Nearly three and a half months have passed since my husband told me he was not interested in continuing our marriage of over a quarter century. It was devastating…it IS devastating. Dozens of times throughout the day, when I think of him or the situation, that familiar stabbing pain in my stomach hits me. I breathe in deeply and forcefully blow the air out in a noisy sigh, telling myself things will be okay even as tears prick my eyes. It’s frustrating to spend so much time thinking of him – I don’t WANT to think of him or care that he is gone. I want the pain to stop.
Before my husband announced his departure, he thoughtfully signed us up as members of AARP. (Congratulations! You’re officially old!) I occasionally get the AARP magazine in the mail and, as I was waiting for the oil in my car to be changed yesterday, I perused the latest issue. There was an article titled The Missing that had the teaser “When loved ones disappear – either physically or psychologically – the pain of their loss can lead to a crippling form of complex grief.” The beginning of the story talked about a woman whose fiancé was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing in early March. She discusses the surreal aspect of not knowing what happened, how “your heart just drops into your stomach” each time there was an announcement of a possible sighting of debris, of how she was “locked in a kind of emotional limbo” because her fiancé was not dead or alive – he was just gone. The woman aptly explained that instead of going through those five famous stages of grief, “all of those phases happen on an hourly basis. It’s exhausting.”
What she said resonated with me – it mirrored what I was feeling on so many levels – but I couldn’t possibly compare my mundane situation with her tragic event…could I? This thought persisted as I read other stories in the article: a sister whose brother went missing in Vietnam; a man whose wife was in the World Trade Center on that fateful day and was among 1,115 victims whose physical remains have never been found; the woman whose husband went sailing for the day and never came home. While I could relate so well to their feelings and emotions, their stories were profound and unusual, their loss so tangible – it was nothing like my situation.
But I read on and discovered more about this stage of “frozen grief,” called ambiguous loss. It can surely stem from catastrophic events or natural disasters when loved ones go missing. However, according to the researcher and therapist who coined the term, Pauline Boss, more ordinary events can have the same effect: a parent who disappears after a divorce; a spouse who suffers from dementia due to illness or injury – no longer the person you knew; an unexpectedly severed relationship. According to the authors of the article, “both types of disappearance trigger a kind of stressful, unresolved emotional state that is distinct from traditional grief” which is not easily resolved with normal treatment with a therapist – because “there is nothing wrong with the person. There is something wrong with the situation itself.”
The article helped me to define what was going on in my life – why I might be feeling the way I have been feeling. Because while I understand my husband doesn’t love me and the marriage is over – what I don’t understand is WHY. How did he go from declarations of love, an enthusiastic promise to work on himself and the marriage, and an anniversary trip of a lifetime, to a decision to leave the marriage just two months later? He has been unwilling, or unable, to give me an answer – that closure I so desperately desire. Instead, when I can get him to address the issue at all, he spouts vague clichés: “We have nothing in common,” and “We are like oil and water.”
Recently, my husband’s secretive actions, atypical behavior, and avoidance of any conversation or questions from me have led me to believe that he may have been living a lie during our marriage and to wonder if he is currently having a relationship with someone else. I asked about an affair shortly after he told me he didn’t love me anymore, while he was still living at home, and he denied it emphatically. However, something is going on – I know my husband well enough to know that. My dear friends tell me that I’m investing too much energy into the wondering and the angst of not knowing – that I should focus on myself and start believing in my own self-worth. I was becoming frustrated with myself for not being able to move past this and for being so concerned with finding out the why of the situation.
I’m glad I stumbled across this article, which explained so clearly and succinctly why I might be feeling the way I do. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but understanding that living with ambiguous loss is different from normal grief and that I’m not crazy because I’m having trouble coming to terms with my situation is comforting and helpful. It makes sense that ambiguous loss, this “failure of narrative…and reluctance to accept story lines that feel unfinished” is not abnormal and that it’s okay that I “want a period at the end of the sentence.”
Boss explains that “resolution may come only after learning to psychologically balance the likelihood of never knowing what happened with the possibility of, just maybe, someday knowing. This is about adapting to having no facts.” It is a multistage, complicated process and the article gives some helpful tips on coping – such as not to blame myself, to redefine myself, and to express my emotions instead of keeping them bottled up. It also suggests that, even and while I’m grieving for my loss, I can cultivate new relationships and, in time, I’ll “become more comfortable with the uncertainty and find things I can control to balance the ongoing ambiguity.”
I know that time will help with the pain and loss – and I’m working every day on myself and ways to deal with the stress. But I can’t help but wish I had the money to hire a private detective and find out for sure what secret my husband is hiding – but while I know that particular ambiguity might be resolved, it also might raise new questions that may be forever unanswered.