A close friend of mine just lost her partner. She is fifty-two years old and a brilliant psychotherapist. She works tirelessly in her private practice, taking solitary breaks from time to time, and visits with friends. She is always learning, reading, or doing body work to keep her dancer’s body warm and flexible. She eats no animals except fish, recycles what she can and keeps her cars for many years. She is loving, conscientious and a very good friend. Her home is welcoming and comforting and the land around her house continually develops new surprises. We go back many years.
Now that Oscar is gone… the house seems too big and the lawns just echo with myriad images of long wooded walks, playful sunrises or anxious times when he was disconnected or out of sight. The ghosts of previous shared lives dart through the shrubbery and down the hill to the orchard.
When one has enjoyed steady partnership, devotion, company on call and exercise as a guarantee (as well as an additional structure for self care), one perceives no lack. There is a daily wholeness, a loving completion, fulfillment. Of course, although verbal conversation can be understandably limited, the death of a long-time companion is stark as it pitches us into an abyss of unknowable currents.
What arises at some point, out of the absence, might be a yearning for partnership for its own sake. The presence of an energy besides our own –gone– the ache of suddenly having no outlet for our affection and expression can be suffocating. It leaves us open… but to what? To whom?
I wonder if losing Oscar, the beneficent golden retriever, will awaken an awareness of renewed choice and perhaps a refinement of my friend’s needs and wishes. Or is it her relatives and support group that would will her to find one, this time in human form? We stand witness in love– that’s all we can do. I wish her the comfort of her deep imagination as she walks that winding path, alone for now.
How long does grief normally last?
If the person who died has been extremely close to us, the grief we experience may last for as long as we live. As long as we are able to recall memories of that person, some level of grief can be present. The important thing to remember is that the intensity of such grief changes over time.
For those of you who are recent grievers and concerned about how you can possibly go through the rest of your life given the level of grief you are currently experiencing, let me say this. Whereas the intensity of your grief is currently quite high, it will diminish over time as you gradually adjust to the death you have known.
It is also important to remember that all deaths do not impact us in the same way. The grief experience is more intense and lasts longer following the death of those individuals to whom we are the closest. For others our feelings of loss, though initially strong, diminish and end over a shorter period of time.
Experiencing the death of a close loved one can be similar to an amputee’s experience of losing a limb. Initially thoughts are focused on whether one can actually continue their life without that limb being present. But once the initial response of disbelief has subsided and work has begun in using a prosthetic device, the individual actually begins to believe that on-going life may indeed be possible. However, even years later when the individual is proficient in using the prosthesis, some level of grief remains when thoughts about life before the amputation are brought to mind. Those feelings of grief are there, but with nowhere near the intensity as when the loss first occurred.
Someone once defined the grief following a death as “un-learning” the expected presence of a loved one. It takes years for us to truly cement our relationship with a loved one, and it may, in turn, take just as many years to adjust to the fact that they are no longer present. For that reason, some degree of grief related to their death may last as long as we live.
Paul V. Johnson has developed a life-long specialty in grief education and support in funeral home and hospice environments. Nationally recognized for his work, he is also a university professor in St. Paul, MN.