It is nearly impossible to count the people who have shared their reflections on the relationship between grief and love. Just a few . . .
“Grief is the price you pay for love” -Colin Murray Parkes (later famously quoted by Queen Elizabeth II)
“Grief and love are two sides of the same coin” -a zillion people
“Grief can only exist where love lived first” – a zillion more people
“Grief is love with no place to go” – Jamie Anderson
Even Marvel got in on it recently:
“But what is grief, if not love persevering?” -Vision, Wandavision
We’ve even written about it here at WYG, in our article “Grief is Love”.
Listing it out this way, it sounds quite pithy and cliche, doesn’t it? It rings dangerously like something meant to round out the jagged edges of grief. I can imagine the rant of a griever, met with these sentiments from a well-intentioned friend at the wrong moment. These feel like a banal platitude, an effort to quell or distract from the immense pain of loss.
Yet grievers themselves articulate this same sentiment often – that grief is love. I have been thinking a lot lately about how love and grief, it isn’t just a one-for-one exchange. It isn’t that the exact same love we had for someone who was once living now transforms into the grief we have for them once they’re gone. They consumed a space in our lives, they left a gaping hole, but grief feels somehow immensely bigger and greater than simply the hole. I think that might be why grievers talk about the relationship between love and grief in a different way than those offering banalities.
The Presence of Absence
Absence allows us to tap into a new depth of love, one we didn’t know existed. It feels like a depth we simply couldn’t access while they were still alive. It is a type of love predicated on the void they left in the world. When becoming a parent for the first time, so often people reach for words to explain that bringing a child into the world has opened the door to a type of love they didn’t know existed. Strange as it seems, I find myself believing that losing someone we love so deeply does something similar.
We’ve talked before about yearning in grief. Yearning is actually one of the most common grief emotions, and yet it is one people often struggle to label. In 2007 grief researchers Paul K. Maciejewski and Holly Prigerson placed yearning front and center, citing findings that it’s actually a more dominant characteristic after a death than those emotions we most typically associate with grief like anger and sadness.
And when you think about it, it makes sense. Yearning, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it is to, “have an intense feeling of longing for something, typically something that one has lost or been separated from“. Researchers who look at yearning are even more specific:
“Yearning is an emotional state widely experienced in situations involving loss, focused on a desire for a person, place, or thing that was treasured in the past.”O’Connor and Sussman (2014)
The Language of Love and Loss
There are words in other languages that point to this same sentiment and add to it. They add the piece that I suspect is crucial to understanding yearning in grief. It is a longing or yearning for something you know that you can’t (or probably can’t) get back.
In German, sehnsucht: A high degree of intense (recurring), and often painful desire for something, particularly if there is no hope to attain the desired, or when its attainment is uncertain, still far away.
In Portuguese, saudade: A deep emotional state of melancholic longing for a person or thing that is absent. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again.
When someone dies, their absence becomes its own presence. We come to love and hate their void. It represents all that is gone, all that we loved, all that miss. We hate the reality it represents – that they are physically missing from the world. But we also love the reality that it represents – that our love for that person is so great that they are still “here”, even when they are no longer physically here. We grab ahold of their absence and cling it as tightly as we can. We still visit and revisit our memories, knowing they hold both the deepest joy and the deepest pain. We marvel that the depth of our love, our loss, and our grief. We want the grief to end and we want it never to end, all at once.
With their absence, we learn something we couldn’t know while they were living. We learn just how deeply we were capable of missing them. We learn just how much pain their void in our lives could cause. We learn how willing we are to lean into that pain in order to keep them close. Though we can imagine what it will be like to lose someone we love, when it happens, we learn it was actually unimaginable. And in that gap between what we imagined and what we never could have imagined, lies a type of love we meet for the first time in our grief.
The Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo defined saudad as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. Some may disagree, but I know that there has been a pleasure in the suffering of my own loss. There has been a wonder that my love could be deeper than I ever knew. There is an awe in feeling feelings that I didn’t know existed, emotions that can only emerge in the vast void of loss.
This is one of those posts that either really resonates, or really doesn’t. Either way, leave a comment.