Relationships, especially between long-term couples, change continuously, but we seldom notice those changes in the whirr and whirl of everyday life. Even our images of each other change to accommodate the passing years. We are always “us.”
A day or two after my life mate died, I couldn’t visualize him, so I looked at the only photo I have of us, and I wept because I did not recognize him. Fifteen years ago, when that photo was taken, it was an exact likeness of him, but during the years of illness, he lost the fullness in his face, first becoming distinguished looking, then gaunt. I have an idea/image of him in my mind, perhaps a composite of him through the years, perhaps what he actually looked like near the end, and that single photo I have of him does not resemble the person I knew. One more thing to mourn.
That is the problem with grief, there is always one more thing to mourn.
It’s not just our internal images of a person that changes to accommodate the vagaries of age; our internal image of the relationship itself changes to accommodate the vagaries of life. Most of the transformation of a relationship from youthful and passionate to aged and (perhaps) wise and companionable goes unnoticed. We are always who we are. We are always in the present.
The big events of life — starting a business or losing one, having children or losing them — we celebrate or grieve as the case may be, but other things disappear without acknowledgement. We used to walk together, ride bikes, play tennis, kick a soccer ball, but such activities were supplanted with other, more sedentary activities as his health deteriorated. But still, there we were, on the great Ferris wheel of our relationship — always current, always us. And then he died.
When one of a couple dies, the Ferris wheel of your shared life comes to a halt. Those who have not experienced the loss of a long-time mate think that the Ferris wheel continues with the survivor, but that isn’t true. It looms there, empty. The continually evolving, revolving living relationship is dead. All you have is what has already happened, and now you can see every transformation throughout all the years. You don’t simply mourn the man he was at the end, you also mourn the man you met and the men he became during the subsequent years. And you grieve for all those little things that passed unnoticed during the course of your relationship. They didn’t matter while you were together because you were together, but now they add to the overwhelming whole of grief.
Gradually, the survivor climbs aboard another Ferris wheel of her own, but the original one still haunts. If I live long enough, my grief will fade and perhaps disappear in the whirr and whirl of everyday life, but for now, newly recalled memories keep seeping into my life, and they have to be processed, mourned, dealt with. Sometimes these are minor issues, sometimes major. And all a surprise. How could so much have happened during those quiet years?
One recurring theme in our lives was vitamins and other food supplements. We met at his health food store. The first time we connected physically was when he handed me a bottle of vitamin A and our touch lingered. The first time our gazes locked was over his checkout counter. The supplement regimen he created for me changed as new research came out, but always, there were the supplements, a symbol of how much he cared for me. Now all that loss has to be dealt with somehow.
And that is just one aspect of our shared life. There were almost 34 years worth of good things and bad. 408 months. 1756 weeks. 12,296 days. When he was alive, all those days blended together, but now each exists separately, a thing in itself. A thing to be mourned. No wonder grief is such a major undertaking.