Jeff and I had such a deep almost cosmic connection that for many years, I thought I’d be pulled into death when he died. It didn’t really bother me; it just seemed as if that’s the way it would be. Later though, as he neared death, it began to seem unfair. Because he was five years older than I was, I felt that if I died when he did, I’d be cheated out of five years of my life.
About a year before he died, I hugged him and accidentally touched his left ear. I know now cancer had metastasized all the way up his left side and into his brain, but at the time, all I knew was that he pushed me away, wincing in agony. Some part of me closed down at that moment, and a voice deep inside me said, “He might be dying, but I have to live.” During that year, we went our separate ways, he to dying, me to living. Then, six weeks before he died, he made the connection with me again. He needed to talk about what was happening to him so he could gather courage to face what was coming, and during that daylong conversation, I remembered why I’d fallen in love with him all those years ago.
Because of the disconnect during our final year, a year where I felt dissociated from him and our life, I didn’t expect to grieve, so the depth of my pain stunned me. I struggled for many years to deal with the wreckage of our shared life. Although he did not pull all of me into death with him, apparently, he did pull part of me into the abyss, and that hole — that amputation — will always be a part of me.
Well, I’ve had those five years I was afraid I wouldn’t get, and six more besides, but mixed in with all the other chaotic feelings of grief were feelings of shame and guilt and betrayal that in the end, my love wasn’t strong enough to keep him here. And it wasn’t strong enough to take me where he had to go. I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to be dragged into death with him, which could be one of the reasons he dissociated from me during that last year. He wanted me to have a happy life after he was gone. In fact, almost the last thing he ever said was to assure me that things would work out for me.
This guilt wasn’t strictly survivor’s guilt because I realized neither of us had a choice. That voice inside me didn’t say “I want to live.” It said, “I have to live.”
And he had to die. With all that was wrong with him, he couldn’t have survived.
Still, whether this is a case of survivor’s guilt or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that many people have similar feelings of shame and guilt when they lose a mate. As if we somehow failed them. As if we failed the test of love. As if we don’t deserve to continue to live. As if our “letting” them die was a shameful act. (In fact, someone said that to me, “How could you have let him die?”)
We feel ashamed too of our feeling that all of this is unfair, but we have that sense of terrible unfairness for a good reason. It is unfair that they died. It is unfair that we have to live this half-life without our mates while others continue their shared lives.
And then, as our shared life begins to fade into the shadows of yesterday, we feel as if we’re doing something shameful when we forget them for a minute or two.
At some point, though, we learn to just let these feelings go. They are truly not important and perhaps don’t even reflect the truth. During their last days and even months, we didn’t always act in the saintliest manner. Even if we knew they were dying, we didn’t KNOW it. We thought it would always be the way it was — our struggling to live despite the death sentence hanging over us. I do know the truth, though. No matter how we now view our behavior both before and after they died, we did the best we could. If we could have done better, we would have, but it’s almost impossible to be our best, most loving selves when dealing with the chaos of end times.
And we’re still doing the best we can despite our mates not being here. Although we often think we have a choice, we don’t always. People don’t choose to have fatal accidents or die from terrible diseases. Those of us left behind didn’t choose our fate, either. It wasn’t a case where we had to decide which of us died and which lived. The choice was out of our control.
I can’t tell you not to feel guilt or shame that you are still living and your beloved is not because everything to do with death, dying, and grief defies logic. We feel what we feel. Still, if you sense that these feeling are getting the best of you, try to let them go. You don’t need to feel guilt or shame. There are enough torments with all the things that life throws at us during the long years of grief that we don’t need to torment ourselves.
This post was written at the request of a fellow griever. If anyone wants me to write about a certain aspect of grief, feel free to leave a suggestion. Since little of grief is truly unique to any one of us, chances are I went through whatever you’re concerned about.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator