Navigating Grief – Changing Relationships

Death Transforms Relationships

While dealing with the recent loss of my twenty-one-year-old son, I went to see a local Catholic priest. He happens to be a highly trained and experienced psychotherapist.

As we discussed death and the rituals surrounding it, he opined that when anyone dies, our relationship with them changes. This strongly resonates with me because it is something that I have already been reflecting on deeply.

Life After Death?

Whether you believe that our loved ones live on after their bodies have died or not, our relationship with them changes. Even the most evangelical atheist will still carry the souls of the deceased in their hearts in the form of memories and feelings.

If the deceased was the source of knowledge and guidance, to whom shall we turn when they are gone? What becomes of the wisdom they have passed on to us? We may feel a sense of duty towards them.

Sense of Duty

The strongest sensation that I have experienced since my son’s death is the feeling that he is everywhere. I saw his body, felt the coldness of his skin, and had no trouble coming to terms with the fact that he was not there. The body he had inhabited was completely lifeless, but I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. He had been fighting brain tumours since August 2020, and he’d had enough. He was freed from the suffering of that body.

My eldest son, Mathew Morrison (2000 to 2022)

My relationship with Matty changed because he went from being someone “in there” to being ubiquitous. He was reunited with “God”, the “holy spirit”, the universe or whatever you prefer to call it. Either way, I wasn’t going to find my son in that decaying body.

He’s With Me Always

I can find Matty wherever and whenever I want. He isn’t in one place anymore, but certain environments make it easier to sense his presence. I feel him while sitting silently in a church or when I meditate in the forest. These activities are simply gateways to an alternative state of consciousness. How I find my son has changed from having to relate with him while he inhabited that body to something more intangible yet deeper.

Another way that my relationship has changed while staying the same is the sense of having to set a good example for him. I still want to be a good father and a decent person. Regardless of how you view the souls of the deceased, I reckon that we become far wiser on the other side. That raises two interesting issues.

Do Dead People Need Parents?

Firstly, why would anyone who has passed away need the help of their parents or any ordinary mortals for that matter? How I can be a great father to Matty is a moot subject. Nevertheless, I still have a sense of duty.

Nowhere to Hide

The problem with trying to set an example now is that he is all around and privy to my thoughts and feelings. I am totally exposed and so is my hypocrisy. Matty’s death has therefore supercharged my conscience in a healthy way, I believe, by raising the expectations I have about my own behaviour. That drives me to do better. Even if I want to lie to myself, I can’t lie to my inner conscience, and I can’t hide from my late son.

Losing a child causes a kind of grief that probably only bereaved parents can understand. Some say it is the toughest. For sure, I have never cried as much as I have in recent weeks. It is as though I have two minds – the cerebral one, which is fully aware and thinks things through, and the corporal one, which is mostly unconscious and processes life events in a different way. Grief is grief. Every experience is unique.

For most people, one of the most significant losses they will experience will be the death of a parent.

Unfinished Business

My father passed away under traumatic circumstances when I was twenty-one years old. He was a severely damaged person, and he could be physically and emotionally abusive.

On the day he died, I had just returned from a three-month trip to Spain, but Dad was on the warpath, and there was a lot of tension, which led to a row in the early hours. For the first time in my life, I threatened him. Sadly, those were the last words he heard from me because minutes later, he suffered a devastating heart attack and despite my best efforts to resuscitate him, he died. That tragic event left me with a lot of unfinished business.

For a start, I couldn’t turn the clock back and unsay what I had said. And no amount of CPR training would allow me to bring him back to life. The fact that he had passed away shortly after I had threatened him left me feeling burdened with guilt. What had been an empty threat spat out in anger had been transformed into something far greater, and I felt like a murderer. How would I ever fix that?

Who was my dad, really? How would we have related as men or as parents? I will never know, but I maintained a relationship with him for sure, and it wasn’t always healthy.

The Genetic Link

It took several years, almost a decade, to come to terms with my dad’s death, forgive myself, and to forgive him for the hurt he had caused me. The thing that convinced me that I had to find a way to forgive him was the understanding that to be at war with him was to be at war with a substantial part of myself. Half of my genes had come from him, and I was getting to know him very intimately through them.

I met my father’s demons – depression, anxiety, rage, paranoia, loneliness, and insecurity– and I recognised how destructive they were, not only to me but to those around me. How could I judge him? I also discovered his better qualities – sociability, charm, charisma, a musical ear, and a sharp mind for example. This process of discovering him genetically was accelerated when I gave up alcohol at the tender age of twenty-eight and started attending regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

The twelve-step program means a whole lot of soul searching and honesty. I couldn’t run away anymore, and neither could I dampen my feelings through the bottle or marijuana. Sensing my inner demons wasn’t enough. I had to face them head-on and deal with them.

Empathy Pays Dividends

With all the other noise that was going on in my twenties, it was difficult to hear the most vivid part of Dad that lived on after his death – the part that I had been absorbing subconsciously for the first twenty-one years of my life.

My memory is a law unto itself. For example, when I took part in a global study into facial recognition, I discovered that my ability is up there with the top three per cent in the world, although I can’t say I was surprised. Back in the days when none of us had Google at our fingertips, it was difficult to prove whether this person was the same one who played that part in that film a few years ago.

The digital age had changed all that, and it was soon obvious to me that facial recognition was one of my superpowers. There were many occasions when it felt as though I was able to see things that nobody else could, and Google was helping me to prove it. I could recognise a face no matter how brief or long ago the initial encounter had happened or how much it had changed. How was that possible?

Human Sponge

My real superpower is pattern awareness and whether I like it or want it or not, I absorb patterns and process them subconsciously. I internalise facial expressions, vocal tone, linguistics, body language, gait, group behaviour, and other patterns. Reverse engineering those patterns subconsciously allows me to intuit what people are feeling with a high degree of accuracy. That comes in useful for a ghostwriter!

Long after my father had passed away, I still sensed him living inside me like a ghost or alter ego. I remembered a lot of the stuff he had said to me, and I echoed a lot of his mannerisms. My dad was unhinged in many ways, but that didn’t mean he was incapable of wisdom. He did his best to guide me and prepare me for life, just as I did my best for my son. Being a parent’s not easy, and none of us is perfect.

Accepting the Mantle

Dad’s death was so messy that the grieving process was hijacked by a load of other stuff that I had to process. It was different when my mother passed away peacefully almost exactly ten years ago.

I had a superb relationship with my mother, and I used to tell her anything and everything. Nothing was off the table. Fortunately for me, she was a master at letting stuff wash over her, an art she had developed as a young mum raising seven children. I am sure that a lot of the stuff I said went in one ear and out of the other. That was fine because most of the time, I was just thinking out loud.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

When Mum died, I was reminded of some of the scenes in the iconic film Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert and featuring a superb Queen soundtrack. Who can forget Who Wants to Live Forever? Whenever one of the immortals takes the head of another immortal, they absorb their soul and consciousness and become more powerful.

The film finishes with Lambert’s character, the highlander Conor MacLeod, taking the head of the only other remaining immortal, the evil Kurgan. It’s a wonderful story of good versus evil, and on Kurgan’s death, McLeod becomes ubiquitous – all-seeing, all-wise and all-powerful.

Head of My Branch of the Morrison Tree

My mum wasn’t a highlander, I didn’t behead her, and I didn’t become God-like on her death, but it did feel as though I absorbed her. I was not the same twenty-one-year-old who’d had to deal with his dad’s death. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and this time, I felt the transfer. It was a powerful experience.

I had become the head of my family, the top node in my family tree. It was as though my mother had passed the Morrison mantle on to me. From that moment, I had no parents to turn to, and my children had no grandparents on my side of the family.

Gifts for Mummy

I think most children want to make their mums proud. From the first time we manage to leave a present in the potty to bringing home a significant other, we want to share our successes with Mum. That part of my relationship has changed. There’s no physical body to talk to or answer me when I share a new victory or moan about a setback. I like to think she’s around, watching over me, and just as proud of my achievements as I am.

How Do You Relate?

Everything I have shared with you here is purely subjective. I am neither trying to convert you to anything nor asking you to agree with my perspective. Our relationships with the people around us, the living and the dead, are unique but worth being mindful of. Being mindful of my relationship with those who have passed has helped me to process their deaths in a constructive way and to grow.

I hope you have found this article useful, especially if you are dealing with a loss of your own. Writing about my experience of grief has helped me enormously, but that’s me. You have to find what works for you, whether that’s writing about it, talking to someone or saying or writing nothing at all.