“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.
What else might block this dark passage to recovery?
The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.
As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?
All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.
But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?
Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.
Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.
A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.
Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.
Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.
The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.
Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.
Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?
Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.
I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.
The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.
Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.
Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.
Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.
The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.
Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.
I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.
They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.
The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.