When long term relationships end due to the death of one of the partners, there's an inevitable adjustment to the new reality of life without that person who has always been there. Adaptation to the radical changes in life of a surviving spouse is arguably one of life's most difficult transitions.
There's no doubt that in the immediate aftermath of the death of a spouse, pain and confusion are two of the most probable reactions. Even following a long-term illness, where there has been substantial time to prepare, the overwhelming impact of the reality of the death is devastating. It quickly becomes obvious that there's no way to effectively prepare for the finality of death.
We recognize that all relationships have ups and downs and highs and lows, but for purposes of this discussion, we are focused on long term relationships that were essentially loving and positive. Over the course of 30 years of helping grieving people, we've listened very carefully to what they've told us. What we heard were accurate reports of wonderful relationships, yet there was often a tremendous amount of pain attached that didn't reflect the story of the relationship.
At that point we realized that almost immediately following a death, people often develop a relationship to their pain about the end of the relationship, which somehow seemed to supersede the relationship itself, with all its wonderful events mixed with the normal struggles and frustrations.
As we observed this all-too-common phenomenon, we realized that many people were inadvertently associating the pain that they experienced and re-experienced, as an equation for the love they had felt and now missed. We then were able to create some helpful language that simply said: "Pain doesn't equal love, love equals love."
It's obvious that in the first few weeks or months following the death of their spouse, a grieving person would be overwhelmed with a level of emotional pain that is difficult to describe. In fact, that kind of reaction is quite normal. Even though we spend a considerable amount of our energy trying to dispel the myth that time heals all wounds, we were confused with the frequency with which we observed people to be in an intense level of emotional pain long after a death had occurred. By long, we mean years.
Recognizing the phenomenon we'd labeled as people's relationship to their pain, we began using a piece of language to help grieving spouses shift from living in pain to the idea of completion. One day while talking to a griever on the phone we said, "It doesn't seem right that a relationship that should leave a legacy of love has turned into a monument to misery for you."
We have since said that thousands of times, each time with the aim of helping someone break out of their relationship to pain so that they could begin to complete what was emotionally unfinished with the person who died.
One of the traps of grief and then unresolved grief, is the almost diabolical speed at which the relationship to pain develops, takes root, and becomes almost permanent. You've probably known someone who has been reciting a litany of pain for years and years. It may have been very frustrating for you not to be able to help them.
Whether you are a mental health professional, a friend, or family member, at some point you may have realized that by allowing that person to endlessly repeat their sad story, you were not necessarily helping them. But, as you much as you cared for that person, you may not have been able to communicate to them what we have said in this piece. Also, they may not be able to hear you, because you are too close to them. Sharing this article with someone you think would benefit from it may propel them to a new understanding and even to actions for change.
Grieving people can truly become stuck in their pain and become unwilling to look for any solutions, in part because they equate their pain with love, and also because they can't think of any reasons or goals that would encourage them to do anything other than live in the pain that has become their constant companion.
There are three essential objectives that can be achieved as the result of taking the actions of Grief Recovery:
1.] To insure that fond memories do not turn painful.
2.] To allow us to remember our loved ones as we knew them in life rather than be stuck only with images of them in death.
3.] To be able to have a continuing life of meaning and value even though our lives have been dramatically altered by the death of someone important to us.
Most people, when asked, agree that they'd like to achieve those goals. Of course, the impediment to achieving those three goals is the accumulation of misinformation most of us have acquired about dealing with loss. Reading and understanding this article is only a beginning.
This column is dedicated to the possibility that someone reading it may be able to recognize themselves in the ideas presented here, and begin a shift to the very real possibility of recapturing the legacy of love that should be the natural by-product of a wonderful long term relationship.
Also, for those of you reading this who hope that someone you know or care about could get the message, print out a copy of this article and find a loving way to give it to them. Hopefully, the person you love will be inspired to get a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook [available in most libraries], and to begin the series of actions that can lead to completion of the undelivered emotional communications, both positive and negative, which are part of their relationship with their spouse who died.
The idea of a legacy of love versus a monument to misery is not limited to marriage and other long term romantic relationships. The same issues and problems affect adults whose parents die, or siblings of siblings, and even very long term friendships. Therefore, the same solutions from The Grief Recovery Handbook apply.