Monday, March 9, 2020

In Grief: Can This Relationship Survive?

[Reviewed and updated December 19, 2022]

Love does not claim possession, but gives freedom.  ~ Rabindranath Tagore

A reader writes: I am not sure if you can help me or not but I want to let you try. I was in a very good relationship with a person until she received news that her mother was terminal. In a matter of a weekend she completely turned on me and wanted me out of her life. This is after 2 years of an almost perfect and very loving relationship. I was told that this is how some people grieve is to take the person closest to them and drive them away. It has left me completely devastated at this point. Do you know anything about this type of grieving and what I can expect from the future? She will not go to counceling since in her eyes nothing is wrong. I won't go into a lot of details unless you feel you can possibly understand why this happened and tell me a little more about what to expect. Thank you for your time.
My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of this terminal illness and the difficulties it is causing you in your relationship with your girlfriend. From what you've told me in your message, this woman has not even acknowledged to you or to herself that he has a problem with her grief. You say she refuses to seek counseling "since in her eyes nothing is wrong." Since that is the case, and since she isn't the one who is writing to ask for my help, it becomes very difficult for me to intervene in this situation. I don't know your girlfriend and I don't know how she sees her own circumstances. Nevertheless, I will offer to you what I can.

You say that although the two of you have been in "an almost perfect and very loving relationship," upon learning of her mother's terminal illness, this woman has decided to break things off with you. Naturally, you're wondering if this is a wise decision. When evaluating someone else's reactions as normal or abnormal, I think it's extremely important to keep in mind that, although certain patterns and reactions are universal and fairly predictable, everyone's grief is as unique to that individual as his or her fingerprints. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no specific time frame. Regardless of the circumstances, though, a person in the freshest throes of grief (including the anticipatory kind) can look awfully "crazy" to the rest of us, especially when that first wave of shock and disbelief (after learning of the terminal diagnosis) wears off. The sorrow that normally accompanies grief can look a lot like "depression" to people unfamiliar with grief. But more often than not, what you're seeing is a very normal reaction: a natural response to losing (or to the thought of losing) a cherished loved one.

Since your girlfriend got word that her mother is terminally ill, it is normal and understandable that she would find herself experiencing many of the emotions of grief in anticipation of her mother’s dying. This is known as anticipatory grief, and the physical and emotional reactions involved are essentially the same as those experienced in normal grief.

I don't know how close these two people are to each other or what their relationship has been in the past, but I can tell you that the intensity of anyone's grief is directly related to the level of attachment to the person who is dying and to the role the person has played in the bereaved person's life.

You've asked if I can tell you "a little more about what to expect" in this situation.  I believe very strongly that just knowing what normal grief looks like, knowing what to expect and knowing how to manage one's reactions can be very, very helpful, especially if this is your girlfriend's first experience with terminal illness and losing a loved one to death. I don't know whether you've taken the time to explore the pages on my Grief Healing website, but I hope you will do so. If your girlfriend has access to a computer, at some point and if she is open to it, you may want to tell her about my site, too. You both will find several articles I've written on various aspects of grief and loss on my Articles page, as well as references to helpful writings by others. I also want to recommend three books that I think your girlfriend may find very helpful in her particular circumstances; I have them in my own library and I think they are wonderful. She should be able to find them in her local library or online bookstore ~ or you might want to find them for her.  These links will take you to Amazon's description and review of each, which will give you a sense of their content:

The Four Things That Matter Most : A Book About Living

Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness

Final Gifts : Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying

See also my article, Caregiving in Serious Illness: Suggested Resources, which will connect you to many other valuable sources of helpful information.

I understand that your girlfriend's leaving you to be with her mother must be extremely painful and disturbing to you, and I think it's only human for you to feel left out and threatened. I would expect that this woman is feeling a strong need for her nuclear family right now because each member can identify so closely with what the other is feeling. Of course I have no magic words to help you persuade your beloved not to break up with you right now. Obviously she is old enough to make her own decisions. You can tell her you know that it is wise when we are in a situation such as this to put off making big, life-changing decisions, because we're not in the best frame of mind and at the top of our game when we are so preoccupied with loss ~ but I doubt if she will listen. You might try instead tellling her that although you don't agree with her decision, you recognize that it is her right to make it, and you will support her in whatever she decides. You might add that, should she discover at some point that she's made a mistake, you will not judge her and you'll be waiting for her when she comes back to you. But do not tell her this if it is not so and if you don't mean it.

Unfortunately you have no control over any of the circumstances you find yourself in right now. What you can do is to be as patient, as kind and as loving toward this woman as you can be ~ and hold onto the belief that if the love between the two of you is true, it will be strong enough to withstand the impact of this event in both your lives. Sometimes all we have in life to get us through the most difficult times are hope, faith and love.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my friend. Above all, please be patient with your girlfriend. Grief work is some of the most difficult work she will ever have to do, and it will help her to know that you will let her do it at her own pace, and that you don't expect her to have to do it all alone. You can give her no greater expression of your love than that. I wish for you both the peace and healing you deserve. 

Afterword: I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to answer my questions about what is going on with my life. I should have added that her mother did pass away recently. As far as my waiting on her to come around I can only say I love her with all my heart and will wait as long as I think there is any hope. She did get much worse  as far as our relationship goes after the passing and no longer speaks to me. I am hoping she will at some remember all the wonderful times we had together. It truly was a wonderful two years and hopefully she will get past this and see that. Anyway, thank you once again for taking the time to help me. God bless you.

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