Thursday, December 3, 2015

Understanding the Complicated Emotions of SOS Life

In a previous post, I described the heart's capacity to love as infinite. Today, I follow up to that post with a more detailed description of how this has impacted my ability to move forward and live, so that others might better understand how my emotions are developing over this complicated emotional journey. Granted, every person's grieving process is different, and I by no means speak for every SOS or every griever. However, I know that it is possible to move forward in life following a tragedy and still live life to its fullest without having that tragedy define who I am, or who we are, as people and SOS.

Historically speaking, there are social expectations for the grieving process. In the Victorian era, a widow would wear black for a year or more and was forbidden from associating with men. Sadly, despite our knowledge and understanding of different emotional responses to grief, a shadow of this antiquated expectation still holds true for many in our society, and the grievers are subject to negative judgment as a result if they don't “move on” soon enough.

For myself, this is a big obstacle I’ve been attempting to overcome. One of the most common subjects in my therapy sessions lately has been how unfairly I judge myself, partly because of my fear of societal rejection. The pace I have been progressing through the grieving process is much faster than I anticipated, and I’m scared to show that to the world. I’m scared that society will judge me negatively for how quickly I am “moving on,” when that is not the case at all.

Let’s get one thing straight first: there is a difference between moving on and moving forward. Because my relationship with Andy ended as a result of his death, I will not be moving on. I will move forward, as a SOS and as a griever who has to live with this tragedy for the rest of her life. This wasn’t your everyday-breakup. It's not just over and done with. He was taken from me. The tragic death and loss of my partner has permanently affected my life. Therefore, it’s not something I can just “move on” from. It’s something that I am learning to live with by staying strong and choosing to move forward.

Moving forward with your life brings its own dose of guilt. Whether it’s returning to the simple routine of daily subsistence or embarking on new journeys in life, survivors often feel as if this is some affront to the person we’ve lost. “How can I live knowing they’re not here?” your mind may taunt you. Your strength lies in knowing that, while your lost loved one has chosen death, you have chosen life—and life is a gift that we honor by living.
-SOS Handbook

So here’s how I’m “moving forward” and not “moving on”:

For those of us who have lost a spouse or partner, it might be hard to imagine our next romantic relationship, and I encourage anyone in that position to cross that bridge only when you are ready. For me, I thought it would be years before I could emotionally be in a place where I could date or even think about someone else romantically again. For a while, even the thought of it made me physically ill, so I avoided it as much as possible. Needless to say, I was surprised when “years” only took a little over 2 months.

So here’s where my fear of societal judgment plays in. When you read that, what was your reaction? Were you surprised? Were you disgusted with me or happy for me?

A few years before Andy died, a friend of mine was telling me about how quickly her father had begun to see new women following her mother’s death. Within a month, he was going out on dates, and for my friend, who was only 13 at the time, grief was suddenly mixed with anger at her father. In contrast, more than a decade later, my friend has an amazing stepmother whom she loves dearly, and one of the best mother-daughter relationships with her that I’ve ever seen. Looking back now, she is able to understand how finding that next relationship was something her father needed to do for his own grieving process.

 Spouses often suffer additional guilt over a perceived failure of responsibility, or because of the perceived or actual accusations of others. (Families of suicide victims have been known to direct blame at the surviving spouse.) While husbands and wives vow to care for one another, we must realize that even the most caring spouse cannot assume responsibility for their partner’s suicide. Spouses may also feel a greater sense of abandonment and some may come to judge their entire relationship in the light of their spouse’s final act. Guilt continues to resurface if surviving spouses eventually move on to new relationships. Again, we must remind ourselves of what is really the root cause of the tragedy—depression, emotional illness, and other factors beyond our control—not our shortcomings as wife or husband

It is important to remember that everyone’s grieving process is different, and it is unfair to judge any one person’s healing journey based off of another’s expectation. As someone in mourning, realizing what you need to do to heal does not negate your ability to mourn the person you lost. For my friend’s family, her father knew what he needed to do to heal, and my friend's biological mother is still an important part of their lives. At the same time, my friend is forever thankful for the positive impact her stepmother’s presence has had on her life.

Hearing this story, I too was proud of her father for realizing so quickly what he needed to do to survive. Yet when I very unexpectedly found myself in his shoes a few years later, I did not save that same opinion for myself. I felt guilty for my ability to feel romantic feelings again, so soon. 

“Do you see how you are unfairly judging yourself?” my therapist asked. “Why is it okay for your friend’s father to date after one month, but not okay for you to date after three?”

When we broke it down, I realized that what I was uncomfortable with was not the ‘widow’s dating process’ itself, but of society’s judgment of my pace at it.

Grieving is not like what you see in the movies: every timeline is different, every situation is unique, and every mourner heals differently. In the grieving process, there is no societal expectation or timeline that we need to meet or follow. The only timeline we need to follow is our own.

“Let me tell you something,” my therapist continued, “from the very first moment when you learned that Andy had died, there was a tiny part of you that was ready to move forward, knowing that this would mean romantically as well. At the time, that part of you was so small you didn’t notice it. Now it has grown large enough that you are aware of it, even if it is still in minority to your other feelings on the matter. The process is going to be messy: feelings of grief, guilt, and love all mixed into one.”

Let me tell you, messy emotions are scary to deal with. Overwhelming, confusing, complicated, and scary. But thankfully, if I am learning anything at all about it, it’s this: they will not be messy forever.

Look at it this way. Imagine my emotions as a single unit: grief, guilt, and the ability to love again all mixed into one:

But as the grieving process progresses and my understanding of my own emotions grows, something begins to happen:

The emotions begin to organize and separate themselves. At first, guilt still reigns large. But eventually, the separation continues:

And the guilt gets smaller and smaller, until finally:

And here’s where you can see the difference between moving on and moving forward: Andy’s death has impacted my life in a way that no other relationship ever has. It’s something I am going to live with forever, and I am learning how to live with it. Starting a new relationship doesn’t mean I’m replacing Andy in my heart; a part of me will always love him and grieve for him. In the same way, my next partner will not receive a limited amount of my love because of that; we do not have a limited quantity of love to offer. The heart’s capacity to love is infinite. I will love again and it will be just as full and just as true as any-- not better, not worse, just different.

Though the grieving process complicates things sometimes, my past relationship is not my present one. I know that I need to be happy to live, and I choose to live.

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