What should I do when I lose my girlfriend?

Dear Paul,

I’m working on a essay about losing the person we love. May I ask you a few questions?

1. What do you think is the more painful: (a) losing someone suddenly, or (b) knowing that someone you love is not going to be there for you any longer?

2. How should I act when a friend’s girlfriend dies?

3. And the hardest question: What should I do when I lose my girlfriend? Search for help? Talk about it? Shut myself up.

Thank you for any help you can give me. I hope this is not too much to ask for.

A reader from Belgium

Dear Reader:

Thanks for writing with some of your questions.

Let me answer your first question about which is more painful: losing someone suddenly and expectedly or knowing that someone you love is going to die and watching it occur. Without intending to be flippant, I would say that whichever one you are experiencing is the most painful. In other words, it is really impossible to say which one hurts the most because they are both incredibly painful. Maybe if I use an example from a workshop I offer, it will make more sense.

Picture yourself in an audience listening to this part of my lecture. . . . ..

To argue about which hurts the most–the grief following an expected death or that after an unexpected death–would be as facetious as this: Imagine that all of you on this side of the room have been sitting with your thumb on the table in front of you and you noticed, when you first came in, that the person sitting next to you had a hammer in his or her hand. All the while that I’ve been talking they have been fiddling around with their hammer, and just a bit ago they raised it in the air making you even more nervous. And then, just moments later while you were watching, they raised it up and smashed your thumb with it. Wow, does that hurt!!!

Now everyone on this other side of the room: You also have been sitting with your thumb on the table in front of you. You haven’t noticed it, but the person sitting next to you has had a hammer with them also but they have kept it hidden from your sight. Just a bit ago, unknown to you, while you were paying close attention to what was happening here in the room, they raised their hammer and slammed your thumb with it. Wow, does that hurt!!!

Now the important question is: Which one of you hurt the most? Those on this side who saw the hammer coming, or those over on this other side who didn’t see it coming? Hey, we are all sitting here with thumbs that are throbbing with pain, and to argue which hurts the most is out of the question–we all hurt a lot!!!

That probably was too long an illustration but hopefully you see that the grief experienced after both expected and unexpected deaths is very painful.

To answer your second question: How should I act when a friend’s girlfriend dies? My advice is that you should simply continue being his friend and do for him the things that a friend would do. Don’t be afraid of always needing to say the right thing, but be more concerned that you give him your physical presence and let him know that you are with him for as long as his grief journey may take. Talk with him about his girlfriend and encourage him to share the many memories he has of her. Say her name and share the memories you have of her with him.

Your last question makes it appear that there may be reason to think your own girlfriend may die. I’m hoping that is not the case but, if so, I encourage you to do things that are helpful to you. If you are more of an extrovert, I would encourage you to involve yourself with other individuals who have had a similar loss. If you are more of an introvert, I’d encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings through keeping a journal in which you can record your thoughts. I’d also encourage you to read some books about the grief experience so that you can have a better understanding of some of the things you are going through.

So, Reader from Belgium, I hope some of these thoughts have been of help to you.

Best wishes,

Paul


Paul V. Johnson, MA, is a consultant and trainer for business, industry, and educational institutions on issues related to loss and grief. He was formerly an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethel College(MN) and Director of Aftercare Services for the Bradshaw Funeral Homes in the Twin Cities area. He has made presentations at the national conferences of major professional caregiving associations and is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.