Grieving What Never Was
By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” This aphorism has proved helpful to many who have experienced the loss of a marriage partner or other beloved companion. It encourages the surviving partner to balance a keen awareness of what they have lost through death, and even divorce, with appreciation of all that they have received through the relationship with the one who is gone.
But what if there was no relationship to remember with appreciation? What if the loss was about going through life without ever having a mutually satisfying marriage or comparable relationship that one could then lose?
I personally got interested in this question while reading a memoir of a woman I know personally who remained single all her life, not by choice but because none of the several men with whom she had fallen in love and with whom she craved intimacy over the course of her life, were able to return that love and share that intimacy. Here, in her own words, is how she describes her grief:
I believe that two of the deepest forms of emotional pain are (1) the pain of a mother when losing a child and (2) the pain of unrequited love. It seems that over the years the cross I bore was the deep emotional pain of unrequited love. When this happened, the object of my affection genuinely loved me as a best friend. However, he was not in love with me. I have never enjoyed a two-sided romance.*
Reading about her grief led me to remember several occasions when, as a pastor, I listened to persons who spoke of the pain of the loss of a love that never was. I realized also that their pain was magnified because they found it hard to share their experience of pain with others—especially those whose loss seemed more obviously immediate and tangible.
It would seem then that to the shelf of TEAR SOUP recipe books, we need to add another title: “UNREQUITED LOVE.” For grief over never having had something that one needs or wants, can be every bit as painful as having and enjoying that same something and then losing it. In the memoir from which I quoted above the author acknowledges that the intense pain of her grief because of several desired romantic relationships that never flowered lasted no less than six months in each case.
This grief is real but it helps to recognize that it is grief and nothing more. For a time unrequited love may seem like the end of the world, but like every loss, we can get through it even if we never get over it. In several cases the woman quoted above tells us that after periods of intense grief she always found new direction and energy that allowed her to move on.
She also acknowledges in her memoir that as she moved through her grief she found comfort in her identification with Jesus whose experience with personal loss also includes loving persons deeply and not experiencing their love in return. In Luke 13:34, for instance, Jesus speaks these words of lament:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing!”
The Gospel of John vs 1:11 notes that Jesus was completely rejected by some of those whom he loved deeply: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
If fact they not only did not accept him, they assented to his death by crucifixion, or at least quietly accepted the injustice without protest. But, as we remember during this Easter season, his death was followed by resurrection. And so will there be a resurrection of sorts for those of us who “grieve our loss of what never was.”
*The words quoted are from an autobiography by Sister Paula Nielsen entitled The Trans-Evangelist: The Life and Times of a Transgender Pentecostal Preacher. Readers of this book will also gain a deeper understanding of the unique grief experienced by persons who are rejected by others because of their sexual or gender minority status.