Grief is a sacred journey

Is There a Time Limit on Love?

Vic and Elaine

1981

A woman told me people seem uncomfortable when she mentions her dead husband. “My husband would have loved this” or “his love still supports me.”

Why does his presence in her thoughts disturb her friends? Why is it odd to stay in relationship with a person after they’ve died? It’s expected and desired in so many cultures, but not in ours.

When I ask women whose husbands died twenty years ago if they think about them, the answers are consistent even if they’ve remarried. “Of course, but I don’t say so. People think I should get over it.”

Vic's college graduation photo

Vic’s college graduation photo

***

Fifty years ago next week, I met a man in a motorcycle shop. I was with my roommate who was interested in this graduate student who raced motorcycles.  He had short black curls and wore coveralls. He held a wrench over the upside down skeleton of his “bike.”  He avoided her, but she and I stayed a while. My heart pounded as he bantered with the scruffy motorcycle guys.

Like most of us, I longed for love when I was twenty-one. Call it hormones, but I was fussy. I wanted someone to match an inner part of myself I couldn’t name, an ideal masculine or animus. Like Eros aiming an arrow, my projection flew across that grease-scented room, landed on the motorcycle guy, and pierced.

The last motorcycle race

The last motorcycle race

I longed to know him, hear him, touch him.  After our first night together, I was afraid to leave. I didn’t want him to disappear. In our first months, we were together at his apartment, in his VW bug, at a local diner for breakfast, at anti-Vietnam War rallies, and even for a few motorcycle race weekends before he mercifully gave that up the following summer.

Unconscious projections can land in dangerous places and create harmful, destructive relationships. Marion Woodman called that possibility the “demon lover.” When I told her my story, she said in a deep serious voice, “You were so lucky.” I knew I was.

Sooner or later, every perfect image develops cracks. Vic, the actual flesh-and-blood man, was afraid to commit. Sometimes he wanted to be alone. Sometimes he took too much space. Sometimes he had the flu and a runny nose. He was anxious when he left graduate school in the middle of his dissertation. When he confessed he was scared, I knew we were getting somewhere.

Marion Woodman and Elaine 2003

Marion Woodman and Elaine 2003

Of course, I wasn’t quite what he expected either. It took time and years of psychological digging to know the individuals beneath the projections.

During our years together, I reclaimed many of the qualities I’d seen in him. He did the same with me. I became more daring. He became less afraid to love. Still, some essence of that strong projection remained, even as it was clarified and illuminated in time.

When he died, the inner connection remained even though the outer man was gone. My dreams continued using Vic as an image of the ideal masculine, encouraging me to find my way on my own. The motorcycle guy showed up in a dream to encourage me to finish my book and see the project through to publication. After years of projecting daring risk-taker on him, it was my turn to take a leap.

The projection that stayed

The projection that stayed

Eight years after his death, he’s still alive in me. I don’t imagine this as his spirit or soul still here on the earth plane, although some interpret my experience that way. I think of him as the positive inner masculine within me.

Is there a time limit on our inner connection with someone we love? So far, not for me.

***

Have you had similar experiences? Do you cultivate the memory of someone dear to you who has died?  You might enjoy Bookends of a Marriage about the moment when I first met Vic and its connection to our last days together. For another post about the influence of Jungian ideas when I was young, read Captured by the Mother Archetype.

38 Comments
  1. “Eight years after his death, he’s still alive in me. I don’t imagine this as his spirit or soul still here on the earth plane, although some interpret my experience that way. I think of him as the positive inner masculine within me”

    Joe is with me as I walk on a hot day. He’s with me as I hear the grandchildren play. He’s here in many forms and many ways because he too loved life and can now and visit again through me.
    And yet sometimes I he’s on his own flight, a line drake flying into our marina pool for a swim.
    I am forever amazed but understand that it’s him and we are still together in our own way.
    It was always that way with Joe anyway.
    Thank you Elaine for reminding me of our forever connections.
    Janice

    • Your love is a thing of beauty, Janice. Your continuing bonds reassure the rest of us who also feel this ongoing connection and know it’s a good thing even if it’s not understood or accepted by many. Thanks so much for your moving comment and sharing of Joe.

  2. There aren’t too many women like you from your generation who think as openly as you do Elaine. It’s wonderful how Vic is still a big part of you and your work. You and Vic shared a special bond, and your being able to talk about him is a comfort to you, whereas to some, perhaps the loss of their loved one remains stagnant in a part of them they can’t bring themselves to talk about. Perhaps you aren’t aware of just how remarkable you are. 🙂

    • Thank you, Deb. More than remarkable, I think I’m fortunate and have been given a way to understand my experience that suits me well. I don’t have to know what the afterlife is or even know whether or not there is an afterlife if I focus on the ongoing experience within the heart. The criteria for me is, “Does this ongoing bond hold me back?” The answer is definitely no. It makes me stronger, braver, more self-accepting. If I were to fall in love with someone (a sweet idea, but not one that’s come my way so far), inner Vic would be happy for me. Working in bereavement, I know that grief feels overwhelming and hard to face for many. Their strategy is avoidance. I try to teach people that being with grief allows us to keep the love. Again, I’m grateful for the tools I was given long before I had to deal with this huge loss.

  3. I WELL KNOW THE FELLING,MY WIFE HAS BEEN GONE ALMOST 4 YEARS.I STILL TALK ABOUT HER AS IF SHE WERE STILL BY MY SIDE.WE WERE BUDS,FRIENDS,LOVERS AND HUSBAND AND WIFE.OH HOW LUCKY I WAS TO BE APART OF HER LIFE.MY LOVE FOR HER IS AND ALWAYS,ALWAYS,WILL BE IN MY LIFE.FOREVER.

    • David, thank you for your heartfelt comment. Ah, the feeling… and also the longing for their bodies to be here for a long hug. We are lucky to have their love live on in us and to have had good relationships when they lived. After eight years, it seems unlikely that I’ll stop feeling this close connection, and that’s OK with me. It makes me a better person.

  4. Is there a time limit on our inner connection with someone we love? Not for me either. Love is eternal.

    The words,”Grief is the price for love” is a reduction of the words of Dr Colin Murray Parkes, a psychiatrist at St.Christopher’s Hospice. His full quote can be found in his book, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, a book you probably are well acquainted with: “The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love:it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.” http://royalnewsblog.com/2011/09/grief-is-the-price-we-pay-for-love/

    Elaine and Vic, yin and yang – why wouldn’t it hurt when one’s complement is gone? Or when any loved one passes on. It’s been two years since Mother died, still I love and still I grieve. Now I want to read “bookends of a marriage” in case it’s one I missed.

    Cliff was the ultimate comparison shopper, Though he wasn’t particularly afraid of commitment like Vic, he feared making the wrong choice. Just yesterday I saw a photo of him on Facebook sitting at the head table as best man at the wedding reception of the couple who introduced us. He had broken up with me 6 months. When I showed him the photo, he said he was thinking of me – what do do about Marian . . . . We reconciled shortly after.

    • Marian, both of your comments disappeared into my spam file. Sometimes I barely glance at that file and just delete. I’m glad I didn’t do that this time. I wonder if other comments by you or others have ended up there. If you ever send a comment and I don’t respond, be suspicious. I’ll watch the spam box more closely. Ah, the internet.

      Yes, love is eternal and I know that saying well. The word “price” stops me somehow, but I understand their meaning. For me, grief is the other side of love, the last chapter, sometimes part of love while the person is still alive as with illness, Alzheimer’s, or disability. I’m also not sure the equation love intensity = grief intensity works for everyone. Sometimes we grieve deeply for the unappreciated or unreturned love. Sometimes grief isn’t intense although love was.

      I didn’t know you and Cliff survived a break-up, too–or I’ve forgotten. Vic’s fear led us to decide I should continue my plans and go to CA to graduate school while he went to Europe to attend a science conference. When he was in Germany, he received a hand embroidered image of the two of us holding hands and dancing–him with red curls and a beard, me with long straight hair. Big smiles. Stick figures. My grandma set me up with an embroidery hoop, her huge metal tin of embroidery yarn, and white fabric. I had just left Ithaca on the way to CA and stopped to be with my grandparents a few days in Ohio. I couldn’t stop crying. How did she know what to do? I spent a few days making the embroidery (about 8 x 8) and mailed it to Vic at the conference address. When he received it, he knew he’d made a mistake. When he returned to Ithaca, he asked me to come back. We talked many hours, because I didn’t want my heart broken again. Within a few weeks, I decided to return a month later, in October. We got married the following May. My grandmother loved this story. Your grandmas would have understood the power of the embroidered stitch. Women’s magic!

  5. I am still married to a “dead man”. He died riding his motorcycle when someone pulled out in front of him. There is no time limit on love. If love ends, it never was love. My head and heart are still filled with my husband. He influences my decisions as I move towards the third act of my life.

    Our husbands were so similar, our marriages so similar.

    If people are uncomfortable when I talk about my husband, I ignore their discomfort. That is their’s to deal with. I will not ignore nor pretend, nor dishonor my husbands life or our life together for the sake of someone’s discomfort.

    • Deb, I lost a few friendships in the first years after Vic died because a big part of me was my grief and I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to. My heart was open all the time. If I had to shut it down to be someplace, I learned it was better to stay home and take a long walk. I’m grateful for open-hearted friends and family. The deep heart relationships got stronger and in the last few years I’ve walked with a few of those friends in grief, illness, and hard experiences.

      I wonder where you are in this big wide world. Did you go on a road trip? Where did you land?

      • Elaine,
        I’m still in the process of moving. I sold our camping trailer, the motorcycle trailer, the hauling trailer, Ron’s Subaru, and most all of his clothes went to our grandson, which I love!

        Dear friends, the deep relationship friends, have helped me to find homes for other things by donating to charities, like Habitate for Humanity.

        Our house is in escrow and is expected to close by the end of September. A beautiful young family of three will be coming to live here, and begin their life of memories. They will love and nurture the land and house. I am so happy about this.

        It will be so sad to leave here, but I must let go, take the love and memories with me, and find my way into the third act of my life, without Ron.

        I have found that letting go of material items, making space in my physical life, is creating space in the spiritual realm for infinite possibilities. A simple life without the responsibility of owning things, is incredibly freeing.

        I feel Ron with me, encouraging me on.

        Another twist, or gift, is that I am corresponding with a ten year old boy who was in the vehicle Ron hit with his body, after he was hit by the first truck. He watched Ron die. He is in therapy, like me, and we are corresponding through his therapist and his parents. This young man and I share a very intimate happening. He saw Ron die, l saw Ron live, so I share with him what he needs in order to heal. He is struggling. I saw the pictures of the accident. I know the horror it must have been for him. So to be able to be invited into his grief, and for him to ask me about mine, we are helping each other.

        I will take a road trip to spread Ron’s ashes in places he loved. Then I will move to Ashland, Oregon, rent a small place in town, and walk everywhere in a lovely artistic community. My son lives there. I plan to travel to the UK with two dear friends the end of 2017.

        But I will be finding my way in the world, exploring ways I can nurture myself and others and to be of some kind of service to the world I live in.

        • Thank you for sharing your inner worlds, Deb. It takes time to make these huge transitions, and there are some changes we don’t have to make. We can still love (although sometimes that feels so inadequate in the face of the loss).

          Your words and description of how things are unfolding help others, so I hope you hang on to them and share them more widely in time. I’m grateful for your dear friends who have been there and that the house has new people coming who will love it and the land. I understand, much as I love where I live, I’m only a caretaker here and my stay will come to an end fairly soon. Another loss, but as you say, it opens space for what comes next. Your moves reassure me. I’m slowly but daily clearing out my house, shredding old papers, saving what matters most to me, even though I’m not moving right away. I want to be ready when the time comes–and I’m finding treasures. The process helps me move on. I’m glad you have a plan. It feels right to be near our kids.

          I’m deeply moved by your healing work with the ten-year-old boy. What a gift to him and yourself. I’m glad the boy is in therapy and I’m glad you’re helping each other heal. That’s another story/experience that needs to be passed along. We can help each other when we turn toward grief, even if we’re strangers. In shared grief, we are no longer strangers.

          Stay in touch, Deb. I’ve learned so much from you about the difficult path of sudden loss and want to keep learning from your life. Thank you again.

  6. This is really beautifully done, Elaine. I will share it with my Carl Jung Depth Psychology Reading Group on Monday. Thank you for continuing your work in such a loving fashion. I have long felt your spirit and Vic’s through your writing.

    • Thank you, Skip. I appreciate your feedback. It’s tricky to talk about Jungian ideas such as the animus without explaining every aspect of a complicated archetype. I wrestled with describing projection in a limited way. Still, I’m drawn to discuss the ideas that bring clarity and meaning to my experience. My heart sings when I see your words, “beautifully done.”

  7. Hi Elaine, thank you for this beautiful post, the comments too and your response to them. They are all heart-expanding and I’m not surprised written as they all are with such authenticity …

    My husband and I had many ‘permanent’ break ups during our 5 year relationship but bless his cotton pickin heart he was always the one to come back and we would try again.

    I’m adding this quote –

    Elizabeth Kubler Ross: The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

    • Susan, there are so many experiences and compromises in the idea of “permanent break-ups” that weren’t permanent. You worked things through, grew, changed, and let go of where you couldn’t agree. What an accomplishment. I think most marriages are tested and require effort to stay together. Vic and I called it “The Path of Marriage.” I admit it’s easier to get along with the memory and projection of ideal animus than to live day-by-day with the person who didn’t quite match the inner image. Our skill as a couple was working things through and learning from the places where we grated against each other. It also helped that we liked to eat the same food and live in the same place. We joked about who would get the dog if we split up. Me! No, me!

      The quote is beautiful. Elizabeth Kubler Ross inspires me in so many ways. I love that, even though the steps didn’t work in an orderly way, she bravely discussed what no one would speak about in her generation. We die. We grieve. It hurts but it also opens our hearts and broadens us.

  8. Great read. You don’t “Get Over It” but it changes with time. Thank you for this.

    • I agree, Tracy, and thanks for your encouraging words. I don’t know who started the wild idea of “get over it” but it’s become part of our culture now. I think we suffer from lack of compassion because of it. I hope we’re swinging back to a more balanced perspective.

  9. I met my best friend our first day of college. We had both been through the wringer of life — I had completed several years of behavioral therapy as an incest survivor and she for the loss of her beloved husband to military PTSD suicide. We both knew PTSD. It bonded us. Over the years, I came to know and love her husband. She never stopped loving him or fighting for justice for military verterans. She was instrumental in getting me on the path to help my husband. She died last year. I miss her and love her and will continue to talk about her as my best friend.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and heart, Charli. I’m sorry your “sister” friend died. Have you written about her death? Let me know if you have since there isn’t much written about loss of friends. Sometimes friends are much closer than family. A few of my friends have died over the years, some quite young. Each death transformed me and taught me how to live. I can hardly imagine what your friend went through before her illness and what you’ve had to survive in life. I hope you’ve had help withstanding the blow of this close death. Do you know the book ‘Let’s Take the Long Way Home’ by Gail Caldwell? It’s about close friendship and the transformation two women go through as one of them becomes ill and dies. It’s one of my favorites. Best to you.

  10. I haven’t lost a spouse, but I did lose my mom five years ago. I can’t imagine ever getting over it. I’m glad you still hold Vic so closely.

    • Losing a parent can turn our world upside down. My dad died when I was 14 and it was handled the way death was handled then–secretively, protecting the kids, stuffing the feelings, no way to say goodbye. My mom didn’t express grief then, but 40 years later as she became senile, she began talking about my dad and grieving openly for him. All that energy and love and pain had been carried in her body all those years. I vowed to do better. I hope you’ve found plenty of ways to feel close to your mom. Thanks so much for taking time to comment, Drew. I appreciate it.

  11. My husband Adrian died over five years ago and of course I still think of him. Last week I discovered a great gift: Looking for artwork to donate to the Community Arts Partnership Auction, I explored the back of a closet to find an old portfolio that contained a painting by Adrian that he had done before he met me. I’d thought it was destroyed in basement flooding years ago. Now I will get it framed and hang it so I can see it every day!

    • It’s amazing when we find these surprises, isn’t it? I’m glad for you and for Adrian. It would make him happy to know you cherish this gift and the path you took to receive it. The traces, clues, and connections continue on. Just beautiful, Lynne. If you share it in social media, tag me, please.

  12. A wonderful story. My ‘husband’ has been dead for 12 years–cancer; my son died a year later–suicide. I say husband tentatively since we were never actually married (together for 40 years but only living together for the last 15 years).
    Ours was a complex and difficult relationship–he put his life’s work ahead of everything else. It seemed important to me but admittedly, I was less than enthusiastic after I had two children.
    We both came from strange backgrounds. His family was dysfunctional and abused him; my parents were eccentric and couldn’t fit into the community. So my husband and I were an odd couple–I was shy and dependent while he tended to be strong-willed and firm. His needs usually came first, but we had so many common interests.
    It was not until he was diagnosed with cancer that he began to put me and our relationship first but I was too selfish to appreciate it at the time. Only recently have I been able to see how hard he tried in his final years to do what he could for me.
    Grief takes as long as it takes and comes in many forms. It took 10 years for me to stop purchasing things I thought he would like!
    Now, despite my daughter’s anguish about the past, I know that Al and I had a special and irreplaceable connection that in a strange way I feel I am growing into. In addition to attempting to complete his work, I am concentrating on my own lifelong interest in art. I hope that when I meet him again to be a renewed and better person!

    • Oh Lynne, what a hard experience to have your son die from suicide a year after your partner’s death. You’ve had a lot to digest and so has your daughter. Relationships are unruly and complex. Mine wasn’t always rosy, although it was relatively uncomplicated. It’s hard to put two egos with their needs and histories in the same space and make it work smoothly–and even an easy relationship hits rough spots. You were together a long time. It’s interesting to me (as it is to you) that you grow into the power of your relationship after his death. Sometimes it’s easier to see clearly from this perspective.

      I wish you well, Lynne. I hope your life is peaceful and gentle. There is nothing more nourishing for the soul than being an artist.

      • Thank you for your very kind words, Elaine. They come at a time when they are much needed.

  13. My son died almost suddenly three years ago, and it still seems like yesterday. We shared so many interests and did so many things together that I am reminded of him almost every day. Of course, I will never “get over” the loss of my son!

    • How hard it must be to have a child die, Peter. I’m so sorry you have to experience such heartbreak and sorry your son didn’t have a longer life. I’m glad you spent lots of time with him when you could. I always feel the best thing is to make friends with our grief so we can stay connected with the people we love. Thank you for telling me a bit of your experience.

  14. Sometimes I like to say that my daughter who died still goes on growing in me. But actually, I have grown because of her, her spirit, her strength, and her fearlessness. Because of who she was and how much I miss her, I have tried to “swallow” her and everything I had left of her. It has made me more adventurous. It has changed the way I see the world. I am more than the person I used to be. Even when I eat ice cream for breakfast, I feel I’m bigger and better than ever.

    • I’m moved by the way you’ve worked with grief and allowed it to transform you. Also the way you’ve shared your experience and helped others. I remember those dazed early days–both yours and mine. I look at how sure you’ve become–and I know this is no compensation for Marika’s death. It’s just what happened afterward because of your deep inner work. Thank you for sharing the worlds of Robin and Marika. I wonder what’s happening with your powerful book.

  15. Thank you for bringing an important question to the forefront.
    I do not believe there is an expiration date on love.
    Labor Day weekend will mark what would be 39 years years of marriage with my beloved David. But due to his untimely death in 1993, we physically enjoyed just 15 years. Now the scale has tipped to measure time lost rather than time gained.
    But my love for him stays strong. I see his eyes in my son. I hear his wit in my daughter’s voice. My grandson, Will ,celebrates his second birthday on our wedding anniversary. David’s love surrounds me everyday.
    Yes Elaine, true love is eternal. I am grateful for it.
    I know you feel it too.
    Kim

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim, and for naming some of the ways you feel David every day. I feel love is eternal, too, and something to be cherished and shared. I wrote this piece when yet another griever told me her family was upset because she wasn’t “getting over it.” It had been one year and they felt she should move on. Nothing about her grief seemed pathological or extreme. She was creating a new life while longing for the old one. I get it. I don’t talk about or think about Vic as much as I used to, but he showed up, clear as could be, in a dream last night with a message I need to take in.

  16. Hello…I just started reading your book. I was a school mate of your sons and discovered your blog through Anthony’s Facebook. I just want to thank you for your work and your unapologetic approach to grief. I lost my husband suddenly to a car accident 17 years ago. I have had people say things like, you need to move on or you should be over this by now. I am not “over this” and I don’t think I ever will be. I was pregnant with our third child when my husband, Adam, died. I did have to go on and managed to survive and raise my kids. Yet at 42, I am still so lost and as I read “Leaning into Love” and your blogs, I realize for so many years I have stuffed my grief down and my love for Adam as well to keep up an appearance of strength and survival. I am only a few chapters in but your book is already helping unpack so much of my stuffed down emotions. So thank you for writing this beautiful blog and much needed book.

    • Oh, Heather. What a hard experience you’ve had–and you were so young. I can’t imagine how you’ve struggled and how much hurt your husband’s death caused. I’m glad my book is helpful to you. I was 62 when my husband died and had time to say goodbye and no young children to support and protect. I didn’t have to think about other’s needs, but could turn toward grief and let it transform me. You had none of this “luxury” plus there is so much social pressure to repress and act strong even if you are crushed inside. I’m so glad you’re turning back to this essential experience and learning what you need to learn from it now. I know for sure that there will be plenty of love. Maybe some regret, some anger, some resentment, lots of heartache, but all in a big circle of love. Thanks for making a comment so I know about your situation.

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