The trappings of Valentine’s Day have a unique way of pointing our attention toward our basic relational hopes in life. Perhaps our hope is to be adored fully by another. Perhaps it is to belong to something larger than ourselves. Perhaps we are hoping only to be remembered momentarily with fondness by relative strangers. Valentine’s Day pivots our attention to what we have and/or have not received from others. Such taunting of the human heart is a high-stakes affair. As high as our romantic hopes may reach, so too lie the unexpected depths of our grief at being disappointed.
The loss of an expected relationship always requires some level of grief. As social creatures, grief is the process by which we metabolize and refashion ourselves within a constantly shifting milieu. Lovers depart one another and learn to stand alone. Children lose parents and learn to replace them as caregivers. Pregnancies miscarry, leaving couples to redefine their dreams. There is no telling how long or how deep such a process goes before our losses are fully integrated. Since many of our past losses can seem to repeat themselves each time a new loss is faced, grief is often complicated and fails to follow any prescribed stages.
It’s the seemingly trivial events (not receiving a hoped-for Valentine’s Day card, for instance) that can reveal surprising fissures in our everyday composure. An unexpressed sadness can wait years below the surface before finding the right moment to expose us to our hurt. Disappointment, loss, and loneliness—these experiences stem from genuine events that have occurred in our past, inducing genuine feelings of sadness or grief. Grief may be patient, but it does not forget.
I am reminded of the image of Charlie Brown ruminating nervously to himself while walking purposefully toward his mailbox. Slowly, he reaches for the handle. One last gulp before he opens the lid and peers in. What will he find waiting for him there?
Nothing. No card. No heart-shaped candy. No letter from a secret admirer. Just an empty mailbox. Charlie Brown throws back his head and wails. Then he lowers his gaze to the ground and shuffles back to his house.
It’s difficult to feel empathy for those mired in self-pity.
Good Grief Charlie Brown! Why do you keep expecting so much?
Why can’t you just recognize your loneliness as a reality for now and move on?
Yet, aren’t we also captivated by Charlie Brown’s sincerity in acknowledging the depth of his despair? We admire him for his courage in staying with his vulnerability and expressing fully his unhappiness while it lasts. There’s an intuitive expectation that if he just hangs in there and stays with his feelings, things might just change for the better.
In a comment to a previous article of mine (Caring for Each Other After a Miscarriage), reader Peter Strong shared an insightful opinion about the grief process.
There are two parts to the grieving process for loss. The first is grieving externally. This is where we need the support of our partner, family and friends. We need to talk, to find words that resonate with our inner feelings and then express them to another. This is an essential part of the resolution process.
The second part of the process is inner grieving. This is where we “sit” with our inner emotions, in the same way that a good friend sat with us while we struggled to find the words to express ourself.
We need to care for the inner hurt by listening to it and giving it the inner space in which to express itself and change, which it will if given the freedom to change.
Peter’s very powerful observation lends itself not only to couples struggling with loss but to all of us seeking to be in the right relationship with our own sad feelings (as well as those of our loved ones).
Loving Through Times of Grief
Certainly, most of us live in what seems a hurried, impatient world. Even close friends can appear put out by anything more than a cursory remark about deep feelings of sadness. Partners and family may offer more time for us, but not necessarily the kind of accurate empathy we need. Such intimate companions can actually complicate our sadness by taking too much personal responsibility for our feelings. The result often is that one leaves oneself utterly alone with one’s feelings; sadness compounded by isolation yields yet more sadness.
Navigating in real time between what can be shared and what is not yet ready to be shared is delicate and complex work. Here are some practical tips for those of you willing to move together with those you love through their journey of integration:
- Be honest with your limits. Before making yourself available to a friend in grief, recognize your own discomfort level and respect it. Imagine the amount of time you would be able to willingly provide and create a situation that will leave a natural exit for you: “Let’s talk in person tomorrow morning. I’m free between 10 a.m. and noon.” Should you be asked for more than you are willing to give, speak responsibly about your own limits: “I’ve found I get overwhelmed and need to give myself breaks.” Feel good about walking away so that you can feel good about returning later.
- Pay attention to nonverbal communication. Words convey only a small part of what needs sharing. Simply by noticing your friend’s tone, postures, and facial features as they change, you are providing a resonant experience for them. Taking a contemplative walk together or silently letting time slip by in each other’s company can be more restorative than conversation.
- Stay a little longer with unhappy thoughts. Resistance is natural. It’s not easy to trust that a friend’s sad thoughts won’t end up controlling or contaminating your own potential for joy. Intelligent empathy occurs as you develop an ability to step in and out of others’ experiences while staying true to yourself.
- Respect privacy. Here is where it gets tricky. Is it possible to share in the experience of someone else’s loneliness? Some complaints seemed designed as invitations for you to charge in and save the day. (“I just wish someone really cared for me the way he did.”) Rather than rushing in to fill the gap (“But I do! What about me?”), try staying curious about their felt experience.
Allowing the grief in the one you love to be seen fully is an act of mutual trust. It is a gift of faith that change will occur at its own pace and that we are not truly alone on our journey.
If you feel you have yet to receive this gift, take heart from the sage advice of Paul McCartney from the last song recorded collectively by The Beatles, “The End”: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.