Sunday, August 26, 2012

Disenfranchised Grief: Mourning the Loss of a Dream

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[Reviewed and updated November 12, 2017]

A reader writes: Seven years ago I fell in love with a wonderful man I met at work. Although we never dated, we spent many wonderful hours together talking about everything and nothing. We spent a year getting to know each other, and I fell more in love every day. After I was transferred to another department, I was sure we would spend a wonderful summer getting to know each other in a more romantic atmosphere. That never happened. He didn't return my calls or emails, and never spoke to me again. I was heartbroken and never understood why he dumped my like that. Since then I have married a wonderful man, who has been a great stepfather to my children and a wonderful husband. He loves me and supports me in all I do. 
          Last month I found out that my co-worker "love" of seven years ago had died in a one-car accident earlier this year. I feel like I'm going crazy!
For months after he disappeared, I had wondered "why" and "what if," but I thought I was all over that by now. It's been seven years, I made a life without him, and I never even thought about him. Well, not very much. But now, I can't seem to get over him. I find myself fantasizing about what would have happened if we'd been together, dreaming about him, and wanting him again. I emailed his best friend and asked about his grave, so I could say goodbye. I was told that his gravesite is not to be published, that his wishes were that nobody knows where he is. He had no funeral, no obituary, and has no marker. This makes me even crazier. I now have fantasies that he survived the accident but doesn't want anyone to know. Like he faked his own death.
          I went to our old office building two days ago to say goodbye. I sat in the parking lot, cried, yelled at him, called him names, screamed at him for dumping me, and got even madder that he died in a single car accident. How could he be so stupid! Was he drinking? Did he fall asleep? I will never know, and I'm furious! Why do I feel like this? He wasn't important in my life. We never even dated, it was just a flirtation several years ago. But now I feel like I lost a spouse or a lover, and I didn't! I feel so selfish because I have a family to take care of and a husband who loves me, and I have no right to live in the past. The needs of the living must be met, but I have trouble dragging myself through the normal daily routine. I feel like I have no right to grieve, or even to be writing to you. Still, somehow I feel that writing about him helps. I just need to find out how to let him go and go on with my real life. Can you please help me understand? What is happening to me?


My response: You say you feel like you’re mourning a dream, not a real person, and therefore you have neither a legitimate “right” to grieve nor  the necessary qualifications even to be writing to a grief counselor. Let me assure you that you do have the right to grieve, and you certainly are welcome to be writing to me!

The loss of a dream is yet another kind of death, and your loss is just as real as anyone else’s. I am reminded of a beautiful passage by author Robert Fulghum in his wonderful book, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Daily Lives:
When we’ve changed our religious views or political convictions, a part of our past dies. When love ends, be it the first mad romance of adolescence, the love that will not sustain a marriage, or the love of a failed friendship, it is the same. A death. Likewise in the event of a miscarriage or an abortion: a possibility is dead. And there is no public or even private funeral. Sometimes only regret and nostalgia mark the passage. And the last rites are held in the solitude of one’s most secret self —a service of mourning in the tabernacle of the soul.
You are the only one who knows in your heart of hearts just how much this particular person meant to you, my dear, and so you are the only one who can measure exactly what you have lost, now that you know he has died. Loss is loss, and pain is pain. Please don’t judge yourself for how and what you are feeling. We simply cannot control how we feel – and feelings aren’t right or wrong, good or bad – they just are.

You say you have no one to talk to about this, but you did manage to write to me, and that is a very good start. You also ask, “Why do I miss him so much now?” I think it’s because before, when he was alive, even though you didn’t think about him all the time, on some level you always knew that he was still there, somewhere, should you ever wish to find him. In a sense, you became accustomed to loving him in his absence, and deep inside your heart you could keep hope alive that one day you might see him again. Now you are faced with the harsh reality that his absence is forever, and that is very hard to accept.

You say you want to grieve, and you’re aware of some very real feelings commonly associated with grief, such as “being angry at him, both for dumping me and for the stupid way he died.” You’re also feeling guilty for “living in the past” and somehow failing in your role of being a good wife and mother in meeting your family’s needs. Please know that anger and guilt are two of the most common reactions in loss: anger at the one who died, anger at God for letting this happen, anger at ourselves and anger at the world – and guilt for whatever we think we did or failed to do when the person was alive.

You are a human being reacting in a very normal way to having lost very someone dear to you. Please accept your feelings as normal and completely understandable. Judge yourself not by what you are feeling, but rather by what you do with what you are feeling. When we simply acknowledge (if only to ourselves) what we are feeling and why we are feeling that way, oftentimes the energy generated by those feelings simply dissipates, and no one else is hurt. When we fuss and stew and push our feelings away or try to bury or deny them, they can come out in other ways we can't always control, usually every which-way but straight! This is why it helps so much when we are in mourning to do some reading about grief – it helps to know what is normal, what we can expect, and what we can do to manage our own reactions. It helps us feel more in control, or at least less "crazy" and certainly better informed about what we are experiencing.

You also say that writing about him helps, and I think therein lies an important clue. You might consider writing a letter to this man, telling him everything you need to say to him. Whether he can “read” what you write is not the point – the objective here is to get down on paper whatever thoughts and feelings you have about all of this, to get it out of your mind and heart and onto paper (or your computer screen) so you no longer have to carry all of it around inside of you. That in itself can be very healing. You might also try to have this man write a letter back to you! Some suggest that, if you’re right-handed, you write your letter to him with your right hand, then use your left hand to write the letter that comes back (through you) from him. You could construct an entire ritual around this exercise: pick a quiet time and place when you’re all alone; put some soft music on the stereo, light some candles, find some paper and a pen, and let the words just come through your hands. If you want to do so, burn the letters when you’re finished, as a symbolic way of saying goodbye and letting him go. This is your ritual, and you can construct it in any way you like, and design it to accomplish whatever objectives you choose. Another alternative is to find a safe and quiet place and have a good long conversation with him in your heart and in your mind.

And if you care to do so, even though this man died several months ago, you still can hold a memorial service for him -- in the solitude of your most secret self, your very own service of mourning, in the tabernacle of your very own soul.

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