Question from Tom: My girlfriend and I dated for two years (a few years ago) and then split up. She quickly married someone else. He passed away after four years. We started dating again a year after his death. She still grieves over him. Am I an ass for not being sympathetic. I just found out she is still going to his grave. Is this normal?
Michele Neff Hernandez, executive director of Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, responds: Dear Tom: Watching someone you care about grieve over a lost love takes a lot of patience and compassion. When someone dies, our love for them does not vanish, and in the absence of their physical presence, the things we do have left of them often become very significant.
Visiting the grave of a person we care about is a way to help us process the fact that they are actually gone. Though our rational brains realize this fact, our hearts can be slow to accept this new reality. Not only is your girlfriend visiting the grave of her former husband normal, it is likely a step towards healing the wound in her heart left by his death.
A gift you can give your girlfriend, as she continues to grow and heal through the grief process, is the opportunity to talk to you about how she feels about the loss of her husband. Sometimes grieving people are afraid to hurt the person they are in a new relationship with by speaking of their former love. There can be a false perception that if she still loves him, than she must love you less. The reality is that every person we open our hearts to expands our ability to love.
When parents welcome a new child into their family, they do not love their first child less; instead, they find they love them both more. Though our bodies inevitably die, our love for those who have touched our lives does not. If you are able to listen to your girlfriend, perhaps even visit the grave with her, you give her the chance to allow you to become a part of her healing journey. By freeing her of the fear of losing you or hurting you by continuing on the natural grief path, you will give her the opportunity to fully heal the wound of loss she has experienced.
Tom, grief is a process. We hear this phrase over and over, and sometimes in its repetition the meaning is lost. Even when people appear to be much better or through the worst of it after losing someone they love, there are still unexpected memories or situations that can take a grieving person’s breath away.
The reality of death takes time to accept, and the loss of a person from our lives has a reverberating impact that is hard to predict. The only thing I know of that makes a difference in accepting the grim reality of loss is the continuous love of the people left in our lives. You can make a difference by loving your girlfriend where she is and walking with her as the days pass and the sun shines a bit more every day.
Yours in hope, Michele