“I have no sense of who I am or how to live on my own,” Margaret tearfully admitted, six months after the death of her husband and the subsequent end of her 45-year marriage to a loving, controlling man who ran their social and financial life. Molly, in losing her only child, told me that her life held no meaning. “Little Tim was everything to me; I am nothing now that I am not a mother.”
Harold and Sam grew up as inseparable brothers one year apart. They shared a room and went to the same high school. They cheered each other on as members of the varsity tennis team. When Harold died in a car accident at 16, Sam dropped off the team and refused to apply to college, saying he and Sam had not decided where they wanted to go.
As he spoke, Sam’s voice shook with fierce despair. “Without Harold, I have no sense of what I want now,” he said. “Nor do I care.”
My friend Emily, who lost her fiancé in our invasion of Iraq, told me that she no longer reads the daily newspaper or goes to a sad movie. She is frightened she might start to weep and be overtaken by her grief. Emily lives a life of anxiety and exaggerated daily fears that, though seemingly unrelated to her loved one’s death, express the feelings of loss she denies. She wants to find another love, but her relationships remain shallow and unfulfilling in her efforts to keep control over her emotions.
The severing of a love relationship through death fractures the foundation of the bereaved. Our culture’s common belief that one must rapidly get up and move on after such a loss results in denying death and repressing grief. This societal pressure adds to the trauma, creating isolation and misunderstanding, and separates us from our natural inner healing process. But even beyond the power and influence of our culture, we deeply fear our own grief. It’s that fear that keeps us from being able to participate in our natural healing process.
Why does experiencing our grief feel so life threatening? When I finally allowed myself to feel the truth of my twin brother Michael’s death I was terrified I would drown in the resulting tide of tears. After many years of being a psychotherapist specializing in bereavement and twin loss, I have come to believe we subconsciously fear that if we truly grieve our loved one’s death, we will also die. All people who are deeply bonded with another person lose in death — in the shattering of that physical connection — an important part of themselves. In the loss of that connection, a part of us does die. In grieving, we allow ourselves to open to that double loss. In grieving, we are acknowledging the death of what no longer exists.
My friend told me, “After my son Jason died, I was lost to myself. I became agitated and so afraid of what lay deep inside. I was pushing forward with a life that couldn’t be open and that couldn’t listen. I had no idea that my body knew the healing path if I could but stop, and trust, and dare to let go.”
One of the ironies of human existence is that it is our grieving that calls forth our healing. By grieving, we are slowly accepting into all parts of ourselves the death of the physical existence of our loved one. And in having the courage to feel and express the emotional memories of our relationship, we are not only grieving, but honoring and witnessing our loved ones’ lives.
Each slow, painful mourning step allows the physical relationship to transform, becoming newly and forever present for us in our hearts. Each step allows us to support the formation of a new sense of individual self. Each step also brings us closer to re-experiencing our cherished memories, the eternal gift of our beloved, and our mutual love, without crippling pain. And by our trust and willingness to allow the ending, we are opening ourselves, and our lives to a new beginning.