I remember that day vividly.
My then-husband was in Brazil, supposedly on a work trip. I was at home and unable to reach him when he failed to return to Atlanta at the anticipated time. As the panic rose, I alternated between frantically looking for information on the internet (Was there a plane crash? A tourist attacked in San Paulo? A car crash leaving the Atlanta airport?) and uselessly pacing the upstairs hallway.
I called his employer and received a non-answer. It was only later that I learned that they thought he was still in Atlanta since he wasn’t dispatched on a job.
I saved the number for U.S. Embassy in Brazil, telling myself to hold off until the next day before I made that call.
I contemplated driving to the airport, where at least I would be little closer to any news.
At some point, the anxiety and powerlessness reached untenable levels and I set out for a run, the brick of my flip phone clutched in my hand. I uttered desperate pleas for information as I hit the pavement, the movement a poor substitute for meaningful action.
He came home the next day.
He left for good three months later.
That wasn’t the first time that I was afraid of losing him. In fact, from the moment I “had” him, I worried about the loss of him.
There was the time when we first started dating that he showed interest in another girl and I pretended that it wasn’t happening until the situation resolved itself. Then, there was the 1969 Ford truck whose headlights had a propensity to cut out while he driving the back roads in the Texas Hill Country. I pleaded with him not to drive that vehicle, convincing myself that he was safe as long as he operated another car. There was a cross-country move while I still remained in Texas for the semester with the unknowns inherent in a long-distance relationship. I compensated that time by planning for our upcoming wedding; surely talk of our futures would keep the plan on track. That was followed by a car accident where his small car ended up underneath an eighteen wheeler. Up until that moment, that was the closest that I had knowingly come to losing him. I responded by breaking down in the living room of my apartment, our pug nervously burrowing into my neck which was wet with tears. Interestingly enough, the fears I should have heeded never even crossed my mind.
Over the course of our sixteen years together, I carried a fear of losing him. And in so many ways, that fear kept me from actually seeing him. I allowed fear to be my chauffeur.
That’s the thing when we’re afraid of losing someone – we take a rational fear (after all, death and divorce are a part of life) and we respond to it in irrational ways –
Apparently this was my favored approach during my first marriage (although I would have denied it vehemently at the time). Even while my general sense of anxiety built, I refused to examine the little inconsistencies that hinted at something going on behind my back. I was worried about losing him to death (especially as his hypertension continued to worsen); I never imaged that he would leave.
We all have a propensity to shove the unthinkable out of our minds as though if we don’t allow it mental space, it cannot manifest into existence. “It is impossible,” we declare. “They would never…” we insist. “It just can’t happen,” we recite, until we believe it to be true.
I’ve learned since to look more closely whenever I have strong feelings of dismissal arise. It may be that there is something hiding behind those feelings.
We know of bargaining as one of the “stages” of grief. What we don’t often consider is that the bargaining begins well before the loss. This often takes the form of, “If you stay, I’ll change.”
Bargaining can feel like a rational approach with its exchange of services. Yet underneath the transaction is an overwhelming aversion to loss, which means the promises made may be too big to deliver and the promises looked for in exchange may not be kept.
Sometimes, the attempt at control is overt – the partner that keeps tabs on their spouses whereabouts in an attempt to prevent them from straying. Others are more subtle, operating with a clinginess that limits movement. “I love yous” turned into bindings.
Rarely does this method work. Not only are many things outside of our control, but there is no surer way to push someone away than to tell them they’re not allowed to go.
I see this one sometimes as a teacher. When I encounter children that are overindulged and encouraged to remain needy, I often learn about a history of miscarriages or infertility or even the death of an older child. The parents, understandably so, are so afraid of losing this child that they hold them in a childlike state even as they grow.
A variation of this presents in adult relationships. The one who is afraid of loss tries to fulfill every need of the other in an attempt to make themselves invaluable. “If you need me, you can’t leave me,” the inner voice insists as they continue to turn themselves inside out to carry out even the unspoken requests.
I found myself starting to do this towards the end of my marriage. It was a subconscious, yet desperate attempt, to keep him with me.
“Please don’t do this this way,” my initial email to my absent husband begged. I still had the fantasy that if only I could talk to him, I could somehow change his mind (this was before I knew the extent of the betrayals).
I felt increasing powerless as my pleas were ignored. The reality is that I had no hope of changing his decision. As an independent creature, he had every right and ability to act as he saw fit.
Begging is the brain’s way of delaying the inevitable. It’s a stall tactic, and nothing more.
This is the most irrational of them all and also the most powerful. This is the death grip on the rope, the worst of the “what ifs” manifested all at once. Sometimes this can be triggered by an event and sometimes it can arise solely from internal worries. Once we’re in this state, it’s difficult to return to reality.
Tiger, the world’s best pit bull, taught me so many things. Not the least of which was how to say goodbye without fear. We loved that dog and were devastated to learn suddenly that he had a fatal bleed from a tumor on his heart. He was only eight.
As the day progressed after the initial veterinary appointment, the news grew worse. We accepted the truth – the end was imminent. We took him home for a few hours of loving attention before we laid him down on the floor at the vet’s and surrounded him with our bodies.
We weren’t ready to say goodbye. But it was his time to go. Any attempt to keep him with us would have not only been ineffective, it would have cruel and selfish. All we could do is thank him for the time we shared.
Loss is an inevitable part of life. Fearing it does not stop it. Resisting it only serves to make the release that much harder. We rarely get to decide when the end comes. We’re not often offered a choice in the nature or circumstances of the loss.