the chair with her name on it)” free.  It was difficult for her.  She was holding on to self-blame because it was one of the few things she felt like she could control from a very ‘uncontrollable’ upbringing.

She then, however, went on to cut the ropes around her brothers and sisters, in order of who she would approach first, as she made the decision to approach them and ask them to think about starting their own healing process.  The second to last person she cut free was “her mother” as she decided to forgive the one person who might have been able to protect them from the abuse.

The chair remaining at the end of the hour was the one representing her father.  She wasn’t ready to forgive him, and couldn’t sort out how it might even be possible, as he had died about five years before that day.  The woman seemed like a different person after that session, and had worked six months to get to that point.  She told me she needed some time to think through all she’d accomplished, and to visit each one of her siblings.  She wasn’t sure if she’d be back, but she might write someday.

**(BlogHer Community – Start Reading Here…) About 18 months later, she did write.  I was surprised when I received her letter.  She had taken the severed ropes from our session and used them for her own purposes.  Evidently, she moved to a town closer to her family and had taken the ropes to her father’s graveyard.  She left them there by his grave until she was ready to “talk” to her dad.  It took 18 months, but she visited him, told him what she needed to say, and then threw the ropes away.  Shortly after that, she had penned a letter and sent it my way.

I think the most interesting element about that particular situation wasn’t the fact that she approached her father posthumously, or that she had gotten through doing what she needed to in order to move on in her life.  Rather, it was that she mentioned she could finally begin to grieve the loss of her father, and the things that he had contributed positively to her life and the lives of her siblings.  In a nutshell, she began to heal as she forgave him and let her anger against him go – repositioning him into a different place in her heart.

In other words, she healed her relationship with her dead father…completely without his physical presence, choosing, rather, to do what she could with his spiritual presence in her life.

This particular “reconciliation” with the dead has happened more than once with my clients. But there are variations. Sometimes, the need for reconfiguring a relationship isn’t because of something bad that happened.

Instead, other people I’ve known over the years have had an unusually strong attachment to someone close to them who passed away.  Whether they died of natural causes later in life, many times, didn’t seem to matter.  Rather, there was a positive bond so strong it actually disempowered their own life because they were unable to let their loved one go, choosing rather to spend a great deal of energy missing or longing for the person they lost…long past a normal grieving period of a few years.

Finally, there are certainly those who lose loved ones, grieve them, then let them go in a developmental period of time (usually 18 months to 5 years or so) and reposition that presence or personality they lost into a different place.  History, legacy, spiritual realm…these are all terms used for accessing the dead in their lives in normal ways.  Sometimes the dead are used as examples to provide guidance or a sense of identity or belonging.  Sometimes, they’re used as teaching, to pass on lessons learned or journeys already walked for a family member.

I feel fortunate because by and large, that’s how I use my grandparents who were significant presences in my own life and have since passed on.  The photo at the top of this post is me with my Grandpa Yates.  My sense of “true grit, and continuing regardless of adversity” comes from him.  The photo below is me with my Grandma Yates.  My sense of egalitarian roles and feeling like I can do most of what a guy can do on the farm comes from her, watching her work alongside my Grandpa for years and years.

Below that is me (pulling carpet) with my Grandpa Frank, and below that is a photo of a duck rocker he made me.  I think some of my sense of being able to build things or create things comes from him…not all, but definitely some.  And finally, below him, is a photo of five generations on the Crouch/Coward side of my family.  I don’t have as much connection to my great-grandmother Coward, or my great-great-grandmother Crouch, but I do have a sense of “belonging” to my English/British heritage, and evidently get the ability to cook a bit from them as well.

Grandma Yates
Grandpa Frank
Me, dad, Grandmother Emma Lee (living), Grandmother Coward and Grandma Crouch.

I think most all of these grandparents are reconciled in my life to where their positive contributions are sorted out in my head and heart.  And, I can access what I need to in order to grow or get through rough times when I question my next steps.  However, I couldn’t do those things if my relationship with them needed to be healed.  And, I may have people in my life die soon that I’m not quite “finished with,” thus needing some attention in order to work out my relationship with them so I can move on freely.

So, my relationship post question for you today is this: Have you sorted out your own relationships with the dead in your life?  If not, where do you need to start in order to accomplish that step?

I’m concluding this post with a clip from a play I love (Our Town) by an actor who is now dead, Paul Newman.  Newman is in the “stage manager’s” roll and is talking about the dead in our lives.  I thought it was a cool clip to help finish out my thinking about this subject.

In the meantime, I want to wish you a full life…rich with good relationships with those who have gone before you.


Note – The illustration opening this post was shared with permission.



2 thoughts on “Our Relationship With the Dead”

  1. interesting. The only pic of my father I have hanging is the one where he played the stage manger in college.
    How is that done, sorting out relationships with the dead?
    Some, you come to terms with , like parents.
    Some, you just miss like the dickens
    interesting space you fill.

    1. Dear “me” –

      What a poignant capture of your father. I wonder what he did with that particular character? How he played it? What he thought when he did?

      I think sorting out relationships with the dead in your life begins with figuring out what it is that isn’t sorted. Until that is named and felt, I’m not sure you could begin doing anything else with the process.

      When someone is stolen from you, and you miss them like the dickens, especially for long periods of time…then I think the sorting out process might become almost epic, or such a mystery that you then settle for the familiarity of an ache or pain because it’s the best that you can offer. However, if I were to guess as to who you miss like the dickens, and it is another actor in your life, then perhaps you have a play to write – where YOU are one of the leading roles. And, the curtain doesn’t come down until “Peace, The Final Scene” is written on your heart.


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