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Why We Cannot Prepare for a Loved One’s Death

Some people's presence in our lives is at the core of our well-being.

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Scattered rose petals
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Some people's presence in our lives is at the core of our well-being and even our sanity. When they leave life — and us — we shatter and fall to pieces. It is as though they take with them the glue that previously held our world — and us — together.

Yet, in another sense, we are less fragmented in the wake of a tragic loss than we ever were before. When life goes on as usual, we have multiple desires pulling in different directions. You want to go to the mountains for the calm and to the beach for the summer energy one finds there. You want to remodel the house but also to spend your weekends taking quiet walks in the woods. Ordinarily, our thoughts jump from subject to subject. We look in multiple directions. We envision several alternative futures (some of which require contingency plans).

Not so when we are grieving. Grief is like a jealous deity that wants us all to itself. Our minds and our whole being are consumed by one thought and one desire: to bring back the dead.

We can make no plans for the future in that state. The future seems unreal, in fact. We experience time as passing only when things change. If nothing changes, we feel frozen in an eternal present. But in the grip of grief, we cannot very well imagine alterations in subjective experience. We look ahead, and all we see is a vast ocean of sorrow, an indefinite prolongation of the current state of pain.

We are generally profoundly unprepared for this state of loss and for what it would feel like to be in it. The question that interests me here is why.

Some of the reasons have to do not with the depth of our love but with its imperfections. We may lose someone before we get a chance to say everything we have to say. Death is, in that case, an abrupt ending of a broken relationship that can never be repaired now.

But even if we have said everything we had to say, we find ourselves unprepared and woefully so. We can — at least if we have a certain kind of temperament — get ready for our own death and accept our own end with equanimity, but not the end of a loved one. Why is that?

One reason, I think, is that it seems impossible to get ready for future pain. The most that you can do is let yourself be pained now by the anticipation of future pain. That may go some way toward helping you prepare (at the cost of causing present misery), but not a long way.

In addition, grief makes us powerless, and it is difficult to prepare in advance for feeling powerless, for being reduced to a sufferer crushed by events he or she cannot control. We know how to prepare for a fight but not for there being nothing that we could possibly do. And yet, that is what the loss of a loved one is: a tragedy that cannot be undone and that neither we nor anyone else can do anything about. There is something of a desperate howl at the moon in grief.

But there is another, deeper reason for our profound unpreparedness for loss. We intuit, correctly, that to try to seriously prepare for the loss of a loved one in advance would be disloyal. For what would such provisions amount to? If the other occupies a central place in our hearts such that losing him or her would cause a rapture inside, to prepare can mean only one thing: plucking the loved one out of our hearts before he or she is actually gone so that the future loss would not bring our world down.

That is just what cannot be done or not without paying a terrible price. We can prepare for our own demise by overcoming our fear of it, but to prepare for a loved one’s death is to overcome not death or the fear of it but love. That is the price we'll pay for attempting to prepare.

C.S. Lewis talks about this in his book Four Loves. At one point in the book, he relates St. Augustine’s story of grief. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, says that the death of his close friend Nebridius plunged him into despair. Augustine goes on to say that this is what happens when you give your heart to anything but God. In forming an attachment to a mortal being, you place your happiness, as it were, in a leaky vessel. Love of God is the only safe kind of love: “If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.” [1]

C.S. Lewis, though a religious man, demurs. He writes:

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal (…) lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy or at least to the risk of tragedy is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” [2]

It should be noted, however, that one can take loyalty to the dead too far. In Love’s Executioner, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom tells the story of a woman who lost her young daughter, and who, as a result, became a neglectful mother — selfish in her grief — of her surviving son. She kept her daughter’s room untouched and did not allow her son to use the room even though he needed it. She continued attending the ceremonies marking the end of each school year at her daughter’s school.

One might ask, perhaps, whether what is wrong with this woman’s reaction is solely that her commitment to her dead daughter led to disregard her living child. Would there be anything wrong with living in perpetual grief if you live alone?

I contend that there would be. Of course, it is most insensitive to push people to get over their grief and to “move on.” I suspect we do this, when we do, not so much — as we imagine — out of concern for the other, but out of concern for ourselves. We don’t know what to do about the grief of another. Another’s big loss makes us profoundly uneasy. We feel at a loss. What can we say? Not much, so we clumsily urge the grieving to move on.

In reality, we don’t have to say anything. What we must do, rather, is be there for the bereaved. Listen. Hold their hand. This may not feel like much, but it makes all the difference. It can keep the other from falling off the precipice. To insist, instead, that the other stop grieving can have one effect only: making the bereaved feel alone on account of being misunderstood. The last thing anyone needs when in pain is evidence that others don't get one's pain.

Even so, we must eventually let time heal us. The alternative is no way to honor the dead. When a person dies, he or she hopes to be remembered, but no one who loves us wishes us to embark on a journey of eternal suffering, in the twilight of a limbo somewhere in between life and death.

There is, thus, an important qualification to make to C.S. Lewis's point. He is right that there is no place safe from the perturbations of love except hell. Nonetheless, to remain stubbornly frozen in the moment of loss, while it may lull us into feeling deeply loyal, actually involves a betrayal of our loved one of a different kind. By holding on to the grief, we rewrite the story of our relationship with the person we have lost. What were previously moments of intimacy and sharing become mere steps in the prequel to our current state of sorrow. The end of the other's life casts a long shadow on everything that preceded it until nothing at all is left of our love for the other except pain.

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[1] St. Augustine, Confessions IV, 10 quoted at Lewis, C. S. (1988). Four Loves. New York, NY: Harvest, 120.

[2] Lewis, C. S. Four Loves, 121.

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