Monday, February 4, 2019

In Grief: Refusing to Let Go

[Reviewed and updated November 7, 2022]

I desire no future that will break the ties of the past.  ~ George Eliot

A reader writes: I read the Darcie Sims article posted on your Discussion Groups website on "saying goodbye." THANK YOU! It is so perfectly what I believe. In fact, I have been told several times by people to "let go" of my ex who has died. I hate that.

I was told by a counselor once to "let him go," and this counselor (a spiritual counselor) said I was holding his spirit back by hanging on to my grief. I began to feel guilty, and decided I wouldn't think about him or talk aloud to him any more, if I was holding him back from moving on into heaven. That very night I had a dream. He and I were riding in a car with my sisters, and he had his arm around me. He turned to me and said very clearly, "We belong together. Why do you listen to others tell you things you know are not true?"

So from that time on, I ignored anyone who told me to move on, or let go. I believe I AM moving on, however slowly and at my own pace, and I am taking my changed relationship with my former husband WITH me as I move on. I know his spirit watches over me, and that he will be there when it is my time to cross over. I know I can fall in love again, if that is what is in the cards for me, and that will not take away from my love for my first love. I have never said goodbye to him, and I never will -- at most, "see you later."

My response: You are a very wise woman, and you have my deepest admiration and respect. It takes great courage to follow your own good instincts, most especially when you are being told by a "professional counselor" something that intuitively feels so "wrong" to you. It sounds to me as if your counselor was of the "old school" ~ using what one researcher describes as the "classical" rather than the "postmodern" approach to grief counseling:
Visually, the classical approach to interventions is more linear in its conception of the grief process, while the postmodern approach seems more spirallike in its direction. The postmodern approach encourages therapists to help the bereaved to construct meaning from their experience of loss and to find new ways to “be” in their daily world, given their loss. This approach moves away from the phase-oriented classical approach to one in which the grief process is individualized for each person, with no time limits for the process to unfold. Both approaches suggest the importance of helping the bereaved partner to review his or her past relationship with the deceased. However, the classical approach conceives of the purpose of doing so as helping the bereaved to relinquish their ties with the deceased, while the postmodern approach views this exploration of the past relationship as an opportunity to transform the relationship, so that memories and thoughts of the deceased can enhance the bereaved’s ability to function. [p. 245]
In the postmodern approach to grief, there is skepticism about the concept of closure, since there are serious questions about whether people ever “recover” from a loss. This gives the clinician permission to allow the bereaved partner to work on his or her grief, regardless of the amount of time that has elapsed since the death of the partner. This approach to grief encourages “circularity” rather than “closure” and frees the bereaved partner to experience feelings and thoughts about the deceased partner at any point in his or her life. A circular approach can normalize, for bereaved partners, the ongoing or intermittent painful feelings about their loss, which friends, relatives, and society tend to believe should be worked through to a point of closure. Perhaps this need for closure is related to our society’s tendency to deny the process of death and to discourage people from discussing death and all its ramifications.[p. 251]
[Source: The Loss of a Life Partner: Narratives of the Bereaved, by Carolyn Ambler Walter, 2003]

Afterword: Thank you so much for your kind words, Marty. I realize that the life my ex-husband and I had together was so unconventional that I had to learn to trust my own truth. I always had trouble with that. I found our divorce and his coming out as gay after a years-long relationship very difficult (as did he), and I finally refused his offers of friendship, feeling there were too many issues and too much pain to confront, and that I would look like a loser, chasing after my gay ex-husband.

Several years later, a mutual friend from college called me to tell me my ex had collapsed of heart failure and died three times in surgery and been revived. This was so shocking that it seemed like all my defenses just crumbled and I knew beyond doubt I HAD to call him and talk to him, and I never doubted he would talk to me. We talked for three hours. There came a point in the conversation when he said, "I thought you would never want to talk to me again." And I suddenly thought, Who am I kidding? And I said, "I never stopped loving you."

That was a defining moment for me. It was the first time, I think, that I didn't worry about how he would answer, or what anyone else would think. I knew I was speaking my deepest truth, and it didn't matter that he was gay, or that we were divorced, or what anyone else thought, or even what he thought. I just said what was in my heart. He said he felt the same way.

From then I realized that we can't put love in boxes. Romantic love, family love, friendship love. My love for him was all of these things, and none of them. It was just what I felt. We had a close and loving friendship during the 19 months that he lived. So when he died, my grief is mine also. My counselor says I have both complicated grief and disenfranchised grief. She was incredibly helpful, supporting me even more in my determination to own my feelings and my own truth. In this way, I have grown so much from what happened with him, and I see that as his gift to me. And I know my love after everything that had happened was my gift to him. He told his boyfriend he was bowled over that I still loved him despite the fact that he was gay, and that he considered me his soulmate.

I was very lucky to be referred to this counselor, who does follow the latest way of counseling the bereaved. Thank heaven! The guilt and shame created by the more traditional way of counseling grief must be overwhelming. I can't count the number of times I have heard someone say, "I can't get over it", and it's only been six weeks or something!

Thank you for your Grief Healing Discussion Groups website, Marty, it is priceless in the support and caring that it offers to the bereaved.

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