Grieving the loss of what never was

I grieve as hard as I love.

I've discovered this not from my behavior at funerals, but through the absence of reciprocity. Rarely have I professed my love to a man and had my affections returned. I've said, "I love you," or a milder version of the phrase, sometimes out loud, other times in an email (I do prefer to express myself in writing, after all). I may drop what I think are conspicuous hints (adorning myself in a style that he knows that I know that he prefers, willingly giving him hours of my time in conversation about nothing in particular, pointing out how alike we think and the uncanniness of our compatibility).

Sometimes I just hope he reads my mind. No matter my method of telling him, more often than not, the response has been awkwardness, an apology of sorts and a quick but often permanent exit -- all of which my heart interprets as the same thing: loss.

With my experiences in mind, I downloaded the Amoris Laetitia and asked my search tool to look for variations of the word "grief." I was pleased to see Pope Francis acknowledge that there is loss within The Joy of Love. He wrote, "I can understand the anguish felt by those who have lost a much-loved person, a spouse with whom they have shared so much. ... And how can we even begin to understand the grief of parents who have lost a child?"

And for people who experience loss through a loved one's death, there is comfort in the Christian community and in the Word of God. Pope Francis calls on people of faith to take care of those who have experienced loss and have no relatives to look after them. He further notes, "The Bible tells us that God created us out of love and made us in such a way that our life does not end with death (cf. Wis 3:2-3)."

Support independent Catholic journalism. Become an NCR Forward member for $5 a month.

But for many Christians (and mainly women, since we're consistently in the pews more than anyone else), grief is not about death, and it's not something the Bible tells us how to handle. It's difficult to articulate the loss you experience when an adulthood friendship ends because someone accepted a job offer 3,000 miles away, or when you thought love, marriage and children -- the traditional household so upheld in Amoris Laetitia and in Christianity more broadly -- were within reach, but then suddenly weren't.

How do you grieve the loss of something you never had, of something you desire deeply, can imagine in detail -- the wedding dress and bridal party, children's names, features and heights, how you'll discipline them, what you'll teach them -- but that eludes you, no matter how close you think you are to grasping it? Calling our emotions grief may seem to trivialize death or "real" relationships built up over many years, but as more than one therapist has told me, death isn't the only loss humans are allowed to grieve over.

People who experience the kind of loss I'm talking about can't take comfort in an end to our loved one's suffering, in seeing our loved one again in heaven, or in knowing our loved one is joyous because they are now with Christ, but we still grieve. Not only does Scripture offer little, if any, instruction in how to mitigate our particular experience of suffering, but Christianity also amplifies it. We desire a way of life we are taught to hope for, and unless we opt for a life of missionary service, we assume we will get it. A lifelong partnership with someone we love enough to raise children with may not be a promise of God, but it is certainly a tradition that God has a history of blessing.

What, then, is the mourning ritual for unrequited love when you are well into adulthood? And what is the church's role in helping members of the Christian community heal from it? It's easier for me to think of what I don't want my Christian community to do than it is to offer recommendations. I don't want to hear variations of, "Just wait. God's timing, not yours. You'll find the right one soon." I don't want to hear that it's my fault and receive a list of one thousand things I need to change about myself. (Everyone knows at least one awful person who's living their dreams.) Skip the lecture on unrepentant sin and also quick-fix prayers; God is not a genie or a fairy godmother.

Do remind me that if I talked to more people, I would probably find my losses and my feelings about them normal. Invite me out or to your home some time. And perhaps most importantly, encourage me to love myself. It's easy to forget to do that when you think no one else does.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Mariam Williams' column, At the Intersection, is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.

Advertisement