If falling in love is sheer thrill and delight, then growing that love throughout our lives is full of adventure and discovery. Where young love storms and swirls on the surface of our soul, the bonds from which lasting attachments are born seep and spread underneath our skin until the one we love becomes one with us.
As we leave our single selves behind to travel through life as two, our identities shift, contracting at first, as we adjust to a shared reality and then expanding to include our children, our larger community, and finally all of life itself.
Is it any wonder, then, that, like a tower in an earthquake, we crack and crumble when we lose the one and only being who had become a part of us? Whether our spouse sinks slowly in a sea of dementia, or suddenly sets sail in the stealth of the night, the earth shakes and splits underneath our feet. Bereavement among the very old is a tragedy left untold, as private as it is unsung.
If our spouse is alive but in decline, the uber-whammy of ambiguous loss kicks us when we’re already down. In place of love, we find indifference, resentment, suspiciousness, or even cruelty.
While we long for reassurance from an outside source, we shrink from being a burden. Why disturb the lives of our busy adult children? We will figure it out on our own.
This is the wrong way to approach your problem. Healing our hearts is not the same as fixing our cars. There’s an alchemy involved that demands continuous comfort.
Study after study has taught us the power of close connections. The corollary-or more like cardiollary-is that when we go without, our risk of life-threatening cardiac events soars.
But what if we’re not the social types? What if we don’t know how to ask for what we need? What, in other words, if we’re not ready? Answer: Start with the advice of the ancients.
No, by ancient I do not mean a neighbor down the hall. Rather, I am referring to those underrated, unappreciated, and above all, unknown philosophers of the days of yore, whose names you may recognize-Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius to name a few-but whose wisdom we have forgotten. Not merely indulging the idle brilliance of their big brains, these proto-shrinks sought asylum from the self-same suffering that assails us: the regret and sorrow of unconsoled grief.
The one affliction of which they were ignorant, however, was that of loneliness. Folks did nothing by themselves back then-and I mean nothing.
These sages of self-help whom we now refer to as the Graceful Life Philosophers lived through trying times, filed with change and uncertainly, when conflict and conquest melded Greek culture with that of Rome, upending innocent lives and creating general confusion. Like us, they needed straight answers, not to the big impersonal questions, but to the intimate ones that really matter, like, how do I go on living now that my spouse is gone?
Nowhere was this advice made more accessible than by a rich and spoiled nobleman by the name of Montaigne living more than a millennium after the last of them had expired. When he lost his best friend to the bubonic plague, his father to a serrated kidney stone, and his brother from a well-placed blow to the head by an errant Renaissance tennis ball of some sort, he sought surcease of sorrow from the philosophy books he inherited from his father.
By mixing and matching their meanings, he created a mishmash manuscript that eventually became the greatest self help book of them all: his essays, made accessible to us by Sarah Blakewell in her beautifully written book, How to Live Or a Life of Montaigne.
When grief strikes, he says, we become a slave to our emotions, causing us to lose track of the present moment. Recovery requires us to break free of the prison inside our heads. Since there are no jail-breaks when it comes to sorrow, we must escape our pain by taking small steps.
Start with distraction and diversion, he says. Get out of the house. Find something that will make you laugh in spite of yourself.
The next step is to conquer guilt and regret over all of the ways that we failed the person who passed, or left. The key is to embrace our flaws and let them go. We did the best we could and so did our loved one.
Only once we have overcome our regrets can we move to the next phase, namely to create a place deep down inside ourselves where our loved one can still be found. In so doing, we never need to fully say goodbye.
Although Montaigne accomplished this by writing, there are as many ways of keeping the essence of our loved ones alive as there are people in the world. Find your own way. You can do it.
Dr. Kara Witt is a psychologist in the Twin Cities.