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How do you deal with the loss of a loved one when you were not there?

Jan 20, 2021

In the middle of the lockdown (level 4) a woman from Portugal called me. She was in tears. Her father died after a short illness. The worst was that she could not be with her father when he died. At the time, it was impossible to get a flight to South Africa.

Through her tears, she described her feelings of loneliness, emptiness and sadness caused by his death. She missed him so much. Every Sunday night, she hoped that he would call and that she would hear his voice once again, but all in vain.

For the first time, she doubts whether they took the right decision to move to Portugal. If they still had lived in South Africa, she would have been there for her father, and she could have been at his funeral. Now she is left with a sense of guilt that she let him down.

Everything felt so unreal to her, and in her wildest dreams, she could not foresee that her relationship with her father would end this way. Some days she experiences the heaviness of her loss so badly that she just wants to stay in bed.

Many families and friends who could not be at the death of a loved one experience these and similar feelings – either because they live overseas and distance is an issue or because COVID-19 measures restrict their movements.

But that should not stop us from processing the loss of a loved one in a meaningful way.

Each cultural group bid their loved ones farewell in their own way. It helps in processing the loss we are experiencing and discharging the stress and trauma that death brings.

We briefly discuss two traditional practices that are apparently important to follow and upset people if they don’t:

(1) A well-known practice which is highly valued is for the next of kin to spend the dying person’s last moments with him or her. When we stand at the deathbed of a loved one, we get one last chance to express our reconciliation, appreciation and love, to make amends and say farewell.

(2) The other custom or ritual is the funeral. At the funeral service, the life and memory of the loved one are recalled. During that hour, we not only think of our pain, but also of our beloved’s beauty and dignity, and we find comfort in God, the Alpha and Omega (the beginning and end) of life and the hereafter. Being with family and friends strengthens the bonds of connection to one another.

How can I say goodbye to my loved one and pay homage to the special person he or she was in my life without feeling guilty if I was not at the deathbed or funeral?

1. Say goodbye to your loved one. It is a personal conversation with your loved one in the form of a letter in which you write down your appreciation, reconciliation, forgiveness and love, all your personal messages. Greet your loved one and tell him or her everything you would have if you had been there.

Some people pick up the paintbrush; others use poetry and music to say goodbye. It is an emotional discharge that sets in motion the healing process.

2. Set up memorials for your loved one. These are activities that remind us of our loved one and that we repeat on certain occasions. For example, light a candle for the loved one on his or her birthday, or make a scrapbook of all your fond memories with him or her. It supports the process of healing from the pain and loss.

3. Tell your story of loss, pain, guilt, blame and victory by God’s grace to your friends and people who care about you.

4. Be patient and gentle with yourself. Healing is a process. There will be times when you feel that the longing and loss are too much and that you need help. Then consult a counsellor, social worker, psychologist or your pastor to help you on the path to healing.

Hennie Human and Johan Kloppers
AfriForum Trauma Counsellors

For any enquiries about the AfriForum Trauma Support Unit or if someone wants to make use of the unit, please contact the unit by dialing 012 880 1954 or the emergency number 064 870 8312 or sending an email to trauma@afriforum.co.za.

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