Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘grieving

Grieving the people we’ve loved and lost

Oct 4, 2017 

We can stay connected to them by creating our own special rituals, says psychologist and grief expert Kim Bateman.

In 1990, one of my younger brothers died in an avalanche in extreme skiing. He was only 21, and the horrific memory I have from that time is of his body lying at the bottom of a 750-foot cliff, all his bones broken.

When he was little, he used to break his bones a lot because he was a risk taker, and the doctors always commented on how quickly he healed. But this time I knew there would be no healing, for him or for our family.

It seemed like our identities shattered alongside his body on the rocks.

My son, who was four, asked me, “What happens when you die? Where did Chad go?”

Being an academic, I said, “Well, Christians believe he’s in heaven with God, and Buddhists believe he’s going to come back as something or someone else. And there are scientists who believe we’re all made of energy and we just rejoin the natural cycle when we die.” And my son looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Yes, Mommy, but what do we believe?”

When we’re forced to say goodbye to someone in the physical form, we’re also being offered an opportunity to say hello to them in our imaginations.

It was a good question and I started looking to my own discipline, psychology, for answers.

Some grief theorists say we humans invest our love or energy in a person and when she or he dies, we withdraw that energy and reinvest it in other people or projects. While that perspective may help some, it missed the mark for me. Because when we lose a loved one, we still love them. And I wasn’t ready to stop loving.

Then I came across this Japanese proverb, which said, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” I loved this quote, because it introduced me to the idea that when we’re forced to say goodbye to someone in the physical form, we’re also being offered an opportunity to say hello to them in our imaginations. Although gone in the material world, our loved ones can become more psychologically present to us.

And we can use this presence to create rituals that will bring them back and provide us with a means through which we can still love them.

One example comes from a folktale I’ve heard about a woman named Nyctea, which means “of the night” and evokes the spirit of the owl.

Nyctea’s job is to protect that which is in danger of being lost in this world, so her cave is filled with bones. She has mouse bones and rattlesnake bones and hawk bones and coyote bones, but the most precious bones are those of her namesake, the owl.

She combs the mountains and riverbeds and gathers them one by one, bringing them back to her cave. There, she patiently reconstructs the owl’s skeleton. When the skeleton is complete, she sits by her fire and thinks of what song she will sing. In this quiet moment of love, the great drum of her heart becomes audible.

The rhythm gives rise to a song and she sings into being the owl’s smooth feathers, its broad wings and its round eyes. On her last note, she breathes life into the owl, and when it feels that life in its lungs, its yellow-green eyes open wide and it flies up out of the cave and into the world.

We must gather our loved ones’ bones and piece them together — they will be the lifeline that carries us through our grief.

When we grieve, aren’t we all a little like Nyctea? Aren’t we collecting bones and protecting that which is in danger of being lost?

When my brother died, I remember that every word he had written suddenly seemed important. We wanted to dance to his music and to smell his clothes. The small pin he owned that said “Just visiting this planet” seemed like a premonition. We must gather our loved ones’ bones and piece them together — they will be the lifeline that carries us through our grief.

As a clinical psychologist, I’ve taught about death and dying and facilitated grief workshops for more than 20 years. I’ve seen many people sing over bones, each in their own way.

One woman in my town lost her 18-month-old son in a horrific car accident. Two months after it occurred, when she was living in the most jagged places of mourning, she re-read the sheriff’s report. It said an unsecured car seat may have contributed to the fatality. So she set up car seat checkpoints and people lined up for blocks. She was a tiny person, and she’d get into each car, put her knee in there, and pry and pull and tug until the seat was secure. She said every time she pulled on a seat belt, she felt like she was loving her son.

I worked with a six-year-old girl whose mother died of breast cancer. She also felt responsible for her little brother who was only four, and her father was beside himself with grief.

I said, “Tell me about your mother,” and she told me, “Mama loved tea.” She came up with the idea of holding a tea party for her. On Sundays, she’d set places for her brother, herself and her mother, and she and her brother would tell their mother about what happened to them that week.

After a couple of months, even their father joined in. That girl is now in college, and she says it’s still a meaningful ritual. Whenever she wants to talk to her mother, she just puts an empty teacup across the table from herself.

Another woman lost her husband after 45 years of marriage. Since he was the one who drove, she decided she’d walk or take the bus instead.

Through an interminable, gray, windy winter, she kept noticing one thing. It seemed like everywhere she went, there were single gloves laying on the ground. Something about these gloves spoke to her because they were useless without their mate, so she bent down and picked them up. She started bringing them home and put them in a dresser drawer until it overflowed. Then, she took out her husband’s ladder and carried it to the tree in the backyard that they’d planted together on their wedding day. She climbed the ladder and hung all the gloves — fastened to fishing lines — on the tree’s bare branches. She said when the wind blows, it’s like they are waving goodbye and waving hello.

When my children were little, on the anniversary of my brother’s death I used to take them to the river with a purple rose (my brother loved the Grateful Dead). The children took turns pulling off its petals. With every petal they removed, I’d tell them something about their uncle and then they’d throw it in the water. Together, we would watch those memories and stories float away.

To create your own ritual, ask yourself what brought joy to your loved one. The more specific you can be with your answers, the better.

How can you do this in your own life? As the story of Nyctea suggests, start by listening to the great drum of your heart. Let it be your guide.

Then, there are a number of questions that can direct you in creating a ritual. Ask yourself what brought joy to your loved one; the more specific you can be with your answers, the better. Maybe Nana loved putting up ham pies for Easter, your uncle sang Frank Sinatra in his underwear on the balcony, your cousin wore a shirt under his graduation gown that said “My parents just think I went to college,” or your sister loved the tingly feeling of catching snowflakes on her tongue. Think about your loved one and what they enjoyed.

Also, think about the physicality of the person you lost. Were they small like a bird, tall like a giraffe, or substantial like an ox? What did it feel like to hug them, and who was the first to let go?

What smell do you associate with them? Maybe it’s fresh-cut grass, Trident gum, sesame oil, lilac, peaches or clove cigarettes.

When you were with your loved one, how did they make you feel? Was it like climbing into a comfortable easy chair and you always felt better about yourself?

Or was it more like a rollercoaster ride and they tested you? What values did she or he feel strongly about? Maybe it was a good work ethic, social justice, freedom or fairness — you can try to incorporate that ideal into your own ritual.

When we sing over the bones of the people we care for, we are sitting in the place of the greatest love imaginable. And we’re not only singing up new life for our loved one, but we’re also singing up new life for ourselves.

Poet W.S. Merwin wrote, “Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle./Everything I do is stitched with its color.” May your song be colorful, and may you keep loving.

This piece was adapted from Dr. Bateman’s TEDxYouth@GrassValley Talk: Singing over the bones.


Grieving in the technology age is uncharted territory.

, July 20, 2016

I’ll take you back to Saturday, June 9, 2012. At 8:20 a.m., my 36-year-old husband was pronounced dead at a hospital just outside Washington, D.C.

By 9:20 a.m., my cellphone would not stop ringing or text-alerting me long enough for me to make the necessary calls that I needed to make: people like immediate family, primary-care doctors to discuss death certificates and autopsies, funeral homes to discuss picking him up, and so on.

Real things, important things, time-sensitive, urgent things.

Image via iStock.

At 9:47 a.m., while speaking to a police officer (because yes, when your spouse dies, you must be questioned by the police immediately), one call did make it through. I didn’t recognize the number. But in those moments, I knew I should break my normal rule and answer all calls. “He’s dead??? Oh my God. Who’s with you? Are you OK? Why am I reading this on Facebook? Taya, what the heck is going on?”

Facebook? I was confused. I hadn’t been on Facebook since the day before, so I certainly hadn’t taken the time in the last 90 minutes to peek at the site.

“I’ll call you back”, I screamed and hung up. I called my best friend and asked her to search for anything someone might have written and to contact them immediately and demand they delete it. I still hadn’t spoken to his best friend, or his godsister, or our godchild’s parents, or a million other people!

Why would someone post it to Facebook SO FAST?

While I can in no way speak for the entire planet, I certainly feel qualified to propose some suggestions or rules for social media grieving.

How many RIPs have you seen floating through your social media stream over the last month? Probably a few. Death is a fate that we will each meet at some point. The Information Age has changed the ways in which we live and communicate daily, yet there are still large voids in universally accepted norms.

This next statement is something that is impossible to understand unless you’ve been through it:

There is a hierarchy of grief.

Yes, a hierarchy. It’s something people either don’t understand or understand but don’t want to think or talk about — yet we must.

There is a hierarchy of grief.

Hierarchy is defined as:

  1. a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority, and
  2. an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness.

What does this mean as it relates to grief? Let me explain.

When someone dies  — whether suddenly or after a prolonged illness, via natural causes or an unnatural fate, a young person in their prime or an elderly person with more memories behind them than ahead — there is one universal truth : The ripples of people who are affected is vast and, at times, largely unknown to all other parties.

A death is always a gut punch with varying degrees of force and a reminder of our own mortality.

Most people are moved to express their love for the deceased by showing their support to the family and friends left behind.

In the days before social media, these expressions came in the form of phone calls, voicemail messages, and floral deliveries.

If you were lucky enough to be in close proximity to the family of the newly deceased, there were visits that came wrapped with hugs and tears, and deliveries of food and beverages to feed all the weary souls.

Insert social media. All of those courtesies still occur, but there is a new layer of grief expression — the online tribute in the form of Facebook posts, Instagram photo collages, and short tweets.

What’s the problem with that? Shouldn’t people be allowed to express their love, care, concern, support, and prayers for the soul of the recently deceased and for their family?


And no.

Why? Because there are no established “rules,” and people have adopted their own.

This isn’t breaking news, and you’re not trying to scoop TMZ. Listen, I know you’re hurt. Guess what? Me too.

I know you’re shocked. Guess what? Me too. Your social media is an extension of who you are. I get it. You “need” to express your pain, acknowledge your relationship with the deceased, and pray for the family.



Please give us a minute.

We are shocked.

We are heartbroken.

Give the immediate family or circle a little time to handle the immediate and time-sensitive “business” related to death. In the minutes and early hours after someone passes away, social media is most likely the last thing on their minds. And even if it does cross their mind, my earlier statement comes into play here.

There is a hierarchy of grief.

Please pause and consider your role and relationship to the newly deceased. Remember, hierarchy refers to your status and your relative importance to the deceased.

I caution you to wait and then wait a little longer before posting anything. This may seem trivial, silly, and not worth talking about, but I promise you it isn’t.

If the person is married, let the spouse post first.

If the person is “young” and single, let the partner, parents, or siblings post first.

If the person is “old” and single, let the children post first.

If you can’t identify the family/inner circle of the person, you probably shouldn’t be posting at all.

Do you get where I’m going with this?

In theory, we should never compare grief levels, cast the grief-stricken survivors into roles, or use words like status and importance. But maybe we need to at this moment (and for the next few weeks and months).

The “RIP” posts started hitting my timeline about an hour after my husband’s death, and I certainly didn’t start them. This created a sense of confusion, fear, anxiety, panic, dread, and shock for the people who knew me, too.

What’s wrong? Who are we praying for? Did something happen? Did someone pass? Why are there RIPs on your wall and I can’t reach you? Call me please! What’s going on?

That’s a small sample of messages on my voicemail and text inbox. I had to take a minute in the midst of it all to ask a friend to post a status to my Facebook page on my behalf.

Your love and expressions of support are appreciated and needed, but they can also be ill-timed and create unintended additional stress.

The person is no less dead and your sympathy no less heartfelt if your post, photo, or tweet is delayed by a few hours. Honestly, the first couple of hours are shocking, and many things are a blur. Most bereaved people will be able to truly appreciate your love, concern, prayers, and gestures after the first 24 hours.

I’ve learned this from the inside — twice within the last four years. And I assure you that if we each adopted a little patience and restraint in this area, we would help those who are in the darkest hours of their lives by not adding an unnecessary layer of stress.

A few extra hours could make all the difference.




August 2021

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