We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.
Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.
And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.
Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.
And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.
All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.
Shred of guilt
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.
None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.
Before my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.
Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.
The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.
This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.
That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?
Bad dreams and divorce
The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.
It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.
Dealing with loss
In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.
Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.
Sharing burdens and friends
Also, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done, is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values. And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.
We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.
Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”
Protection and risk
That is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.
We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.
Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.
And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”
That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.
We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.
That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.
We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.