An Unmentionable Grief


I had originally planned this article under the banner ‘Last (Single) Woman Standing.’ Before I get mown down in the stampede of other young, single, female clergy (for I know I’m not really the only one), I suddenly realized, while driving to meet a single, male (and gay) friend, that among the network of people who are my regular truly and deeply supportive community– not family, not congregants, not generally helpful colleagues, but the people who have gained admittance to my personal cell phone contacts list…I am the last of the single women.

This change in status came about when a close friend announced her engagement to her partner.  I was and am delighted and wish my friend and her fiance all the very best in the blessings that God might confer as they plan their wedding and anticipate their future marriage together.

What I was less prepared for, frankly was completely unprepared for, was the myriad of emotions that would grip me as I slowly processed this news.  As I dared to reflect on how I was feeling (with my trinity of trusted close friends), I gradually realized that what I was experiencing was a gamut of emotions named: hurt, anger and betrayal.  At times I felt numb and was struggling to name how I felt.  Strong feelings.  Emotions with which I am far from comfortable.  For a handful of days I thought of little else and everything else.  

In short, what I was experiencing was a profound loss.  The penny finally dropped when one of the trinity of trust offered to me that I should not underestimate the extent to which my friend’s pending marriage is to me a bereavement.  I was grieving a change in friendship over which I had no control.

Now that was one I was not anticipating.  To be accused of the mortal sin of envy I did half expect.  That is one part of the emotional roller-coaster I have not ridden . . .yet (or if I have, I’m repressing it).  After all, that is what society, the ubiquitous ‘they,’ preaches in a world that touts partnership as a condition of worth and ingredient for functional adulthood.  That charge would not have surprised me.  Jealousy is what I am to feel. But bereavement:  that wasteland of a place, normally visited when a much loved someone dies, really?  Memory defeats me as to what my verbal response was to my confidant’s offering.  My cognitive response was something along the lines of, “but no one’s died, surely not, what?”

My emotional and spiritual response was to breathe out a sense of relief.  This wasteland has a name.  It is a place.  Others have navigated it before me, survived and what was more, there was and is nothing wrong, as such, in how I am feeling.  The cognitive did then kick in.  The platitudes about there being no right or wrong way to feel. No two bereavements are the same.  The message I preach at funerals and speak of to individuals and families about the different stages and expressions of grief within the auspices of pastoral care and by God, at the moment, those apply to me. And no one has died.  My close friend is getting married.  A happy occasion.  That’s it.  There is nothing to feel so strongly and passionately about. Is there?

And hence why this is an unmentionable grief.  That I dare not mention to anyone other than people I really trust.  People who care for me, as near to unconditionally as any friend can.  People with whom I can be my honest self.  It is not culturally acceptable to own these feelings in connection with the marriage of another.  It is even harder when another part of myself is glad and looks forward to a much longed for time of celebration. While planning my outfit for the wedding, I simultaneously ponder how this friendship will never be quite the same again.  

Another person within my trusted trinity some years ago offered me the nugget of wisdom that single people need to have single friends for the simple reason that you know there is the possibility that when the chips are down, your close single friend might just put you first.  It is only other single people who can offer the possibility of fully reciprocal emotional support – those who are married, or in a relationship- rightly, have their partner both as primary responsibility toward and as fountain of strength when in difficulty.

I am left questioning whether this friendship is changing from one in which I can be fully myself to one in which I am going to need to be more circumspect?  Once upon a time, my friend and I were single women against the world together.  We both knew the deal.  Things are different now and will be even more different in the future.  My friend journeys into the new adventure of marriage.  I wish her well on her journey.  Meanwhile, I have lost my Cleopas (Luke 24), so for now I journey alone.  

Christ does walk with me.  Easter and Advent somehow join hands.  For my friend, a kind of Christmas–the promise is here.  I celebrate someone else’s Christmas and ponder, like Mary, what the future holds. How will the promise incarnate in my life?  In this purple time (and perhaps that’s a color for a potential wedding outfit), I wait and I wonder.

Again, I fully expect essentially kind-hearted and well-meaning people to keep on offering the platitudes.  I will not be surprised when some folk earnestly try to say that my Christmas will be a bit like this Christmas.  Maybe it will.  Maybe it won’t.  Does my constant traveling companion, the risen Christ, know?  A bit of me hopes that Christ does know, but I suspect for the moment that Christ does not know.

Today and for several tomorrows, I follow a Christ who is God but also is human. As I explore this part of my humanity he simply journeys on with me, into the unknown where one friendship will never be quite the same again. And we go where that future promise is for today and for several tomorrows an open book of possibility.


6 replies
  1. Cate
    Cate says:

    Your post reminds me of a season of my own unmentionable grief – my own engagement. Talk about unmentionable… when you are engaged, there is nothing that others expect less than to hear you talk about feeling grief. It seems frightening (perhaps the engagement is a bad idea), bewildering (is marriage what we’re all taught is the best thing?), and just in poor taste. I knew that my engagement was a good one, knew that marriage was what I wanted, was in love and thrilled to be getting married to my now husband. And yet, I still felt grief over the loss of my singleness. I knew I’d be losing a time in my life that I loved – being a single woman in the company of other single women. Living with roommates. Feeling independent and on my own. These were pieces of myself that would not entirely go away, but they would change drastically, and I knew it and grieved it.
    I’m not saying this to tell you you should be glad you are single. I’m just wondering if your girlfriend who is newly engaged might be feeling some of the same type of grief and finding it unmentionable as well. The transition of the relationship is happening for both of you, and though it’s possible she is caught up enough in the engagement buzz not to have thought about that yet, it’s also possible that the two of you are silently sharing your grief.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I don’t know how God does it, but I just stumbled onto this article today and it is exactly what i needed to hear, and it reaffirms my belief that God has heard me even in the things i haven’t named aloud. What a relief to put a name to what I’ve been feeling–grief! It’s so hard when people assume that I’m envious or jealous of other’s relationships or happiness, when really what I’m feeling is loss of something I loved–friendships the way they have been– and fear about what will change in those friendships now that my friends are marrying/engaged/seriously dating, etc.
    And I, too, am the last (single) woman standing in my group of close friends. And assurances that “nothing’s going to change!” never help me cause it prevents me from being allowed to own my feelings of loss and short-circuits my ability to move ahead in the new form of the friendship because the inevitable changes were never allowed to be named.
    Anyhow, my prayers are for you as you work through your grief and loss, and I am grateful to you for being brave and writing this.

    Reply
  3. anon2
    anon2 says:

    Anonymous’ comment,
    “And assurances that “nothing’s going to change!” never help me cause it prevents me from being allowed to own my feelings of loss and short-circuits my ability to move ahead in the new form of the friendship because the inevitable changes were never allowed to be named.”
    is so perfectly named. I love this article. And with all due respect to Cate, it’s not the same. I’m sure you grieved your engagement but you were grieving something over which you had agency, and something that was a transition from one thing to another (desired) thing. Grieving being the “last one standing” is a different thing. Perhaps a grief that is the same in intensity but a grief that is qualitatively different (I think.) But the last woman standing does not choose the transition, and is constantly questioned about why she remains single. (As if a) marriage is ideal and b)a single woman can just choose to be married or partnered.)

    Reply
  4. Cate
    Cate says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that it was the same grief, and I apologize if my comment seemed insensitive to the ways the grief would be different. Having agency in a situation is huge, and I get that. I just meant to suggest that there might be shared grief, or at least co-occurring grief, which neither friend thought it was Ok to share with the other… sort of a ships passing in the night thing.

    Reply
  5. friend
    friend says:

    I have been having somewhat similar feelings as most of my friends have had children and I have not (by choice). I do still have the agency, but the shifts in the friendships are very real and I grieve that. I’ve even felt a little betrayed by some who said they didn’t want kids (a shared feeling at the time) but who then did. Certainly people have the right to change their minds, but it leaves one a little lonely.

    Reply
  6. unnamed
    unnamed says:

    If people can be born straight or gay, then why can’t they be born happily single? I hope after we get done getting rights for the GLBT community, we turn next to the celibates.
    (p.s. Cate, you’re mourning because society has convinced you that you have to marry, when you know in your heart you don’t want to. Find the truth before it kills your soul).

    Reply

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