When long term relationships end due to death of one of the partners, there is an inevitable adjustment to the new reality of life without someone who has always been there. Adaptation to the radical changes in life following the death of a loved one is either enhanced or limited by the ideas that we have learned over our lifetimes about dealing with loss.
There is no doubt that in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one, pain and confusion are two of the most probable emotional reactions. Even following a long-term illness, where there has been substantial time to prepare, the overwhelming impact of the reality of death is devastating. It quickly becomes obvious that there is no way to effectively prepare for the finality of death.
While we recognise that all relationships have ups and downs and highs and lows, for purposes of this discussion, we are focused on long term relationships that were essentially good. Over the course of 22 years of helping grieving people, we have always tried to listen very carefully to what they are saying to us. What we heard were accurate reports of wonderful relationships, yet there was a tremendous amount of pain attached to the memories.
It is obvious that in the first few weeks or months following a death, 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.
It was at that point that we realised that almost immediately following a death, people often develop a relationship to their pain, which sometimes seems to supersede their grief about the relationship with the person who had died. As we observed this all-too-common phenomenon, we realised that many people were inadvertently associating the pain that they experienced and re-experienced, over and over, 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.
At the same time as we were recognising the phenomenon that we had labelled as people's relationship to their pain, we began to use a piece of language to help people shift from pain to 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 is turning 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.
The principles and actions of Grief Recovery carry with them three essential objectives:
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 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 a loved one.
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. Hopefully, you will be inspired to get a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook, and to begin the series of actions that can lead you to completion of the undelivered emotional communications, both positive and negative, which are part of all relationships.
One of the traps of grief is the almost diabolical speed at which the relationship to pain develops, takes root, and becomes almost permanent. You have 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. If you are the friend or family member of someone who seems to have been caught in a web of pain for a long time, show them this article. You might not be 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.
This column is also dedicated to the possibility that someone reading it may be able to recognise 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 long term wonderful relationship.
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.
© 2002 Russell P. Friedman, John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at Editor@grief.net or by phone USA (818) 907-9600 Canada (519) 586-8825