For I will soon be gone
And let the love we have live on
And know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
So, until you’re in my arms again
Those No Longer Physically Present Still Play a Significant Role
These are some of the lyrics to the Oscar-nominated song “Remember Me,” written by husband and wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the recent Disney-Pixar film, Coco. In the film, the song is sung to traverse the physical distances that separate family members, but also to commemorate those who are no longer physically present on earth.
A beautiful celebration of Mexican culture and its Dia de los Muertos traditions, the film Coco vividly illustrates the role that deceased loved ones can continue to play in our lives, even after they’re gone. For social workers, especially those working with families and aging clients, Coco serves as a great reminder of the ways that clients choose to stay connected to lost loved ones across many cultures, and the importance of recognizing their presence in clients’ lives.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead
As Coco so beautifully depicts, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a special day to commemorate and honor one’s ancestors who have passed away. This day is celebrated by Mexican (and some other Latin American) families on the 2nd of November. The traditions and activities associated with this day are many and varied, but all center around remembering the dead and celebrating the continuity of life. Families often visit gravesites and set up altars in their homes to honor deceased family and community members, based in the belief that on this sacred day, the souls of the dead return to be with their loved ones. (For more information on the Day of the Dead, click here).
Celebration of Life After Death in Other Cultures
Similarly, many Native American cultures maintain ties with deceased ancestors based in the belief that the spirit lives forever, simply returning to its place of origin when its physical body dies, and thereby completing the circle of life. One’s ancestors are believed to return in spirit form in dreams and visions to offer guidance or bring messages. Some tribes also honor their lost loved ones through an annual Ghost Dance ceremony that shows the dead they are remembered and honored by those who live on. During this celebration, ancestral spirits visit their living family members to offer support and healing. (For more information about Indigenous perspectives on death and dying, click here).
Further, social work research with South African youth living in townships have revealed that growing up within family communities – a collectivist notion that includes all members of one’s family, living or dead – bolsters youth resilience. Theron & Theron (2013) found that “participants’ belief that they were integrally connected to their ancestors and/ or creator (God) encouraged hopeful equanimity” (p. 405).
Recognizing Cultural Differences Through Social Work
These examples show that across cultural differences, deceased family members can remain with us in ways that transcend the physical. While a client’s lost loved ones are not physically present in their lives, they are often present in the socioemotional realm. Family and friends who have passed away can continue to play an active role in a person’s self-understanding, and might be an important source of continued support. As clinicians, we can explore the role that lost loved ones play in our clients’ lives by asking questions about important people who have passed away, and examining how the client continues to interact with them.
For example, in a therapeutic conversation, a young woman discussed at length her close relationship with her grandfather, who had passed away several years ago. While she no longer grieved his loss, she still thought of him often, asking herself what he would think of her accomplishments, or wondering what advice he might give her. When the clinician probed further, she revealed that every year on the anniversary of his death, she writes a long letter to her grandfather, catching him up on what happened in her life that year. “In that way, “ she related, “I still feel we are connected, like he knows what is going on with my life, and we can stay in touch through letters, like we used to do.”
There are countless other ways that people remember, honor, and continue to interact, in some way, with lost loved ones. Another client revealed that her mother passed away, but every year, on her mother’s birthday, she cooks her mother’s favorite meal and the family eats it together in celebration of her life and place in the family. Yet another client shared how a close high school friend who loved surfing passed away several years ago, and every time he and his friends go surfing, they dedicate the first wave they catch to their deceased friend.
Death & Narrative Therapy Practice
Many more examples could be shared to illustrate the ways in which deceased family members and friends continue to play important roles in our lives. While we certainly grieve their loss, we can also find creative ways to maintain our connection to lost loved ones after they are gone, in ways that are sustaining, comforting, and supportive. The narrative therapy practice of re-membering encourages such “ongoing interaction with those who have preceded us in death.”
For social workers, relationships with lost loved ones is an important area of exploration for clinicians and clients to come to new understandings of family constellations and their continued presence in clients’ lives. It is helpful to reflect on these ways of remembering the dead, especially for social workers who practice with families and aging clients, in order to support clients in keeping their dead close in a positive way. As Coco reminds us all, the love we have for deceased family members and friends lives on.
Theron, L. C., & Theron, A. (2013). Positive adjustment to poverty: How family communities encourage resilience in traditional African contexts. Culture & Psychology, 19(3), 391-413.