Grief and the Double Standard of Love

It seems as if our whole culture revolves around and reveres couplehood. Most songs, novels, movies, are either about people looking for someone, finding someone, losing someone, or getting a second chance at love. A large percentage of non-fiction books are written to help people find a mate or help them stay mated. Hundreds of websites are devoted to matching people with their true love or a reasonable facsimile. Many holidays are geared toward love — Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, kissing your love at midnight on New Year’s day.

Clichés about love abound, mostly because they are true (or feel true). When you meet the right person, your life suddenly make sense. Whatever has been missing now is found. Love fulfills you. Love makes the world go round. All you need is him/her. Love is all that matters. Two hearts beating as one. Soul mates. Everlasting love.

It’s so inbred in us, this need for true love, that few people question it. In movies (and maybe even life) when someone has an affair and ends their marriage to be with the new love, all they ever feel the need to say is, “I fell in love,” and that explains everything.

But . . .

When you lose your one true love to death, all of a sudden you are supposed to be able to slough it off as if love didn’t matter, and go on with your life. Everyone else is celebrating their love, but you are supposed to accept that yours is over and you are supposed to have a good attitude so you inconvenience others as little as possible.

This double standard is hard to deal with. Not only do we bereft have to contend with the effects of suddenly being deprived of love, companionship, fulfillment, not only do we have to contend with being alone in a coupled world, we have to deal with our culture’s belief that love is all important. Other people can continue to have the benefits of a living love, but somehow we bereft are supposed to be able to make do with memories.

My life mate/soul mate and I didn’t have an easy life, in large part because of his illness and other setbacks beyond our control, but like most couples, we hoped for a payoff sometime in our golden years, and his death killed our hopes.

I’m finally to the point where seeing couples doesn’t bother me, but for many months, just the sight of two people, middle-aged or older, holding hands brought me to tears. I realize some people never find anyone to love, but others have been married for forty, fifty, even sixty years. I try not to compare, try to accept my situation, but the truth is he was my home, and now I am homeless. When I was with him, I had a sense of belonging, but now I belong nowhere, especially not in this coupled world.

The Healing Power of Stories

I attend a bereavement group every week, which surprises me, considering that I’ve always been a do-it-yourself sort. I only started going to the meetings because I wanted to know how to survive the terrible agony of grief I experienced after the loss of my mate. I didn’t learn how — it’s something no one can teach another — but I learned that one could survive those first unbelievably painful weeks when I met people who had survived them. I keep going to the group because of those same people. We have something in common, a shared understanding, a survivor’s respect. And now, after five months, I am one of those who, just by being there, show the newly shell-shocked bereaved that one can learn to live with the devastation of a major loss.

Each meeting begins with a lesson, and today’s lesson was about the importance of stories and how they help us heal. The people who attended the meeting today all happened to be women who had lost their mates after decades of being together, and the counselor asked each of us to tell the story not of our mates’ deaths, but of how we met. We all knew the end of each of our love stories — over the months we have told the story of our grief many times. But this is the first time we talked about the beginning of our love stories, and in those stories we found hope, comfort, smiles, a reconnection to our past.

According to the handout we were given, the benefits of telling stories are:

  • Searching for wholeness among our fractured parts
  • Coming to know who we are in new and unexpected ways
  • We can explore our past and come to a more profound understanding of our future direction
  • We can seek forgiveness and be humbled by our own mortality
  • We can discover the route to healing lies not only in the physical realm, but also in the emotional and spiritual realms.

An unexpected result of today’s lesson was a new understanding of the importance of writing. For me, anyway.

These past months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I have always tried to lose myself — and find myself — in fictional worlds during periods of trauma, but this time it’s not working the way I hoped. I’m not finding healing in current books. The authors seem to be going for the shock effect of not-so-good versus unbelievably-outrageous-evil, for story people who have identifiable characteristics but no character, for fast-paced stories with little substance or truth. How does one find wholeness in such stories? How do we come to know each other or come to a more profound understanding of our future in trite mysteries and unrealistic thrillers?

Perhaps it’s not important. Maybe entertainment is all that counts when it comes to fiction, but I want something more. And I especially want something more when it comes to my own writing. I don’t know where grief is taking me – it is changing me in ways I cannot yet fathom – but I hope I will end up writing stories of truth, of understanding, of healing. I hope I will make people smile. I hope my words will matter.

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