Grief: Love or Codependency?

Heavy winds today reminded me of a walk I took thirty-five years ago. (Weird, huh? Hadn’t thought about that day in a very long time.) It was a lovely spring evening, or rather, it would have been if it weren’t for the winds. But I was too restless to stay inside. This was about six months after I met the man I would spend the next few decades with, and like a homing pigeon, I headed for his store even though I knew he wouldn’t be there. I wanted to feel connected to him, even if in such a minor way.

When you fall in love, such bits of silliness are expected and excused. Apparently, they are understandable in the context of new love. But when you spend a lifetime with someone, and you still have that connection, people start looking askance, thinking that perhaps you’re codependent. And when he dies, leaving you feeling as if half of you died, too, then the pointing figures become more . . . pointed.

A few days ago I posted my latest chapter of the collaborative novel Rubicon Ranch that I’m writing with eight other authors. In my chapter, I wrote:

Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered her husband when they first met. His hazel eyes had blazed with golden lights as he smiled at her, and young fool that she’d been, she’d been dazzled. They had a great life, or so it had seemed. She’d felt safe with him as they traveled the world over. And free. What need had she of a house, a car, kids when she had him?

Well, now she had nothing but debts. And doubts. Had Alexander ever loved her as she loved him?

Today I had a bizarre little exchange with a total stranger. He wrote: “This excerpt suggests your ‘young’ lady may benefit from CODA; this is like AA for Co-dependency; a peer support group[P2P] that provides support for individuals struggling to devise[and adhere to] a recovery plan[WRAP].”

I responded: “Maybe she simply loved her husband. Not all people who are deeply connected to another human being have codependency issues. Her surviving her spouse’s suspicious death confuses the matter, makes her wonder what was real. Perfectly normal behavior under the circumstances. Grief skews one’s perceptions.”

His response: “Kinda my point! How do we define for ourselves what is real love, or a symptom of dependency? …define for ourselves who is grieving; who is stuck in this codependency conundrum?”

There is no codependency conundrum here. Just because two human beings are depending on each other for love and support, it does not make them a therapist’s subject. And even if only one of the parties is in love, as might be the case in my story’s scenario, it still doesn’t make the one who loves codependent. Unrequited love is still love.

It’s very simple. Love means wanting what is best for the other. You help each other grow. You never expect the other to fix your individual problems, though you often take each other’s advice. You don’t cling, demand, or base your relationship on unrealistic expectations. Together you provided a safe environment where each can be yourself. And you support each other any way you can. No matter how connected you feel or how bereft you are when your mate dies, if the relationship helped make you grow, made you a better person, it is not codependency no matter how it appears to outsiders.

Admittedly, this exchange was about a character in a book, but I’ve had similar conversations with people about my grief, as if grieving for a life mate/soul mate is somehow . . . sick. As if it makes me un-well-adjusted. The truth is, I am very well adjusted, so much so that I’ve been willing to make my grief public in an effort to spread the word that it is okay to grieve.

And it is okay. Don’t let anyone blow off your grief.

Codependency or Interdependency?

Several months ago when I was steeped in grief, I found comfort in the thought that my deceased life mate — my soul mate — was at peace, but then it occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t, that if there was some sort of life after death perhaps he felt as split apart as I did. According to one minister I talked to, my mate could be having problems depending on how codependent he was. Whatever that means. I thought a relationship was about being dependent on each other, and we were. At least until our last year together when we began untwinning our lives so we could go our separate ways — he to death, me to continued life. That’s also why my grief shocked me so much—I thought we had untwinned even before he died.

Shortly after that conversation with the minister, a woman who should have known better accused me of being codependent because I was having such a hard time learning to live without my life mate. (The truth is, I knew how to live without him because I was doing it. What I was having a hard time with was wanting to live without him. Life, of course, doesn’t care what we want, and I continued on to where now I am — mostly “healed.” ) But still, there was that C word again.

I can see that people would have questions about codependency considering how bereft I was without him and how lost I felt, but when he was alive, we were never obsessed with each other, though we were connected in so many ways. We were friends, life mates, and business partners. We always wanted what was best for the other. We helped each other grow. We never expected the other to fix our individual problems, though we often took each other’s advice. We didn’t cling, demand, or base our relationship on unrealistic expectations. Together we provided a safe environment where each of us could be ourselves. And we supported each other any way we could. Yes, we were dependent on each other, but isn’t that what life is all about?

Long-term illness, however, does skew a relationship. Over the years, our world kept getting smaller and smaller, trapping us in a terrible situation where neither his nor my needs were being met. To that extent, perhaps, we were codependent, staying together when others might not have, but what is wrong with that? Still, I’ve felt foolish at times admitting my need for him. In this world that prizes independence so much, it seemed immature and self-indulgent.

But, as one commenter on my Grief is NOT Self-Indulgent post said, “There is nothing foolish in dependence. The foolishness lies in the notion that we are not co-dependant on each other. We are a co-dependant vulnerable species who waste a whole lot of time and cause ourselves much suffering by pretending we are not. There are many reasons why we perpetuate this denial but just as we are dependant on the earth for our physical health so are we dependant on each other for our emotional health.

“Personally I feel there is a strong connection between people not understanding grief and those same people not understanding just how precious and vital their relationships are. Every day I see people not recognizing the value of each other. It often amazes me how much we deny our dependence on each other . . .  we don’t even like the word dependant. Perhaps that is why grief is so hard to witness for then our dependence is there in the open smacking us in the face.” (She developed this idea into a blog post The Illusion of Independence at Leesis Ponders.)

Well, I no longer have to worry about whether we were codependent or interdependent. I am independent now. His death freed me, but for what? I still have to figure that out.