Losing Relationships: I Hate It

Emotion / Emotion : Eleanor Haley

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Last night as I was falling asleep, I had a memory of being in my grandmother’s living room. 'Memory' may actually be too strong a word, because it was actually more like the sense of sitting on a droopy white couch in my grandmother's living room with my mother and a handful of siblings.

Sensory memory—our memory for things like sounds, smells, and tastes—is the shortest type of memory. It lasts for only 1/5 to 1/2 a second after a stimulus, like a whiff of perfume or the sound of a baby's laugh, has ended. Yet I'm convinced that my memories of my grandmother's house defy this rule. They are so vivid and dimensional that I sometimes think I can smell her old furniture, feel the nighttime air coming in through her open windows, and hear the sound of a record needle dropping on a scratchy copy of Oklahoma!.

In the past, I probably would have taken comfort in this nostalgic flashback. However, on this particular night, rather than thinking “How lovely!", my train of thought jumped onto a far darker track; I instead thought “Everyone and everything having to do with this memory are gone."

The house, gone.

My grandmother, gone.

My childhood, gone.

My mother, gone.

I imagined the scene disappearing like a photo developing in reverse. The people faded, then the furniture, then the walls, and then it was gone; gone from my life and from the lives of others who knew these people and places.

I don't like to think that certain people and places are gone for good, especially because I took for granted that they would remain constant. I foolishly believed they would always be around to support me, define me, love me, and keep me safe. Is that too much to ask!? I guess it is because, in reality, people cross our paths and orbit around us in different ways but their presence is never a given. To illustrate, I've created this quasi-helpful chart:

the intersecting paths of friends, family, and acquaintances

People come and go for varying reasons and, often when you lose one person, you lose other people along with them. When someone dies, for example, people often feel as though their interpersonal losses grow exponentially; friends and family they thought would be around forever—people they had invested time, love, and hopes in—suddenly became distant and unfamiliar. As if the experience of losing someone to death weren't enough to make you ask: "How long before the next person is taken from me?", the experience of losing additional relationships often leaves a person wondering: "What's the use? Who can I count on? How long before the next person disappears?"  

On an emotional level, the idea that I’m the only person guaranteed to remain constant in my life makes me feel really alone. I don't like knowing that relationships are impermanent. I don't like knowing that, as I grow older, I will only have to leave more and more behind. On an intellectual level, I know I'm supposed to say, "Treasure the time you have with each person, learn what you can from them, and cherish your memories." I don't disagree with any of these things; they just aren't bringing me the amount of peace that I need right now. 

Litsa and I feel bad when we write articles that discuss difficult experiences and/or emotions without offering suggestions for coping with them. I'm clearly still searching for answers here, but—in an effort to be constructive—I'll share some of what I've come up with so far:

Allow deceased loved ones to play a dual role in your life. In the theater, one actor sometimes plays dual roles (i.e., one or more roles). For example, an actor may play one role in Act I and an entirely different role in Act II. They are of course able to do this because each role only appears in one-half of the show respectively. When a loved one dies, the physical and tangible role they play in your life ends... but this doesn't mean that they can't play a different part in your life going forward. Through your psychological connection and continued bond with deceased loved ones, they can continue to play a role in your life story. It will just look and feel a little different.

Put effort into maintaining a connection with your family and friends. After a loved one dies, the idea of putting effort towards anything beyond meeting basic needs can seem exhausting. Not to mention, grief can make you feel isolated, alone, alienated, and misunderstood. Of course it's okay to get a little lax in maintaining relationships; however, try not to be completely surprised when, months or years later, you find that you've lost touch with people who were important to you. Here are a few articles that may be helpful when thinking about maintaining relationships while grieving:

Focus on your 'found family' or 'family of choice'. In our in-person workshops, Litsa and I often meet people who have lost all their family. Some people have experienced the death of almost all their family members; some people are estranged from family or separated by distance; and some people feel let down by their family, as though their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents didn't live up to what they believe family should be. In situations like these, people sometimes cope by surrounding themselves with their found family.

Found families, or families of choice, are groups of people who aren't related but who give one another the love and support often associated with "family". A person may believe that their found family embodies family values—like loyalty, unconditional love, honesty, and trust—more so than their actual family. If you are someone who feels separated, distant, or let down by the people who were supposed to be there for you, it may be helpful to think about the people who are there for you. Although our society often places greater interpersonal value on people who are related by blood or marriage, you may find that your chosen family does as good a job, if not better, at making you feel accepted, valued, supported, and loved.

If you have a coping suggestion related to this post, please share in the comments below. And, of course, don't forget to subscribe.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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16 Comments on "Losing Relationships: I Hate It"

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  1. Vanessa  June 25, 2020 at 5:25 am Reply

    I only lost my partner 2 weeks ago. From everything I’ve read thus far grief sounds like a hellish journey that seems endless, I’m not sure I can cope with that.

  2. Roz  August 31, 2019 at 8:14 pm Reply

    I don’t know if this is the right place to post this, but right now I don’t have time to look for a more suitable message thread. I lost my husband 6 months ago, and I think, on the surface at least, I am dealing pretty well. But now I am facing losing our cat to kidney disease and I am not sure how I will handle this additional loss. We both loved this cat so much, and it will feel like losing another part of him.

  3. Barb  July 6, 2019 at 10:03 pm Reply

    Wow! I have lost all of my husbands sisters after his demise. It hurts really bad. I push myself so hard to get normal and all I get is how long is this process going to take. Like forever~

  4. Vicki Bolach  February 6, 2019 at 7:10 pm Reply

    I lost my 39 yr. old daughter to brain cancer July 2017. She was my only child. I basically moved in with her, my son in law and my granddaughters ages 10 and 6 as I lived 2 hours away and needed to help take care of my daughter especially the last six months before she died as treatment was failing. I had such a strong bond with my daughter and her family and it became even more intense as I was there so much taking care of everything so my son in law could keep working. After my daughter died my son in law immediately said he would never bring my granddaughters to my home again because of issues that had developed with my husband who is not my daughters father but he has been a very important part in their lives for 20 yrs. My son in law started dating a woman also with two children only 5 months after my daughters death and it continues to be a pretty serious relationship. My granddaughters seem to like her but I have not been able to find it in my heart to even meet her but my son in laws entire family, my daughters friends and even some of my family have accepted her. I am starting to feel very allianated and I am starting to isolate and feel very alone and abandoned by everyone. I am obviously still dealing with a huge amount of grief for my daughter who was my life. I do not know what to do but I do know I feel that I have lost everything. I am retired now so I do not have a job to focus on.

  5. jackie  February 6, 2019 at 11:39 am Reply

    I agree with all that has been said. Thank you everybody for speaking out. It is nice to know that I am not alone in my loneliness & the missing of some vital ingredient in my life I generally find people to be very uncomfortable & buttoned up about genuine raw feelings.
    The person who said I’m not the same me….. me too. It’s very confusing on top of everything else.
    We have been changed & remade by our experiences. I guess we have to be very brave & face the world with our new bruised, batted, sad, but possibly wiser selves.
    “Walk a mile in my shoes”

  6. Charlotte Howard  July 20, 2017 at 12:12 pm Reply

    Losing relationships is very hard, but in a sense people have a very hard time of letting go and accepting that lost relationship. Sometimes it is unexpected so can be hard, but that person’s life was meant for it to be cut shortly and impact the people it did and lives it did. Thanks for sharing, this resonates with a lot of individuals.

  7. Judith Quinn  July 14, 2017 at 6:05 am Reply

    But what if there truly is no one? No found family. Existing family unreliable and angry, unable to communicate /support or even agree on anything. ? What happens then? When you’re grieving but also utterly alone! ? Absolutely totally ALONE! ?

    • Pam  August 31, 2019 at 1:22 pm Reply

      Dear Judith,
      I am alone also. Most everyone has moved on. I am wondering since you wrote this over two years ago if anything has changed for you? Regards, Pam

  8. JoAnn Bennett  July 13, 2017 at 11:35 am Reply

    I lost my daughter almost 4 years ago and my life has totally changed without her. She was the glue that kept our family together and now things are falling about. Her death came from an car accident 10 months after the death of my husbands death from our marriage of 43 years. It was 2 horrible tragedies 10 months apart then we had the flood of 2016.

  9. Anya  July 12, 2017 at 5:33 pm Reply

    This article is spot on. My heart goes out to everyone who is grieving. After losing my Dad 19 months ago I’ve also lost friends who don’t understand ( or want to) and family who think it’s wrong to still be grieving. It’s so isolating, every day I wake up and wonder how I am going to get through another day without my wonderful dad but on the outside everything appears ‘normal’. The only thing I know is that I will never be normal again.

  10. Olia S  July 12, 2017 at 11:31 am Reply

    Today is the 7 month anniversary of my Dad’s passing. I was never very close to my older (by 6 years) brother. So, I’m not surprised that I haven’t heard from him since the funeral. My other older brother (by 11 years) keeps in touch. We don’t talk about the touchy, feely things. He calls to see how I am, maybe, once or twice a month. So, family is not very supportive. I found that it took about 3 months for people to forget that I was grieving. Even those who have lost their parents seem to have forgotten the pain of such a loss and they would distance themselves from me. I guess my depression became a real downer for them. I don’t see them often any more. My closest friend, who has lost both parents (like myself) was there for me – and still is. With her, I can get my emotions out and she won’t try to fix anything. For the most part, however, I suffer in silence. I don’t remind people about my loss because they just don’t get it and there’s no compassion there. A co-worker who lost his Mom in Dec. 2016. Three weeks later, my Dad died. We became ‘found’ friends for each other. It has given me some comfort knowing someone who has recently lost a parent, and understands my pain.
    To everyone who is grieving – whether it’s been for a day, a month, a year, or several years – I offer my sincere condolences. The grieving process is a personal thing – allow it to take its’ course. I like to think of it like this: you can’t go around it, you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you just have to go through it! This journey will develop, in you, the strength you need to move forward as your loved one, I’m sure, would want you to.

  11. MaryE Richardson  July 12, 2017 at 5:54 am Reply

    Thank you for giving words to my experience. When my husband died 23 years ago, the family I loved and trusted, were not able to understand nor accept my grief. The truth is, they’d never been able to be present to my losses from infertility or anything else before that. As long as I had my husband (& eventually my little girl who we were blessed to adopt), I could ignore my need for genuine compassion instead of the pity I was given. Pity, from where I stand, is the worst thing you can offer a person who is grieving. When he died, I needed to be loved. What I got was pity, criticism, & disdain. My family “needed” me not to need. But I did need. I needed so much. I needed to recreate my life as a widow, a label I despised. Through a long, difficult, even dangerous (at times) journey , my life has transformed & continues transforming by virtue of the grace of god, the love I shared with my husband, my daughter, & the amazing friends I’ve met along the way–my found family.

  12. Yvonne swarbrick  July 12, 2017 at 3:09 am Reply

    This article is so true . Reached out to a friend last night and she really hurt me with harsh words. She said sorry to sound harsh but this is the reality of it . As if that helps by saying sorrry to sound harsh .
    She criticised. How I was coping with the death of my husband . I’ve never lost my husband before so I don’t know how to cope . I’m learning how to cope with it . No one person copes the same .
    She is not there for me emotionally so I need to accept it and not run after her.
    That’s it the top and bottom , I just need to reach out to the right people.
    This article has really spoken to me

  13. Elizabeth Regen  July 12, 2017 at 12:32 am Reply

    This article is so amazing! It def. hits home for me. My dad left a year ago on the upcoming 24th. And I’ve lost 1 million friends. Not sure I want them back. I’m not the same me.

  14. Hugo  July 11, 2017 at 7:19 pm Reply

    Thanks, after losing my dad is more or less what I´m feeling, sometimes is overwhelming.

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