Dec 24 / Paul

Grieving for the Future

When we think about grief, we usually think about grieving for the past — for a person who’s no longer with us. That kind of longing for the past has a backward-looking feel to it.

Another kind of grief is, oddly, forward-looking. It’s grief for the future that I won’t have. This grieving for the lost future can be especially uprooting. When Bonnie died, after the first few weeks that were full of memorial services and occasions that friends made for being with me, I went into a period of grief when I didn’t know what to do or didn’t know why I was doing it. When I looked ahead to my future, it was either a blank, or a prospect of routine without meaning. I was grieving for my missing future, as well as for the joy of being with Bonnie, which was in the past. Just as Bonnie’s absence left a hole in my life, so did the absence of the future I had imagined for myself, with her.

The future that Bonnie and I planned had given meaning to what we did in the present; now the future was gone, Bonnie was gone, and I was uprooted.

I was grieving, as many people do, for a future I never had.

Some people have such a powerful grief for the future that was “taken away” that they feel they’ve been cheated out of something they would have had, if the person they love had not died. They feel their future has been stolen; they look ahead and can see only that the future they’ve got is not the one they “should have had.”

Of course, that future was never real – no future is. Saying that the future “should be” a certain way is a doorway to resentment and suffering.

If you get wrapped up in the idea that you were “cheated” of your future, you’re stuck. Looking back, you see only what you lost; looking forward, you see only what was stolen from you. Is it possible to create a future you’ll love from that stuck place?

I’m not sure what you can do if you’re stuck in that place. Maybe the answer is simply to say this to yourself as often as needed:

Oh, I was mistaken. That was never going to happen.

Or maybe, we can feel gratitude for the way in which we did have that future. Bonnie and I had, in fact, imagined many futures in the twenty-three years we were in love – that’s what human beings do. Each of those futures shaped the present, even though none of them were real. (Every future is imagined, even if I later encounter a present moment that resembles what I had imagined before.) So I don’t see that our imagined futures were stolen from us – in the moments when we imagined them, we had them as fully as you can ever have a future.

I would like to hear from people who find themselves grieving for a lost future or feeling cheated. Are you stuck there, or did you find a way to shift that?



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  1. Frances / Mar 4 2010

    My ex-husband died on Feb. 15th, 2010. He was considerably older than I am, but he was the love of my life for most of my life. It seems I’ve always been in love with him. We got together in the mid 1990′s and spent 1.5 years married. We divorced over problems with my teenage daughter (from a previous marriage), as well as his cheating…eventually we had to go our separate ways. Then he came back into my life after ten years of silence. As time went by, we reconciled, moved back in together and planned to remarry, foolish as that sounds. And one of the same things that broke us up before, his infidelity, broke us up again. I moved out over a year ago, and have moved on, and have a wonderful guy in my life now.

    I received a phone call two weeks ago from John’s daughter saying that her father had passed away the previous day. He had died from septicemia, as well as renal failure, heart problems…you name it. He seemed to have everything. She said he’d been asking for me, presumably to apologize, to tell me he loved me and to leave things on good terms before he passed. But they didn’t know how to reach me. He’d told me any number of times during our time together that he didn’t know if he could live without me in his life. (Of course if that were the case, why did he cheat?)

    Yet it hurts. His daughter said it was as though he’d given up. He lost 65 lbs, refused food, and just wanted to die.

    The grief I feel now is almost unbearable. And I suppose it’s mixed with guilt, even though it feels unreasonable to feel that emotion considering the circumstances. I can’t talk to anyone about this without looking like I’m crazy. After all, he was an ex, not a current husband. We are supposed to hate them aren’t we? I feel anything else but hate. I love him still, and doubt I’ll ever stop. I’m open to suggestions on how to move into the future in a healthy way.

    Thank you…

  2. Paul / Mar 10 2010

    Dear Frances,

    A lot of people get one blessing when a loved one dies: they get to feel whatever they feel for a while, without judgment and censorship, from themselves or from others. I hope you’ll give yourself that blessing now.

    What I hear in your letter is a tremendous amount of love meeting a tremendous amount of judgment. In each sentence that contains the words “should,” “unreasonable,” “guilt” or “supposed to,” a judgment is colliding with your authentic love for your ex-husband, John. This isn’t surprising: human beings are judgment machines. We try to figure out what’s going right and what’s going wrong so we can steer the course of our lives and make ourselves and other people happy. Judgment is really useful, in the right place.

    Now that John is gone, you have the opportunity to let all the judgments go. Really. You don’t need them anymore. You can just heave a great sigh of relief that you don’t have to make judgments and decisions about him. Maybe at one time it was dangerous to love a person who betrayed you. Is it still dangerous?

    “I love him still, and doubt I’ll ever stop. I’m open to suggestions on how to move into the future in a healthy way.”

    Is there any healthier way to move into the future than authentically experiencing your love for another human being?

    Maybe there’s something in this passage from Loving Grief that would shed light on where you are now:

    Not only had I not imagined falling in love with Carol,
    I had imagined it was impossible for me to fall in love with
    anyone while feeling such intense and immediate love for
    Bonnie. Over the course of a month away, I learned that
    a person has just one heart, and that one heart can be
    big enough to love two women wholeheartedly. Over the
    course of that month, I began to see my years with Bonnie
    in the context of my whole life and to find delight again
    in the sweetness of my memories of her.

    I hear that you have been surprised again and again by your own capacity to love someone who didn’t “deserve” your love — as if we can deserve the love we get. Can you now accept that who you are is a loving person, and that John is now someone you can simply love, without the need for judgments, guilt, or resentment?

    Thank you for telling us your story.


  3. Marty Tousley / Mar 10 2010

    My dear Paul, there is great wisdom in your response to Frances, and I so appreciate reading more of your beautiful perspective on life, love, loss and transition. As you know, I love your book, and I am so grateful that you’re continuing to share yourself so generously in this format. You are such a treasure . . .

  4. JoAnne Funch / Mar 10 2010

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for such a heartfelt posting. I do not grieve for a lost future, although I probably did at one time. It has been four + years since my husband died and in the beginning years I did grieve what could have been, yes we had plans and now I had none. I still yearn for what might have been on the anniversary of his death, our wedding anniversary and other special times, but have a special place in my heart for those memories. I have transitioned to a place in my life where I have found renewed passion and purpose and for that I am deeply grateful every single day.

  5. Stephanie / Oct 3 2010

    Dear Paul,

    A friend of mine directed me to your website and it has touched and moved me. My husband of 18 years passed away 7 months ago. I miss him terribly and I was really struck by your blog. I always thought that he and I would grow old together, and now, somehow, the thought of facing the rest of my life alone is daunting. I totally agree that much of my grief is involved in the future we will never have. But my husband was resilient. When life caused him to have to leave one thing behind, he moved eagerly on to the next. I think of his example when I think of my future. Although it is hard right now, I know he would want me to move on. I know I’m at a fork in the road. I can choose to merely exist for the rest of my life – going through each day on autopilot. OR I can choose the fork where my life is an amazing adventure. I know which fork my husband would take and although he is not here with me now… I know his Spirit will be with me as I move forward and create an amazing life. Right now… I still hurt, and I allow myself to hurt mindfully – feeling the pain and letting it move through me. One day I hope the pain is less and only the love remains. Until then, I wanted to share a quote with you –

    “All I know from my own experience is that the more loss we feel the more grateful we should be for whatever it was we had to lose. It means we had something worth grieving for. The ones I’m sorry for are the ones that go through life not even knowing what grief is.” – Frank O’Connor

    Thank you and God Bless you on this difficult path.

  6. Paul / Oct 4 2010

    Dear Stephanie,

    What a gift you have in your husband’s example of moving forward — and your own ability to notice and remember how he did that. Your message is inspiring and also encourages me to believe that you will choose the adventurous path of growth. You express so much wisdom in six words — “I allow myself to hurt mindfully” — that I’m confident you will grow through this experience of love and loss and not shrink to a life on “autopilot.” I hope you will allow that to happen, in its own time, dealing with what there is to deal with now and at each moment. No, I hope that every grieving person will do that — I am confident you will do it.

    All my best to you, and I invite you to visit here again and share your “amazing adventure” as it unfolds for you.

  7. Johanna N. Rivas / Jan 11 2014

    My mom died 10 years ago now. I was 29, she was 54. It took more time than I ever would have imagined to get through the bulk of the grief. For me, the second year was harder than the first in some ways. I found that a support group for women that had lost their moms was very helpful. I think they still do these groups through VNA Hospice . They used to be in Emeryville-maybe still are. It does get better with time. Although I really miss my mom still at times, I have learned a lot through this experience. I feel that I am a more compassionate person now. I also feel that I appreciate being in the moment more than I could before and appreciate the people in my life so much, knowing how precious the time that we have is. Although it may not seem like it now, grief is a transient thing. The lessons and love that you have been given by your mom will always stay with you–and you can pass them on.

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