How continuing traditions can help us deal with loss

Erica Crompton in conversation with Anjali Singh-Mitter, on coping with bereavement.

Erica: It is said loss of a loved one is one of the hardest things to deal with. It was in an hour session with a clinical psychologist that I decided to spend some time focused on loss, in the event of losing a grandparent this year.

As a patient on the therapist’s couch I was given some advice that stuck: continuing family traditions of those we’ve loved and lost can help us deal with their departure, and foster a feeling of closeness even in their absence. 

I caught up with Anjali Singh-Mitter, a therapist whose father still runs his own successful practise, to find out more about family traditions.

Memories as therapy

Anjali: Hypothetically, interacting with someone, loving someone, and then having that void to fill, can be extremely difficult when that person is no longer there. Continuing traditions is a reminder that the person you love and miss so much does continue to exist: they continue to exist in us. Just like Rafiki said to Simba in The Lion King, ‘he lives in you’. Memories, photos, experiences with and without that person are all energies that are very real and do exist. Continuing a tradition is just one of those ways that we can stay in touch with someone who may not be with us in everyday life anymore. 

A mixed bag…

Erica: Are there any drawbacks to continuing traditions?

Anjali: This is a mixed bag because there’s a huge amount of good in continuing a tradition, but there’s also the tendency towards that tradition just becoming a way of grieving and losing value in what it actually is. Continuing a tradition is, of course, a way of keeping in touch with the emotions around missing someone who passes away, and it’s also a way of keeping their memory alive. It’s a way of not letting their memory fade into the background and warp into something different. We won’t get into a ‘what is memory’ discussion now, but there’s a lot there that I could say too! 

However, with time, memories do change. The presence of that person can and does change, and people get worried by that. People get scared by this idea of letting someone go into this undefined ether of non-existence only to suddenly return when triggered by a photo or item or event. And when that return does happen, it either incites pleasant memories, or the wave of grief all over again. 

My point is, traditions are important and some people really get a lot out of continuing them. A tradition is actually one of the most valuable things that someone can give you, and you can give your children, and they can continue it and so on and so forth. However, we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about letting that tradition evolve along with the generations. Easier said than done, believe me… even I am a stickler for wanting to preserve some things the way I learned them. However, traditions that change are traditions that allow us to grow, and that is so important when we lose someone. It’s important to honour them, to love them, to continue to love them, and to allow ourselves to grieve fully and whole heartedly. But it is also important to understand that there is value to being able to love that person and continue our lives, and it is never a matter of it being one or the other.  

Evolving traditions from loved ones

Anjali: My father runs a successful, innovative therapy practise, but it is important that I don’t just continue to do what my father does. If I got hung up on doing things like my father, I’d be trying to achieve something that I’d never be able to do: I’d be trying to create something identical to what he does and that is, quite simply, impossible. Just as you can’t replicate memories you can only make new ones, I can’t replicate his practise, I can only create a new one. So I could be terrified by that prospect, or excited by it, and I choose to be the latter.

There’s a magic in what we do, but it’s unique to us as individuals, and the tradition is a part of that. Tradition doesn’t hold that magic, we do. Tradition doesn’t hold memories, we do. Tradition doesn’t hold emotion, we do. Tradition is important, and is often the gatekeeper to the way we feel in certain situations, but it doesn’t have to hold us to ransom. We, as individuals, are more important than tradition, and I think our loved ones who we lose would agree. It’s cliche but I really do believe that our loved ones would want us to be our best selves and be able to move through and past the stagnation in an unchanging tradition of grief, and allow both the tradition and the grief to evolve into something where we’re growing, loving, and being present in our lives. It takes time, but it can happen. We all need help along the way, that’s inevitable and not something we should ever be ashamed of. And most importantly, our loved ones will always live on in us for as long as we love them, because love is an energy that is more powerful than any other power that we possess.

Tips and take-home

Erica: Today as I reach middle-age, and having now lost all my grandparents, their legacies live on in my home and life. For my Grandmother on Mum’s side I have chosen to focus on the positive sides of her memory and amassed faux blooms in my cottage – big floppy roses, poppies and orchids. This is because my Granny Amy also loved faux blooms (apparently they were popular in her heyday, the 60s) and just like my cottage today, her retirement flat was well-stocked with silk and plastic flowers. More recently I went to a football match with my family as again, it was a family tradition, and one my departed grandfather loved so much.

Anjali: There isn’t a subject in the world that has all the answers to loss and grief. Scientists, psychologists, philosophers, writers and so on are all just trying to do the same thing: to make sense of the world around us. Why do we go through these ups and downs in life? Why do our minds work a certain way? How similar or different are we all as human beings? 

Erica: I’d encourage psychologists and all people suffering loss to seek-out traditions, or what your loved one enjoyed that’s unique to both you and them, as human beings – whether it was rambling, walking or even just a family recipe you can make at home. The key is that this is something you’ll also enjoy, like you’d loved one did.

Anjali: The beauty about treating mental health – and a huge reason I do what I do – is that every single person comes with a totally unique perspective on life, and somewhere between what I believe and what they believe there lies another step in emotional growth and development. The more ways we can treat mental health, the better. It’s not all about the science of the brain, and it’s not all about behaviour either. It’s about perspective, balance, and ultimately, being able to really find someone who can connect with you.  

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