We talk to our dead, and we see them manifest in nature. We hear their car turn into the driveway. We revive them imaginatively, meeting them not only in our dreams, but also in the park or in the kitchen. In the strange normal of grief, we sometimes even put out their slippers or wine glass, pretend-waiting for their return. On the harrowing trek of bereavement, it is not particularly unusual - and nor is it crazy - to temporarily enlist the odd little ruse and contrivance as we tussle the inscrutable question: Where are you? 

In her exquisite memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2012), Joan Didion charts her grief through the first year following her husband's sudden fatal heart attack. He died at the dinner table. Stunned and hankering - and with a daughter very ill in an intensive care ward when her husband's coronary struck - Didion mobilized loss & departure's magical thinking to hold possible - and be ready for - John's return. She would keep his cell phone charged. And even after she'd packed up and dispatched his clothes to local charities, she held onto some of his shoes - well, "he'd need shoes if he was to return" (2012:37).  

Didion (2012: 34) refers to grief's power to "derange the mind". And of course it feels crazy to slither down into trickeries that hint at a return that we know, rationally, is impossible. Yet when we grieve, we temporarily dwell in a strange-normal world of oddities. 

The Year of Magical Thinking begins with the sharp eclipse of normal life that sudden death brings:

"Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." (2012: 3)

Rather like the never-forgotten phone call that cleaves the world from right out of the blue: "I have awfully bad news. It's ... I'm so very sorry ... she's gone."

Well no, of course she isn't gone. Just yesterday you were out with friends, laughing heartily, tossing a salad, getting home to feed the dogs as usual. Leaving your nightcap glass - last thing - clean and facedown on the driprack. Why wouldn't you be here, doing all of that, today? 

Unprepared as we are for death at a dime-a-dozen meal  - "you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends" - it makes sense that in the fractured days, weeks and how-much-more ahead of a great loss, we slide into moments of pretending our lost one's presence real. One of the gains of 'pretend-real' and bringing the person imaginatively into the here and now, is that we help ourselves to viscerally sense our loved one, having in our minds and bodies a revived sense of the precious attachment. In brain science terms alone, we'd possibly be activating the neural clusters linked with feeling safe and secure - a significant attempt at gain through the sometimes overwhelming anxiety that comes with loss. 

In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud understood grief as the process of withdrawal of psychic energy from the mental image of the loved person - a process that toggles between our deep wish to keep them, and acceptance of the reality that they are gone (Barnato and Irwin: 1992: 23). We find ways to cling on to them, and some of them are perfectly illusionary and hallucinatory, going by a certain sort of definition. When a loss is fresh, and particularly if also unexpected, our capacity for wishing for a return exceeds our acceptance of the brutal fact that they're gone. Pretend-real thinking is an understandable facet of grieving, rather than something we need exorcise as abnormal. The temporary oddities of bereavement will very likely pass when their time has been served. 

Disbelief is a natural response to bombshell news. The emotional shock response often includes a numb, spaced-out component that buffers us from the startling new reality too horribly true to tolerate. Attachment and separation specialist John Bowlby (1998: 286-287) points out that in the early stages of grief, we don't really believe that the loss will be forever, but imagine that we can both recover and reproach the lost person - with anger frequently aroused alongside the recoverability belief.

"Where are you?" is the plea that burns so fiercely after a loss. In Letters To My Son (2013), Mignonne Breier of Muizenberg writes a series of letters to her late son, Matthew, who died very suddenly from leukaemia at 25. The letters are the conversational diary of a mother filled up with longing and the enduring where-are-you entreaty. I was touched and reminded, reading this book, by the way in which our conversations with our dead are also a way to invite 'their' help, so that we can find our way through, and finally, clasp life again. In one of the letters Mignonne confides in Matthew: "And I don't know how to carry on. I was just beginning to finish my letters, I could feel you urging me back to life. But should I not be stopping now to get some understanding of life? Tell me, Matthew, what to do." (2013:186) And he does, when the time is right, guide her with youthful acuity to "GET A LIFE, MOM!" (2013:193).

The schemas offered by grief researchers can be helpful guideposts, provided we allow for our own grief not to fit any particular schema, stage guide, task-list or timeframe. Grief is so utterly individual. It depends so much on the kind of relationship we had with the deceased. And, of course, we do it with all that we are, and we evolve our way through it. And, says Didion (2012: 198), "We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."

Some of the strange-seeming habits we develop in mourning could be the very rituals that help us recover. Researchers Michael Norton and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School ('Rituals Alleviate ...') found that performing personal rituals after a loss have the potential to mitigate grief, even if the people performing them have no particular belief in the benefits of ritual. The benefits, they suggest, hinge on restoration of control, which in turn is associated with coping and a sense of wellbeing.  

Keeping sacred spaces for those we've lost - places that 'live' with their presence - can soothe and ground. Breier's (2013: 149) letter to her son on his thirtieth birthday: "So we climbed Muizenberg Mountain to your special rock that we used to call Stonehenge and now call Matthew's Rock. We have done that on every anniversary day since your twenty-eighth birthday ..."

In the Celtic tradition, writes John O'Donohue (1999: 255), there is a sense that the dead dwell not too far away. Ireland has its places  - old ruins and fields - where the ghosts of people are seen. "That kind of folk memory", he says, "recognizes that people who have lived in a place, even when they move to invisible form, somehow still remain attached to that place."  And the Celtic world would have no sense of oddity in all of this, but rather a sense of folk wisdom.

Loss fissures deep and wide, and can feel incredibly erosive and unearthing of the best of our fortifications. Bereavement is dislocating, intensely stressful and exhausting. Says Didion (2012: 27): "Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and obliterate the dailiness of life." Grief is an experience that begs a shielding of sorts. Odd as it all may seem, our keeping company with disbelief, our imaginary conversations, quirky new rituals, the seeing of signs in ordinary phenomena, and our dippings into pretend-real thinking are some of the ways in which we - quite creatively - cast about on the passage of grief and bereavement.


Barnato, A and Irwin, HJ. (1992). Major therapeutic systems and the bereaved client. Australian Psychologist, 27:1 p23.
Bowlby, J (1998). Attachment and Loss, Vol 2: Separation. London: Pimlico.
Breier, Mignonne (2013). Letters To My Son. Cape Town: Kwela Books.
Didion, Joan (2012). The Year of Magical Thinking. London: Fourth Estate.
Norton, MI and Gino, F. (n.d.) Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.  Retrieved April 29, 2016, from http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/10683152/nortongino_rituals-and-grief.pdf?sequence=1
O'Donohue, J. (1999). Anam Cara. Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World. London: Bantam Books.

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