The humpbacks were breaching and spyhopping not far from shore. But the man standing near me kept his head bent to his phone. I jumped up from my glass of iced tea and interrupted him, pointing.
“See the whales?”
He gasped, thanked me three times, and called his sweetheart to look. I returned to my tea amid an upwelling of tears. I should’ve been able to share the whales with my sweetheart, too. He had died. Still, as I wiped discreetly under my eyes, I took comfort in knowing I’d done the right thing—and not just by dragging a man from his phone. This trip to Hawaii was a gift to my Tony and sharing the whales, even with a stranger, was a gift to him, too—an action he would want me to take.
After Tony’s unexpected death a few years ago, actions I consider gifts for him have become a key aspect of surviving my loss. Mourners commonly take steps on this path by baking a cake or visiting a favorite restaurant on the birthday of someone they’ve lost. The intent is to keep living as whole-heartedly as we can when we would rather curl up in a ditch.
Many bereaved people reach this mindset sooner than I did, but now I take it further. I advocate giving lost loved ones more elaborate gifts—by doing what they would have done if they were here, from charitable contributions to treating ourselves as they would.
This isn’t as easy as onlookers may think. Despite your views of a trip to Hawaii, that was a gift I gave my sweetheart, not myself. It’s fodder for jokes—or a rationale for divorce—when people give gifts they covet themselves. A child who presents Mom with a toy is adorable. The spouse who buys a fishing reel for a non-fishing partner? Not so much. Gifts generally reveal more thought and love when they reflect the recipient’s tastes, not the giver’s preference (which is where my dad fails when he buys fru-fru gifts for my down-to-earth mom).
Knowing Tony intimately, I have a good idea what he would want. When it came to Hawaii, though, I resisted. We had been there together, and visiting now meant flying alone, feeling his absence beside me. It meant facing a hotel room and restaurant tables empty of him. Worst, it meant comparing every activity, from hauling luggage to a walk on the beach, to memories of the same experiences with him. Those memories are sweet, but the distance between them and my current life hurts.
Love sometimes means doing what the other person wants, whether I want to or not. It’s still true when that person is no longer around. And Tony wants me to keep traveling and scuba diving—passions that brought us together.That’s why I went to Hawaii: to show him the fish through my eyes. To taste the adventures we would be having together if he were still here to plan them.
This practice requires insight into your loved one plus enough recovery to make their preferences happen. In my case, the former was easy. If Tony were still here, on any given day he would be:
Taking care of me. This is a great reason to schedule routine medical tests or take other good-for-you actions your beloved might nag you about, if they could.
Paying attention to home upkeep. Every time I organize his beloved workshop, putting away things I’ve dumped there in passing, it’s not a chore. It’s a connection to him.
Making me laugh. YouTube is usually good for a giggle.
Maintaining the car. I drive my car through the carwash because he would, not because I care. (You can tell by how it frequently looks.)
Cuddling me. The best I can do is to occasionally schedule a massage, but I think of that comfort as coming from him.
Geeking out on home remodeling projects we talked about and would’ve worked on together. This sometimes means hiring help, but when I added onto our deck, I managed mostly myself.
Buying me gifts. When I shop, I sometimes still hear him teasing me about never actually purchasing anything. He loved to treat me, though, so I sometimes overcome frugality to splurge on something from him.
Planning our next exotic vacation. This knowledge tugged on my heart until I finally gave in and bought the ticket to Hawaii.
What would your lost loved one want? There’s a good chance their list would overlap mine, even if you’ve lost a child or sibling rather than someone in a caretaking role. So rather than leaving that stuffed teddy bear on a too-early grave to be tattered by rain, sleep with it so it can cuddle you, too. Get tickets for that baseball game or concert—you can always take a friend, but feel your loved one’s enthusiasm too, while you’re there.
You’ll probably receive gifts in return. I did. My first two days in Hawaii, I felt Tony was confirming I had done the right thing by displaying a number of wonders for me. The whale show was only the start. Spinner dolphins frolicked while I watched for nearly an hour. Octopi, normally shy, swam past me on multiple dives. While hiking, I stumbled on a beached monk seal, a hidden grotto, and a land tortoise haven, none of which I expected. I received the request for this article the same day. The next morning, a huge double rainbow stretched from island to sea. The gifts I give Tony carve a similar arc—spanning from this life to whatever comes next, keeping our connection and our love alive.
This last point is important. One aspect of recovering from a loss is redefining our relationships with those who have died.
As grief experts often note, the relationship doesn’t end—it changes. Among the changes, of course, is that we stop buying socks and favorite foods for that person. But we still can profess our undying love with gifts of a more subtle nature. That may include eating their favorite food in their honor. (I draw the line at blue cheese.)
Spending money isn’t required. Simply treat yourself as beloved. Rest when you need it. Say no to unreasonable demands. You know your loved one would support that. I struggle with the concept of self-love, but embracing the job of nurturing myself, as he would if he could, helps me keep feeling his love. And mine for him. As with my experimental trip to Hawaii, it allows me a hint of the joy we would be having together. Finally, it’s not scientific, but it makes me feel like I’m sharing an experience with him that he otherwise can no longer access.
This may sound like an excuse for self-indulgence. So what? Surely the bereaved need to find comfort and pleasure wherever they can. But my real intention is deeper—to take concrete steps toward a continued relationship. The one left on earth has to handle the logistics, but who’s to say the one who's gone can’t feel the love surging when we think of them? Small gifts to the dead can launch that feeling, just as the flip of a fin can send a 40-ton humpback surging out of the sea.
I’ll risk indulgence to feel the breaching of love.
Experiencing loss? Continue reading for more wisdom on honoring grief.