Illness and Loss In The Coupledom: Reality Shifts

Loss: I had loss on my mind this week. In fact, I always do but this week a family member shared her profound sadness upon learning of the tragic death of a very dear friend in the “prime of life.” She asked if I had written on loss and grief specific to The Coupledom and I thought: there are so many losses, in so many ways. And so I began to compose this post. Coincidentally, Sunday’s New York Times had two articles on loss as well, which gave language to a new form of secular communal grieving in one piece and the concept of “ambiguous loss” in the other. Both speak to the variety of loss, its power and the need for comfort in a never ending human struggle that marks our Coupledoms, as well as our persons, as mortal.

Chronic: Loss of a spouse or partner from a degenerative disorder is perhaps one of the most debilitating for the Coupledom, as subtle changes in the climate of the relationship may be felt long before a diagnosis is rendered. A kind of tension has tinged the emotional airways. Someone who formerly enjoyed socializing seems disinclined to attend parties or movies, traveling to foreign ports or sharing the T.V. remote. “Set in his/her ways” may not truly reveal the whole picture. A hint of moodiness is sniffed in the air, or a spark of anger more intense than previously seen, is easily triggered. Inflexible positions are taken on how to spend money, or when to visit the relatives. A sharp powerful mind seems a bit clouded. The changes are subtle at first and irritating. Then mobility issues or marked forgetfulness are noticed, initially attributed to over-exercising or mild senioritis. But with time and visits to the internist and finally a neurologist, a diagnosis emerges, and The Coupledom shifts with a powerful jolt. Someone is becoming a caretaker, and someone else is losing their edge. This is a slow crawl with pockets of loss all along the way. And grief.

No Shame: Many today know this kind of loss where the person is still with you but their character is changing along with their body; an ambiguous loss, not a death but a dying off of the familiar attributes of the beloved and the consequent shift in the role of the partner. Can the couple talk about these changes, these losses, locate something new that can replace what is being lost? Yes, but typically the healthy spouse doesn’t want to burden their partner with their pain, sadness or weariness. Extended families are important and friends who need to validate the grieving process with reality, not with false hope, denial or disapproval when faced with the anger, annoyance or frustration of the caregiver. The caregiver needs support and is at high risk for developing their own illnesses due to the stresses of carrying the banner of the relationship, filling two pair of shoes to maintain the shared life. For the caregiver, there should be no shame in wishing that they were free to live their former lives, no shame in leaving their partner in the hands of someone else so that they can touch base with essential pieces of their personal reality. This is necessary and if not gratified, depression and illness might ensue, complicating an already challenging time.

Grief Is A Shared Reality: A Coupledom faced with a slow and steady loss can grieve some of this together. Though memories are fading for one, the steady reflections of the other offer up opportunities to shed some tears or share some laughs together. Why not? Pretending that all is the same protects no one and stresses everyone. Loss is normal, human and provides moments where the depth of the bond can be acknowledged by the shared pain of its changes and losses for both partners. There is no ambiguity in grieving together what is lost.

Acute: The sudden onset of a terminal illness by one member of The Coupledom freezes time like nothing else. There was pre-diagnosis life and post-diagnosis life and they have little in common. Time and energy spent on treatments dominate daily life and interpersonal transactions for the couple. Other family members, children and parents, need care and protection from overwhelming fears and distractions so they can get on with their lives while the fight for health unfolds. But as the illness progresses, or the treatments take their toll, losses are already occurring. Mom and wife, father and husband, daughter or son, look different, act different and can’t quite muster their characteristic oomph or interest in the lives of their loved ones. Patients of mine, whose parents became ill while they were still in the throes of their childhood, poignantly describe these losses but often with the caveat that the adults around them never acknowledged the reality of what was being lost. Grieving was put aside as if to protect the “innocent.” Sadly. For both spouse and children, sadness and loss need language even as hope is still in the picture. However long the journey, the button of emotional expression should not be on mute, in The Coupledom or with other family. Again, the depth of the bond is revealed and nourished in the moments of shared grieving. These moments remembered when the loved one is gone can ease the pain because of what was shared with them along the way: something real, mutual and honest.

Unexpected Loss: Tragic unexpected death is the ultimate “blind-sided” experience. Rips open the heart and leaves speechless the surviving partner. The staggering impossibility. Shock and groping. What makes this experience so bafflingly cruel is the absence of preparation, no file in the emotional cabinet for this loss. Blankness and blindness, and the person who might provide the light to find the way is the one who is gone. Here is where the community of family and friends need to wrap themselves around the naked survivor who has no map for this experience. No map at all. Each day, in ways that match the needs of the widowed, a path of small steps is sketched in, a new reality slowly traced out alongside the grieving process. The personal identity that the partnership formerly provided is overthrown in a moment and something new that identifies “me” has to be born, over time, with the support and love of others. This will take time. Yesterday I was a wife, a husband, a lover. Today I am a widow, a widower, alone.

Small steps: Each day, baby steps mark the way towards a tolerable reality. Unexpected loss strips the survivor of their confidence in the predictability of life and this can be quite debilitating. Rebuilding a trust in the everyday world might take some professional help as well as the passage of time. Time is a paradox in loss. It is time whose excruciating tred moves so slowly along in the grieving process and yet it is time whose gentle hand can be so healing.

Our Coupledom Life: When we sign on for the shared life, written in invisible ink along the margins of the contract to love another is the profound truth: one of our twosome will depart first. Does that keep us from love? Hardly. Loss is life’s most consistent theme. If you need a hand to guide you when you are faced with the unfathomable, seek out family, friends or experts. Don’t totter alone. This deepest of all human emotions needs company.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

2 Responses to “Illness and Loss In The Coupledom: Reality Shifts”

  1. Robin Hausman Morris

    Well said Jill. I think of loss and how it pertains to our children with special needs. I am reminded about my son who has autism. He walked up to the podium at my mother’s funeral and quietly spoke:”My Nana used to sing to me.” and then he sang. My shoulders racked with sobs…and somehow it worked for him. It was familiarity in the face of grief.

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Robin, I am so touched by that image of Paul and his sense of loss for the Nana who sang to him. I see her photos on FB and the love your family has for her. And I know how we as parents of special needs know loss and love and the unique gift we have been given from our children, all of them.


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