The Long and Short of Grief

A therapist friend wanted to know the difference in grieving between someone who lost their life mate/soul mate at the beginning of their relationship and someone who had many years with their mate.

I hesitate to compare grief because we all grieve in many ways for many things, but after a grievous loss, such as that of a spouse, there is a general pattern to grief that one’s mind and body seem to follow. If there weren’t similarities, then no one’s story would have any relevance to any one else, and I do know that what I have written about my experiences with grief resonates with many people. So my answer doesn’t have to do with the depth of grief. There is no way to measure that. I’m mostly discussing the two cases on the base of the patterns of grief.

A long life with a loved one and a short life that was cut off before the relationship could deepen aren’t the same — can’t be the same — and yet, in some respects they are similar. We grieve the loss of an entire lifespan of a person and a relationship. I grieved for both the time I had with Jeff and the time I didn’t have. The fiancé of an acquaintance died right before their wedding. She didn’t have the same amount of time with her fiancé that I did with Jeff, but she will still grieve for the time she had and the time she didn’t have. I had more loss looking back, perhaps, but she has more loss looking forward. For both of us, too many plans and hopes didn’t come to fruition, but especially in the case of the woman who went to a funeral instead of to her wedding.

Losing a loved one to death is always hard. It’s possible in the long run, the fiancé will have it a bit easier in that she won’t have as many habits that are abruptly cut off. When you spend a lifetime with someone, you develop habits to enable to you to cohabit, and then when the habits come to an end because of the loss, your brain goes into overdrive. We do so much by habit, and then suddenly, after the death of a spouse, you have to think how to do everything. (It’s like trying to remember how to walk instead of simply walking.)

Also, when you spend a lifetime with someone, you have the whole problem of your lizard brain going haywire because the other half of your survival unit is gone and when it doesn’t return, your lizard brain suddenly realizes that it too will someday die, and what a horror show of chemical and hormonal imbalances that part of your brain can foment! She won’t have that, but she might have other issues I don’t know about, such as a feeling of unfairness. We all feel the unfairness, of course. My parents had 60 years together. Jeff and I had half that. And oh, did that seem so unfair to me! I imagine the sense of unfairness the fiancé felt was off the charts, because it was incredibly unfair. She didn’t have even one year with her mate, and I got 34. For those of us who have spent many years with our loved one, eventually we are left with a feeling of gratitude for the years we did have to balance the unfairness, and I’m not sure there is much to balance the unfairness of what the fiancé experienced. She’s happy now, married to a widower, and has children, but still, there is always that grief for a love cut short, regret for a life that might been.

There is the terrible shock of death we all feel. There is also a sense of waiting. In my case, I kept waiting for Jeff to call and tell me I could come home, and the fiancé had that, too. Waiting. Always waiting to hear from someone who is so utterly gone from this earth.

And confusion, of course. As confused as I was after Jeff died over where he was and how he was doing, it must have been even greater for the fiancé. Even thinking about it, I feel confused. How is it possible that such things happen? So unfair.

A major factor in the loss of a mate, long-standing or not, is the nearness of death. When you are deeply connected to someone who has died, you feel as if you are standing on the edge of the abyss, as if any loss of balance will pull you into eternity.

That feeling of being able to reach out and touch the love one depends on your level of connection. Some people who have been together many years never had (or have lost) such a deep connection, while some new couples feel it immediately. Still, the presence of death is never easy to handle.

I’m not sure I helped my therapist friend with this analysis, but it was the best I could come up with. All I know for sure is that the death of a person intrinsic to our live dims the light of the world and it takes many years before we adapt to that dimming.


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.

6 Responses to “The Long and Short of Grief”

  1. rheashowalter Says:

    I think you hit on a good point that no matter how long the relationship was we grieve for the years we did not have, the plans that never will get completed, the love that we had planned on sharing, etc. So if we have a shorter history, we have a longer future we are missing out on. I was married for 26 years – unhappily married. Then I found my LOVE, my HOME. He was gone in only 18-1/2 years. I felt cheated and a ton of other emotions as you can imagine. But after 4 years without him physically with me, I spend more time feeling gratitude than most other things. How many of us are so lucky to have found that kind of love at all in our lives, and I was lucky enough to find it at 50 when most single women never find a mate at that age. I miss him everyday, but how blessed was I to have had that relationship even if it seemed far too short?!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Like you, I spend more time feeling grateful than anything else. We weren’t always happy, but we were together, and we were connected in some cosmic way which is what mattered then. And it still matters, even though after eleven years of his being gone, I am starting to forget what that felt like.

  2. Estragon Says:

    I suspect grief is different when experienced earlier in life. Not easier, but different, mainly for the reasons you’ve talked about. There may also be a higher degree of resilience in our youth as well, with an expectation of lots of time left to rebound from losses.

    My mother and her fiance were hit by a car in her youth. He died, she was badly injured. She didn’t talk about it a lot, but my sense is she was, perhaps, better able to put that (and her later divorce from first husband) behind her than the death of her second husband much later in life.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I also think grief is different in late middle age or early old age, not harder, just different. You’re too old to have the resilience of youth and the years looming ahead to enable you to start your life over completely and yet too young to just give up and wait for the end.

  3. Uthayanan Says:

    First I must thank Pat’s contribution to grief.
    I am suffering very much fourth year of grief more than third year. I hope I can go through with it.
    I feel in my opinion it is impossible to compare grief in any level.
    It is something like :
    “ Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother” in 1953, and decades later we’re all still trying to digest and accept his cautionary wisdom”
    I am continue to learn with Pat’s writing with grief.
    Even I respect all people’s grief in any level I agree with Pat’s has already said grief of a child and your soul mate more important than any grief.
    I don’t believe in ideal wife or ideal husband. But people lived more than 30 years (it is an example) were lived important part of their life learnt to live together with all their understanding concession give and take.
    It is impossible it repeat again. It is not the same experience when you get older.
    In my case what I have learned from my last five years with my soulmate that I am never going to learn again and never going to read in any books. It will going to make an impact in my future life and with the depth of my grief.
    Like me other people they have their own experiences to cherish.
    Still I am very shocked about the compare of grief
    The Long and Short of Grief
    Love means never having to say you’re sorry

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Every age group has a different challenge when it comes to grief. Every person has a different challenge, but it’s all grief, and all painful. Wishing you peace as you continue to make your way through the pain.

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