Q: A "Golden Girls" episode had Dorothy writing to her dead father to "put things right." Is this a useful way of dealing with "unfinished business" or just a TV gimmick? -- A.E., Santa Ana, Calif.
A: It's more than a TV gimmick. Almost every death leaves behind some kind of unfinished business, especially in terms of human relationships. Sometimes those loose ends can complicate the grieving process, making it difficult for survivors to come to terms with the death and get on with their lives.
Sometimes this unfinished business goes unrecognized, and it's good that a popular television program would deal with the complications that can crop up in the mourning process, even years after the death.
The reason so much mourning involves unfinished business is not hard to understand. Relationships grow and change with every interaction. As long as we are alive, our relationships are full of possibilities.
Even in the best situations, there is always the chance for more closeness, deeper understanding, more sharing, more fun together. In troubled relationships, there is the possibility of reconciliation, of reaching better understandings, of forgiving and starting over if things are really bad.
And in relationships that fall somewhere in between -- which most probably do -- there is always the chance to say those important words that often go unsaid: "I love you," or "I'm sorry, or "Thank you." Or, equally important: "This bothers me about our relationship. I wish we could talk about it."
Death -- especially sudden death -- takes away the chance to make things right, at least in person. But as the "Golden Girls" episode illustrates, it can still be important for the survivor to express those unresolved feelings.
That can be done in several ways. A letter to the deceased person is one way. Another way might be to visit the grave or someplace that was important to the deceased person. It should be a place where the survivor might be comfortable talking aloud or meditating about what she wished she had said while the person was still alive.
These feelings are not always pretty. Children might want to express anger toward an abusive parent or spouses might need to come to terms with how they bottled up their feelings about unhappy marriages.
But getting these feelings out is important. Unresolved anger can make it very difficult to come to terms with a death, especially since the anger usually carries with it a lot of guilt. In part, the guilt is a recognition that relationships go two ways, that maybe we didn't do all we could to clear up misunderstandings while the person was still alive. But it also stems from the assumption that we shouldn't feel ambivalent about a death, that anything other than sorrow, pure and simple, would be disrespectful to the departed.
But relationships, especially with those closest to us, aren't always pure and they are certainly never simple. So we end up stranded between the way we think we should feel about a deceased friend or loved one and the way we actually do feel.
Writing a letter, talking out loud, or simply thinking through the tangle of feelings can make a difference.
However, some people may need to do this with professional help. In those circumstances, it's best to find a therapist or counselor who has experience in grief counseling, especially someone who understands the complications that can crop up in the grieving process and the ways in which unfinished business contributes to those complications.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.