My Sad Valentine: Good Grief and Love

Husband and wife sitting on couchThe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, therapist in Campbell, California

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.

  • 13 comments
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  • Tess b

    Tess b

    February 13th, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    My natural instinct is to want to try to help especially when I see a friend who is hurting and in pain.

    I know that I am the world’s worst about respecting that privacy that often is needed, but i just want to comfort and help.

  • james

    james

    February 13th, 2013 at 11:52 PM

    loss or even absence of love can hurt.but if you ask me-don’t make one relationship or role so important to yourself that its absence or loss makes your life miserable.as social beings we have numerous relationships,letting just one of them supersede all others is just not wise!

  • Carola

    Carola

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:25 AM

    It’s difficult to feel empathy for Charlie Brown? I didn’t know that. I had to quit watching it b/c my heart hurt for him so much in all of the specials.

  • davina

    davina

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    definitely can relate to trivial events bringing up grief. my mom died four years ago (hit by a car) and the little things will set me off. i think i am doing just fine when bam! like the other day i was looking for a paperclip and came across her key chain. water works!

  • George

    George

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    People leaving you alone when you are grieving is tough. When my dad died a few years ago, people swarmed the house for the first week. Then, after the funeral, it was like, “Poof!” and they were gone. The quietness of the house almost drove me to insanity and made the loneliness almost unbearable. It was like once people performed their expected societal duties, they were out the door. They brushed their hands of the matter and got back to their daily routine.

  • Francesca

    Francesca

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    Rule #1 is important. My friends was really grieving the loss of her sister. I told her she could lean on me and call me anytime. I didn’t realize anytime was going to be 3am. Oh, and did I mention I have a new born who gets up twice a night for feedings? Oi!

  • Hota

    Hota

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    My nosey nature gets in the way of respecting privacy. If someone makes an allusion to something, I want to know what it is. Not the greatest quality for a listener, I know!

  • penelope

    penelope

    February 14th, 2013 at 1:40 PM

    We want the hurt to go away so fast for others because I think that we start feeling like it brings us down and is cra,ping our own style. Is this selfish or what? We want to be given the time and the space to heal when it is something going on with us, but when it happens to someone else in life we are ready for them to get on with it. I think that we know that grief can’t be hurried or rushed, it has to be allowed to run its course like everything in life. Why not be the strong support system that you know that you need to care for someone else in their time of need instead of thinking about yourself and how it is affecting you?

  • Shawn

    Shawn

    February 14th, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    Love yourself is what I’ve learnt.It’s just not worth it you know.Sometimes the greatest love is self love,you have nobody that can hurt or cheat you,and you know yourself better than anybody else,so why not?!

  • ben t

    ben t

    February 15th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    I totally agree that when you are around someone who is always mired in their own self loathing and self pity, it does become kind of hard to feel any sympathy for them after a while. Why can’t they shake it off and see the promise in themselves that other people seem to see?

    Maybe it’s wrong but when I am around someone like this for too long I almost start to think that they want to be pitied, that this is the only way that they know o to get attention. And that’s pretty sad that this is the only way that they know how to get others to pay attention to them.

    I want attention and recgonition too but not because of my own little pity party but for the things that I am accomplishing in life.

  • samantha

    samantha

    February 15th, 2013 at 11:31 PM

    “Stay a little longer with unhappy thoughts.”

    this one point caught my eye.and it is so true!some people while trying to help you ask you to just get over it or forget it.it is never so easy.

    and even to oneself,sometimes being with unhappy thoughts for sometime will give us a better perspective and maybe even a lesson for the future.it is an important aspect of grieving and recovery but is often forgotten or ignored.

  • maureen

    maureen

    February 17th, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    I apppreciate this topic, sometimes its easy to ignore how painful grief is, especially when american culture is in a rush to fix, be productive, not tolerate lonliness or raw emotion. Healing from loss takes time…with my divorce I was shattered and could not hide it from people close to me. Sound bites like, you will be ok, you are strong, there is a silver lining…did not soothe me. It was the acknowlegement that I was hurt, that someone had time to listen or have a cup of tea with me or watch a movie. We all have losses, and grieving is not linear… to be present for a friend or loved one when he/she is receptive has value. We dont always have the words…listening is most important…allowing sadness, anger, lonliness to be expressed brings a person closer to the truth. Honoring what is, offering undertanding…knowing when to step back so the person can reflect…as Jbartlett described reflection and sitting with emotions… privately has its place. There is no formula or time table when it comes to grief…the process is best met with patience ~ otherwise, grief lingers and resurfaces…

  • Jon

    Jon

    February 19th, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    If there’s one thing life has taught me – it is to never look back and cry about what may have been. Look ahead and see how you can make things better. Because crying about the past is only going to make for an uncomfortable and unhappy future. I’d rather make a better future for myself than spend it crying on a spoilt past.

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