The Conundrum of Grief

Tolstoy wrote, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.” This is especially true of those of us who have lost our soul mates. What we once were (or thought we were) has died along with our loved ones. Now we’re wandering the desert of aloneness and wondering why we are still here. Since we don’t know, life seems impossible.

Recently, there was a news article about an elderly couple who died within hours of each other. This is the sort of romantic story that we all believe in — that when one of a pair of soul mates dies, the other will die also. Unfortunately, that does not happen very often, which is why it is noteworthy when it occurs. Life is at once very fragile and very tenacious. Having watched my life mate/soul mate’s struggles, I know how difficult it is to die. People can suffer for years, fading slowly and painfully, hoping for death to release them from their agony, but still endure.

New grief feels as if it will kill you, but it seldom does. Such grief is so very strong that it takes your very breath away. It makes you feel as if you are having a heart attack and some sort of terrible gastrointestinal disease at the same time. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, make wounds difficult to heal, retard recovery from illness. The death rate for those whose life mate’s died increases by 25% for all causes of death — disease, accident, trauma. Despite this, almost all of us, to our shock, find that we have survived the trauma of such a heinous loss.

Here is the conundrum of grief: if they got the better end of the deal, if they truly are in a better place, then why are we still here? And if life is worth living, how can we not care that it is being denied our loved ones?

I always thought I’d die when he did, and I wonder if that’s where some of my deep sorrow comes from — an unconscious feeling of not having loved enough, been connected enough to die at the same time as he did. But the truth is, I wanted to live, though I don’t know why.

About a year before he died, I hugged him and somehow so aggravated his pain that he pushed me away. A voice deep inside me, beneath conscious thought, proclaimed, “He might be dying, but I have to live.” I have no idea what that voice was. I’d only heard it once before, and that was when I met him. Thirty-six years ago, I walked into a health food store to buy whole-wheat pastry flour, and after talking to the owner for two minutes, that voice wailed, “But I don’t even like men with blond hair and brown eyes.” It wasn’t love at first sight, our meeting, more of a primal recognition. And that same part of me recognized that our shared life was over. After that day, our lives started to diverge — he to death, me to continued life.

I don’t know why I was so determined to live then, and don’t know why, almost twenty-two months after his death, I am still determined to live. Curiosity, perhaps. Curiosity to see what I can make of my life alone, to see what I am, to see who I become. Curiosity to see how I will make life seem possible once more.