On Friday, I attended a memorial service to honor the life and passing of a former co-worker’s husband. Many people gathered. Many people offered their condolences, sympathies, and words of support and comfort to this woman who lost her husband and life partner to sudden death.
The minister of the church gave a touching and empathetic homily. The minister expressed directly to the grief stricken wife heartfelt sympathy, articulating that because of this sudden loss my former co-worker’s foundation has been shaken, her world has been turned upside down, her life has changed dramatically, in an instant.
As the day moved forward, I reflected back on the service, the gathering, the offerings of comfort and support. Along with others, I stood in a long line to “pay respect” to the widow, my former co-worker, to offer her my sympathies. Much like we gather in lines to congratulate newly married couples, we gather in lines to comfort the bereaved. Our culture openly and outwardly acknowledges death and offers support to those left behind.
In my own life I experienced a loss just as devastating as death, in some ways more devastating than death. When my relationship ended I remember saying, “it’s like a death but worse, because the person who hurt me keeps on living and breathing and walking on this earth.” The loss of a relationship is a death. It is the death of an intimate partnership. What makes this loss potentially more devastating than death is when the person you loved, the person who was your trusted partner and friend and confidant, has not just ended the relationship, but has done so in a way that crushes you.
In most deaths, the person who dies does not do something that hurts you and shatters your heart, they do not leave you to make sense of the sudden and shocking ending. Typically when a person dies, their death is innocent. They have lived a long life and their time has come. They have been terminally ill and died. They were in a sudden accident. They were a victim of war or some other tragedy. The reasons for and causes of death are many, but in almost all deaths, there is not a deliberate and intentional choice to leave behind loved ones and end the relationship, an act that inflicts so much hurt.
When a relationship dies the bond that once existed is broken, the fabric that held the relationship together begins to unravel, or as in my case, is torn apart in one abrupt and gigantic motion. The emotional support that was once there is yanked away. Oftentimes the person who ends the relationship removes themselves from your life. I distinctly remember feeling like I was being thrown out like garbage, that this person who one week, two weeks before had been my partner and closest friend, suddenly had no use for me. It felt like I was chucked to the curb like an unwanted chair or piece of refuse. The severing of the “ties that bind us” is incredibly painful and hard. I recall reading somewhere that the pain one feels when a relationship ends is akin to having a limb severed.
Sadly, it seems many people do not see the end of a relationship as a death or understand the magnitude of this loss. While many in our culture outwardly offer support to those who have lost someone in death, I found that many people are incredibly uncomfortable offering support or sympathy or even acknowledgment when your relationship has ended, when the person who was once in your life has left a huge vacant spot, when you have experienced a profound, heart shattering loss.
The death of a relationship makes many people uncomfortable. It may be unfamiliar territory. Maybe they have never experienced a loss like this before or had a shattered heart. They may not know what to say to comfort you, other than empty platitudes like “time heals all wounds.” Your loss, the devastation they see on your face and in your body might stir their own fears or anxieties about being left or abandoned. Maybe your pain hits too close to home, is too similar to their own story; maybe they aren’t ready to be with and feel the pain of the wounds they carry. Maybe they are “respecting your privacy” or is that just a cop out for “this makes me so uncomfortable I am staying as far away from your pain as possible.”?
What makes it so incredibly hard to go through the death of a relationship is when you do not have full support or acknowledgment from your outer circles, as was my experience. There is no line of folks there to offer hugs and provide words of comfort and encouragement. There is no homily where your minister expresses to you and all who are present that your foundation has been shaken, that your world has been turned upside down, even though it has!!! And what makes it even harder, is the shame and humiliation you carry, that *I* carried. It hurts like crazy, the grief is real and profound. The magnitude of this loss and the emotional devastation is beyond measure.
What do I do with this awareness, this insight? In my own life I have challenged myself to NOT be the person who remains silent because of discomfort or because my pain has been triggered OR says nothing because she doesn’t know what to say. I may not always be the most elegant (or succinct) in expressing myself, but when someone shares a hurt with me or when I learn that something devastating has happened in their lives, I reach out, I acknowledge their pain. I do this because I did not get nearly enough acknowledgement around the death of my relationship and because I know that acknowledgment is a tremendous gift, a gift that has the power to foster healing. I challenge you to do the same, to remain present and acknowledge the pain of those in your inner and outer circles.
In no way is it my intention to trivialize death or minimize the profound pain and sense of loss we experience when someone we love or who is important to us dies. Death, no matter the circumstances, is hard and I recognize that some deaths, because of the ending, are harder than others.