Q: I was with Tim, the love of my life, for 15 years, and he died 15 years ago this month. The years I spent with him were the happiest of my life. We knew he was HIV positive, but he was the kind of guy who never gets sick, and I always assumed weâ€™d grow old together. His death was very sudden. One day he was well, the next day he was in the hospital and a week after that he was gone. There wasnâ€™t even time to say good-bye to him. But this was all a long time ago. Iâ€™ve now been without him for as long as I was with him, and I thought Iâ€™d be finished with my grieving process long ago. But Iâ€™m not. Not a day goes by when I donâ€™t think about him, and whenever I remember him I ache inside. Our anniversary, his birthday, and the date of his death are always sad, poignant days for me. Donâ€™t get me wrong, I donâ€™t just sit around and think about him all the time, I actually have a very busy life. I have a demanding, successful career, and many close friends to keep me company, and I enjoy traveling. No one who knows me would say Iâ€™m depressed. But this sadness about Tim is always there in the background. And Iâ€™ve never found another lover, even though Iâ€™ve dated some guys and had some tempting offers. I donâ€™t know why I canâ€™t shake free of these feelings. Shouldnâ€™t I be over all this by now? What do I need to do to finish my grieving process?
Iâ€™m very sorry that you lost Tim. You were very fortunate to have someone to cherish for 15 years, and I can feel the tragedy of his loss in your words.
I sometimes think that our therapeutic culture has completely lost touch with the tragic dimension of human life. Too often we make the inevitable suffering in life into â€śdisordersâ€ť needing â€śtreatment.â€ť Our sorrow over our losses is now a â€śgrieving process,â€ť which is a kind of unfortunate temporary aberration, a deviation from being appropriately â€śpositiveâ€ť about life. But if we do our â€śgrief workâ€ť properly, weâ€™ll â€śwork throughâ€ť the various â€śstagesâ€ť and finally arrive at home plate, acceptance.
Wiser peoples understand that not all our suffering is some sort of psychopathology requiring â€śtreatment.â€ť One of the realities of life is that some grief does last a lifetime. Some losses leave us with sorrow that never â€śheals.â€ť Most people keep their private grief to themselves, especially in our culture, but Iâ€™ll bet if you talk to your friends about it, you will not find a single one who doesnâ€™t live with a certain amount of mourning for loved ones who are gone from their lives.
Youâ€™ll probably always feel sorrow when you think of Tim. And think about this question: Would you really want it any other way? Your grief is also your link to the love that you feel for him, and will always feel. I think a better approach than trying to â€śget overâ€ť these feelings would be to respect their essential dignity. Treat your grief with respect, not as a weakness you should be ashamed of, or â€śrecoverâ€ť from.
Having said that, I am curious as to why you havenâ€™t connected with another man in 15 years. In your heart of hearts, do you prefer to be single at this point, or would you like to be with another partner? If you do, something other than grief may be getting in the way.
Grief by itself, in the long run, doesnâ€™t by itself prevent people from getting into new relationships. There is no inherent psychological contradiction between mourning the loss of one love while also loving someone new. But there is something which sometimes accompanies grief (and is often mistaken for it) and which can interfere with new relationships, and that something is survivor guilt. This is the (more or less unconscious) idea that to go on with your life, to allow yourself to experience new relationships and new love is a betrayal or abandonment of Tim. Is it possible that youâ€™re now holding yourself back from letting someone new into your heart because you fear that this would have to mean evicting Tim from your heart?
It might be useful for you to think about this possibility, and perhaps to explore it with a counselor. Grief may be inevitable in this life, but guilt about your own survival is optional. In most areas of your lifeâ€”career, friendshipâ€”youâ€™re psychologically free to let yourself have a life. Thereâ€™s no reason why you shouldnâ€™t be able to extend this internal freedom to include your love life.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. An archive of past columns can be found on his website, TomMoon.net.