Michael Dunn specialised in training professional social workers involved with disabled and older people and their families. He successfully developed many associated training courses including one on bereavement counselling.
The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy.
So far we’ve been looking at the general causes and effects of grief. There are, however, some special features of bereavement which apply to particular relationships.
The death of a partner
He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future.
Samuel Johnson (1709–84)
‘She was everything to me...’
I realised that for over half my lifetime, there was no hurt or worry that had not been made better when I shared it. There-had been no joy or triumph that had full meaning – been really savoured – until I had rushed home: ‘I’m a genius!’ and watched the quiet, amused smile that seemed to make his very spectacles glint with wry pleasure.
Mary Jones, Secret Flowers, 1988
When a long-term partner dies we usually lose the one person in the world who knew us best. Without them we can feel that we have become ‘unknown’ to the world – invisible and with a lost identity.
They were the only person to have known our secrets: our hopes and successes as well as our shortcomings and bad habits. We could choose how we presented ourselves to the rest of the world but they, uniquely, knew us fully.
When they were alive we may have been remembered for once having been young, vigorous, beautiful, sexual, or clever (maybe all five!) No one else could read our mood and needs so telepathically. If we are older adults we know how unlikely it will be for such a partnership to happen again. We may have invested our whole lifelong ‘emotional savings’ in the relationship and, without consultation, we are suddenly left bankrupt.
Many older people who lose their spouses will have moved into marriage at a young age directly from their childhood home. They will never have experienced what it is like to live alone and this can be a fearful experience added to their sense of loss. Younger people are more and more used to having a period of independence before settling into relationships.
‘I sometimes think I’m losing my mind...’
In a sense we do lose a part of our mind when a partner dies after a long relationship. Over the years so much of who we are’ has been associated with the other person – to the extent that we become lost in each other. It is only when they die that we are shocked to see how much of ‘ourselves’ remains and how much we were dependent on each other.
We need to discover – and reclaim – those parts of ourselves which have died with our partner before we can put ourselves back together again. And we have to do it on our own; the only person who could really have helped us is the one whose loss we are mourning.
There’s work to he done
We are not the victims of bereavement.
Grief is not something that happens to us as we stand by, bracing ourselves against its unpredictable ravages.
The (hard) truth is that we have created our own grief. We did not want it this way, but the more of ourselves that we invested in our attachment to the person who has died, the greater will be our distress now. We may think, rightly, that the relationship was worth it – life would be a poor thing if the best that could be said was that we ‘avoided pain’ – but we can’t avoid the bleak truth that the present suffering is of our own making.
In the same way that we are not the ‘object’ of grief, we cannot resume our lives by simply resting until it goes away again. We will only resolve our bereavement by working at it. This means examining all the hooks of our attachment and carefully removing them. Some of these hooks – fine fishhooks – will be easily cut away; we’ll soon be able to learn how to programme the CD player ourselves, we’ll soon learn how to survive without home-made marmalade.
Some of our attachments to the person who has died, however, will be harder to move – tenacious psychological grappling-irons.
- Our social timidity may have meant that we used her confidence as a ‘front’ at social gatherings, allowing us to remain in the background.
- We had always felt nervous about being in the house alone when he was away on business.
- We had always been proud of the way she kept the front garden but we haven’t the same interest in gardening.
- We had never learned to drive and we bought a house in the country just before he died.
- We had grown to depend entirely on her for support and affection.
The work of bereavement is first of all to identify what these hooks are and work out how we will manage to become detached from them. Doing nothing is not an option: they will not rust away of their own accord – if nothing happens they will remain forever embedded in dead memories and will anchor us, disabled, to the past.
It’s a bother (and it couldn’t have come at a worse time), but there’s work to do.
It’s not just a question of deciding what we’re going to do now and in the future. Effective grieving involves reflecting over our past and considering how we have been changed by our (now lost) relationship.
- Am I different now than before we met? Do I want to keep this difference?
- What have I given up to sustain the relationship? Can I stop giving it up now?
- What were the good things? Were they important? Can I re-create them some other way?
- Was my emotional investment worth the price I paid?
- What am I pleased to be rid of? How will this make a difference?
- What did I want my life to be like? What did I pretend it was like? What do I want it to be now?
It’s important for us not to allow ourselves to be swept away in a wave of vague, generalised depression. It’s really worth looking closely at these details of what our attachment was about; if we can’t do it for ourselves we’re either going to have to seek help from someone else for our grief or carry it about with us into the future.
I am learning to look at your life again
Instead of your death and departing.
Quoted by Barbara Ward in Healing Grief, 1993
‘Thirty years of marriage and she never shed a tear’
One of the unfortunate aspects of bereavement is that, at the very time you want to retreat from the world for a while, the world seems to want you to display your grief publicly and in an appropriate way.
There is a fascination in grief and mourning. As onlookers, it is as though we are anticipating our own future grief (maybe even imagining the grief of others at our own eventual death). There is an unconscious need to see mourning ‘performed’ it’s the aftermath of one of life’s many dramas and, like all drama, we can learn how to behave from observing it.
Unfortunately, we tend to be insensitive in our estimation of the ‘performance’. Our fairy-tale expectation is that great love will result in inconsolable weeping and if there are no outward signs of great distress we imagine a ‘less than perfect’ relationship. (The fact is that if there is any simple connection between the two it is likely to be the other way round – a difficult relationship is likely to cause more regretful grief than a close, open one.)
‘What she needs is...’
Maybe it’s a well-intentioned distraction from the pain but other people will suddenly be able to think up all sorts of ‘helpful things’ we can do.
- ‘Throw yourself into work.’
- ‘Take a couple of months off.’
- ‘Go on holiday.’
- ‘Try and have a good cry.’
After a while they will get around to deciding whether we should move house or get married again.
It’s one of the minor drawbacks of being bereft that others will treat us like children. We can’t really complain because part of us may want to be ‘parented’ just now and, after all, it’s the way we have behaved to others in the past.
It’s best to try and take some control and use this goodwill in a positive way. Work out what people can do for us that will be useful.
‘She had a lot to put up with during the last couple of years...’
If our partner had been heavily dependent on us for their care in the time leading up to their death we may have become a person who was indispensable. We may have partly resented this and we may have become exhausted and depressed by it. It’s surprising, however, how used we can become to a demanding role. When our partner dies – and this also applies to other relationships – we are suddenly faced with the added loss of this all-absorbing caring function. We are no longer ‘needed’. This redundancy can give an added edge to the sharpness of early grief.
‘If I could just turn the clock back ten years...’
It’s easy to get stuck in the tramlines of ‘if onlys’. There’s something self-generating about guilt – the more we dwell on it the more exaggerated it becomes. Eventually we become trapped under a black cloud of stagnant regrets – everything in the relationship now seems to be ‘our fault’ and the burden seems a suitable punishment for our previous actions (or neglect). To break away from it seems too easy a release from our self-punishment, so we may unconsciously allow ourselves to become stuck in what could become a long-lasting depression.
If you genuinely wish to commit psychological and social suicide in this way you owe it to yourself to ask a few questions about your past relationship first.
- On the whole were you happy? Was he?
- Did you want to do the right thing? Did he want to do the right thing?
- Did you try to do the right thing? Did he try to do the right thing?
- Did you regret it when it went wrong? Did he regret it when it went wrong?
- What was your part in the failure? What was his part in the failure?
- What could you have done to improve things? What could he have done to improve things?
- Why did you fail? Why did he fail?
- Would you like to have tried again? Would he have liked to have tried again?
- If you had died first would you like to think of him suffering like you?
- Would he think you were right to be suffering like this?
The loss of a partner will alter the way that others perceive us. Previously we may have been seen as an active part of a cooperative partnership – part of a complete unit. Bereavement will bring a new role for us: the widow or widower.
He that would woo a maid must feign, lie and flatter,
But he that woos a widow must down with his britches and at her.
There are ten times as many widows in Britain as widowers.
There’s usually no shortage of people who want to give support to a bereaved man, but widows can have a harder time. No matter how independent-minded or assertive she is, other people will want to impose their widowist expectations on her – and she may be hard put to resist the pressure to conform.
In our couple-dominated social life a widow is often seen as an embarrassment. This can be so strong that she herself may feel drawn into a lonely, secluded existence as a ‘victim’. Where we see this happening as outsiders we should try to discourage it because once it becomes a habit it may be with her permanently.
Fortunately, younger people are much more independent in their relationships; they are also more used, and better equipped, to deal with change. Maybe they’ll also learn to deal with death more sensibly. Nowadays young women under 30 generally have equality with young men; they have the same opportunities and there are equal expectations of them.
However, this is not true of people presently of widowing age. We know about feminism and equality and we are against discrimination, but we retain a folk memory of the widow myth. In the myth, the widow, particularly if young, is a dangerous woman:
- she has lost a (presumably sexually active) relationship and is likely to be a prey on someone else’s husband
- she may have a large inheritance from the marriage, which enhances her attraction and power.
Widows are ‘dangerous’ because they have become ‘free’ of the ‘control’ of their dead husband: they threaten the stability of the old-fashioned traditional male-dominated system.
This will thankfully not be the case for our grandchildren, but that is no consolation to the lonely present-day ‘ex-partner’ (let’s look for another word). She may feel a social coolness towards her and she may feel particularly vulnerable over her new status.
A good occasion for courtship is when the widow returns from the funeral.
This vulnerability is sharpened by what may be a strong impulse to jump into a new relationship as soon as possible often for no other reason than to fill the gap left by the death.
The loss of a sexual partner may also cause someone to seek casual, impersonal sex as a purely physical comfort. The resulting complications – and the criticism of others – can make things worse, so be careful.
Writing in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (17 June 1994) about Agutainos widows in British Columbia, A. Cochrane wrote:
She may only go out at an hour when she is unlikely to meet anyone, for whoever sees her is thought to die a sudden death. To prevent this she knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along warning people of her presence. It is believed that the very trees on which she knocks will soon die.
‘A Little Widow is a Dangerous Thing.’
And a final sobering thought:
Three out of four women, presently in marriages which don’t end in divorce, will become widows one day.
Maybe because he may show his grief less and seem more self-sufficient and powerful, a widower may seem to need less emotional support than a widow. This is often a shame because many widowers are hit harder than widows. Often they lack the close friendships that women enjoy and are often socially stranded. They may have been totally reliant on their partners for all their emotional support.
It may be that we should tentatively set aside a widower’s protestations that he wants to be left alone and make sure that he knows that we are available if he wants help.
The younger widowed father may receive more neighbourly and family attention and support – he may be assumed to need help with child care. However, he may be aware of a new sexual availability he has which may attract unwelcome attention.
Same-sex partner grief
Although people may not approve of the expectations of others about how they should grieve, there are, at least, some clear guidelines about the role of someone who has lost a spouse. There is some comfort from being able to take refuge in the ready-made roles of a widow or widower. People in same-sex relationships mostly have to make it up as they go along. There is no common concept of gay grief and there are no role models for gay widowhood.
Is bereavement exactly the same as for people in opposite-gender relationships? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be –it’s just that everything that’s been written has been in the context of conventional marriage relationships.
There are, however, some clear differences about how others respond to the loss of someone in a same-sex partnership.
- How publicly known was the relationship? Many gay people may not have declared themselves as such; if their relationship is not acknowledged there may be an important lack of support for the grieving partner. What’s more, they may meet up with scorn, ridicule or rejection.
- Even if they are ‘out’, kindly disposed straight friends and colleagues may not appreciate the extent of their loss –many people assume that same-sex relationships are less ‘serious’ than straight partnerships: there may, for example, be a careless lack of encouragement to take time off work.
- Not only may there be a lack of positive support but the surviving partner may be carelessly (or brutally) ignored by other grieving family members who move in and ‘take over’. They may be excluded from planning or attending the funeral.
Although HIV/AIDS is not currently an issue particular to gay people, it used to be. People who have been in long partnerships may well have had several friends who have died or who are HIV positive. The effects of multi-bereavements can be severe – there isn’t enough space to mourn a death before others happen; feelings become jumbled and confused.
In conventional marriages the main carer of someone who has died – usually the spouse – would normally have the principal role in decision-making, consents, funeral arrangements and executing a will. Their right as next of kin and beneficiary are established even if there is no will.
Same-sex partners, however, have no legal status. If they were financially dependent on the deceased they could make a claim if there was no will, but they otherwise have no rights.
This makes it essential that both partners have drawn up their own wills making their wishes clear. There should also be agreement by everyone about funeral arrangements – who will organise it and who will attend.
The greatest need for many homosexual men and women is to be able to find support – not necessarily psychotherapy or counselling, but someone or a group that can be openly and positively available to them to use as they wish. Increasingly there are support groups available for surviving partners of people who had AIDS but there is less support available where AIDS was not a factor.
Bereaved same-sex partners are more depressed, they consider suicide more frequently and they tend to make more frequent use of help from medical, psychological and spiritual professionals than those widowed in conventional relationships. You can find further information from Cruse Bereavement Care; the Lesbian and Gay Bereavement Project; The Terrence Higgins Trust or The National AIDS Helpline (addresses and telephone numbers are on pages 188–90).