“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” These are the opening words of C.S. Lewis in his primer, A Grief Observed, a memoir of his emotional journey after the loss of his wife and soulmate, Helen. Framed in a Christian construct, Lewis’ book remains one of the most beloved books for people who have lost a spouse or partner. His words are as enlightening as they are intense, as meaningful as painful. Lewis grieves his loss as a challenge of surrender, struggling simultaneously with the many changes that partner-loss brings and the mystery of death itself.
Every relationship will end with death, either the other person’s or our own. Depending on one’s belief about an after-life, the work of grief is focused on surrendering what was, or beginning what is now, or both of these. Whether we release our loved one into memory and legacy or we establish an ongoing relationship in spirit is an individual choice that shapes the landscape of our grief journey.
The nature and type of a relationship we have with a deceased person influences our reactions and our journey. Parents grieve children differently than children grieve parents; friends grieve friends differently than the medical staff grieve the loss of a beloved patient. The loss of a spouse, partner or soulmate has several unique features:
- The amount of change experienced when losing a soulmate and partner to death is greater and wider, touching almost every aspect of one’s life. One’s day-to-day routine nearly vanishes.
- The intrinsic bond of a vowed lifetime relationship creates an intimacy and intensity not found in other losses.
- “The death of a husband or wife is well recognized as an emotionally devastating event, being ranked on life event scales as the most stressful of all possible losses.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK217848/
- A redefinition of one’s role in a family typically accompanies the death of a spouse, partner or soulmate.
- A death of one’s partner often alters one’s social role.
- The loss of a sexual partner leaves a person without an intimacy that met both physical and emotional needs; occurring at a time when one needs more than ever to experience the physical and emotional closeness of safety and love.
- The shared partnership of a home, children, and family is now relegated to the surviving partner, which results in several secondary losses, such as financial loss, sharing household responsibilities, and raising children.
A wonderful resource for those experiencing the loss of a partner is the website Soaring Spirits, developed by Michele Neff Hernandez whose husband died unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident at a young age. This website is filled with resources that address these unique features, as well as ways to connect with others grieving the loss of a partner. https://soaringspirits.org/
In addition to the fear that Lewis so aptly names, the most common reality of soulmate loss that people express is loneliness, a sense of being alone in a palpable way. These grieving soulmates describe this loss so powerfully, so beautifully:
- The isolation of not having someone beside me is more than I can bear somedays. Everything has changed, my circle of friends, my schedule, my finances, there is no end to the reminders that I am in this alone now.
- We met when we were 12 years old, he was my entire life, he knew me as a teenager, a young woman, a mother, and an aging crone and he loved me as all of these, at all times. No one can take his place; I am lost without him. I am not sure who I will be without him, and it scares me.
- I am always thinking of her, every minute of the day. There isn’t a day that goes by without my heart breaking to the point of near destruction, never could I have imagined how much I would miss her.
- This I know, I am forever changed now that he is gone. I get up each day, not sure of who I am, but to honor him, I have to find out.
The best advice I have heard from people suffering soulmate loss:
- “Take it one day at a time. There is no perfect recovery plan, there is no timeline for when you should date or whether you should or shouldn’t sell the house or go on a trip. Let your heart guide you.”
- “DO NOT take this journey alone, find a friend, neighbor, or relative that you can tell anything to or ask anything of.”
Although not written in the context of soulmate loss, the words of my friend Sarah Robinson Flick, MD, author of Desire, Mystery and Belonging, best describe my advice for grieving a soulmate:
“This I know, we are called not to control, but to trust.
We know more than we think we do.
Help is available,
And love goes on.”