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.

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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.