The loss of a longtime partner often leads to long-term grief

 
Posted3/23/2019 7:00 AM
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  • When you have been part of a long, satisfying marriage or relationship, the loss of your partner can feel like a loss of part of yourself as well.

    When you have been part of a long, satisfying marriage or relationship, the loss of your partner can feel like a loss of part of yourself as well. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

Long marriages carry a special risk -- very intense grief when one spouse dies.

This especially true if it was a good and very close relationship. Maybe even more so if a happy couple has children. They have had such a long and complex life together.

I am aware of this because I had such a marriage, and there are many, many in this situation, including friends and other family members. Perhaps you have seen this with your own parents.

I've thought a lot about my own reactions, of course. I think that in addition to all the losses of affection, companionship, enjoyment, travel, shared values and interests -- the death is an assault on the joint identity that a good couple builds up over the many years.

There is a saying, "The two shall become one." Although there is some truth in that, it's not exactly what I mean, and not really what happens. People who have a longtime close partner, whether married or not, can each retain their separate identities, interests, and careers -- and still have a shared identity with that partner. And that shared identity also becomes a crucial part of life and sense of "self.

We know that often a couple spends more time living together than they did with their own parents and siblings, or after the death of the partner. So the bulk of their lives included a joint identity that is fused in many ways with their individual identities. The death of one partner is alarming and hard to manage on a deep level.

In my case, we had a deep spiritual connection so we felt rather invincible, sort of a "force" together as a couple. It made life very special. This is a very hard feeling to give up. It is shaking on a subliminal level.

In one way or another I think many longtime couples have something like this special connection and develop a "facing the world together" feeling. It is not dependence in the traditional way, although it might be. It's more a "wholeness " that is greatly disrupted by death.

It's probably a factor why so many longtime couples die within months of each other, especially if they are close in age. My maternal grandparents both went within six months of each other. My Grandmother Hicks, who was ill with diabetes, one day just said to my mother, "I'm ready to join Howard," and died a couple weeks later.

Baheej and I even discussed how we could communicate after death if one of us went first. Like the magician Houdini and his wife, who planned out how to communicate from the grave. But we never really made a concrete plan.

Nevertheless, I've had many "signs" from him which are a form of communication. Baheej thought his soul would go to Venus after death, and I hope he is there and happy. I know his spirit comes to visit me.

Longtime partnerships often lead to long-term grief when one partner dies. Here are some ideas on managing the loss of a longtime spouse, partner, or close friend based on what I've learned and seen:

• Put up lots of photos to remind you of your togetherness and good times.

• Think of ways to keep your loved one alive for you. Could be wearing a piece of jewelry. I personally wear my husband's university ring on a chain with his cross and good luck charm.

• Think of his or her good habits and attitudes, and incorporate them in your life going forward.

• Think of what good advice he or she would give you and try to follow it.

Baheej's name means beautiful and convivial, which he certainly was. He always said his name meant joyful. He certainly brought joy.

So the point is: One can actually expect and understand the intense grief that follows from the death of a person in a longtime happy relationship -- whether a spouse, partner, friend, sibling, or someone else you thought would always be here with you.

This will not change the intensity, but knowledge may better prepare you for coping or at least understanding what is happening to you, to your friend or to a relative who is experiencing such a loss.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a Ph.D. in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College, and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at sakhleif@comcast.net or see her blog longtermgrief.tumblr.com. See previous columns at www.dailyherald.com/topics/Anderson-Kleif-Susan/.

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