Art Linkletter, a popular television personality decades ago, hosted a show entitled, "Kids Say the Darndest Things." It was built around things children said while talking with him. Grieving people also say, do and experience unusual things in response to their loss and pain.
One experience is a sense of presence, a strong feeling that the deceased loved one is present, invisible but present. Or there might be familiar sounds or smells, like the scent of the loved one's perfume or after shave. There are rational explanations for all of these — most typically hallucinations — but they are real for the grieving person. It is fruitless and unkind for others to deny or make light of them. They are defenses against the awful assault of death and loss upon the survivor.
Holding onto the lost loved one — at least to some degree — is in fact normal even though many survivors do not talk about such feelings and actions. Many, perhaps most of us, keep linking objects: items of clothing that retain the wearer's smell, letters and greeting cards, souvenirs from vacations, favorite songs in some format, etc. Some people return to gravesites regularly and some of them feel a sense of presence and/or comfort during these visits.
It could be argued that removing all of these close reminders would speed up the process of getting past the loss, of recovering from grief. Point one, remember that most people never really "get over it." They adjust and make the loss a part of who they are. Recently, a good friend who, like me, is also a widower, commented that he did not cry as much as he had a year ago but remains as lonely and sad as ever.
Familiar things are everywhere, cannot be removed. They trigger memories that may be sweet but still sad. Take the time when I was alone in a small restaurant and noticed a young mother tenderly helping her toddler eat, so much like another young mother from another time. My weeping alarmed her until I could explain. No, taking away the linking objects that sometimes offer a measure of comfort will not do away with grief.
This might sound weird to others, but a lot of us talk to our beloved dead — at home, on the road, at the cemetery. Most of us are pretty sure that they do not hear us. Still, such conversations were central to the lives we shared and a one-sided conversation is better than none. Maybe because their ways of thinking have become part of our own minds, sometimes their answers to our questions and dilemmas pop into our consciousness as we speak. At such times, are they totally absent?
We tend not to be truthful, even those who have the pure hearts and good intentions. Most of us do not report the unusual experiences we have. When asked the usual question about how we are doing, we give the usual "just fine" or "doing OK" answers. Indeed, people under the impact of grief experience, say and do unusual things. It is not normal to hear the familiar voices or detect the familiar smells of their beloved dead. To cultivate the continuing connection with deceased loved ones by holding onto linking objects or talking to them could be seen as futile. But grief creates a "new normal."
After all, that which is normal varies culturally and situationally. In mourning rituals, grief takes extreme expressions in traditional Hindu and Polynesian cultures, self-immolation and self-mutilation. In our own society, death can radically restructure the self of a survivor and the way that he or she will live in the future.
This death-denying society needs to recognize the undeniable reality of death and its impact upon everyone. Then those living in the "new normal" created by death and grief will find a reasonable fit in the fabric of their world.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.