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The Living Death: Losing a Relationship with a Person Who Is Still Alive

“I think it is easier to have someone die—at least that way you know you will never see them again.” 

This comment came from a friend who was suffering through the end of a relationship. In her mind, she would rather lose someone to death than know that person was alive, yet not accessible. She was more comfortable with the idea of the finality. With a death, there is no back and forth, no wondering if that person is thinking about you, no following their social media posts. No fear of missing out. She preferred to grieve a physical death.

Two days ago, I sat and discussed death and grief with a former teacher and two colleagues. We all shared the opinion that the hardest thing for a parent to have to go through is the death of a child. No parent wants their child to die before him or her. And this led me to recall a story that Timber Hawkeye shared with me in an interview for the Death Dhamma Podcast.*

Timber told of a person who felt that even more difficult than having a child die was to have a child who was still alive yet who wanted nothing to do with you. This really resonated with Timber. His opinion is that nobody does death to you; the person who died did not do so to purposefully hurt you. But if someone is still alive yet choosing not to be part of your life, opting to disconnect from you, that causes a very specific kind of grief. A non-death that feels very much like a death. In this case, it is possible that your person will return to you, or not. That type of uncertainty is difficult to live with.

There is a poem that comes to mind. It is not from the Buddhist canon, yet it might be familiar. Brian A. “Drew” Chalker wrote that friendships vary in purpose, and that purpose sets the duration. The idea is that people come to us for “A Reason, a Season and a Lifetime.” 

An excerpt from this poem teaches us:

When someone is in your life for a REASON,it is usually to meet a need you have expressed outwardly or inwardly.They have come to assist you through a difficulty,or to provide you with guidance and support,to aid you physically, emotionally, or even spiritually.

Eventually, that person will no longer be part of your life, as described in this passage:

Then, without any wrongdoing on your partor at an inconvenient time,this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.Sometimes they die,Sometimes they just walk away.Sometimes they act up or out and force you to take a stand.What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.

With the people who are with you for a “season,” or for a “lifetime,” the duration of your relationship is usually longer. The poem does acknowledge that these relationships will also end. Whether or not you believe the concept that people are part of your life to support your journey, you do know that relationships end. There is a death, and there is grief, and there is a lack of control. As the poem says, without wrongdoing on your part, or at an inconvenient time, the end will arrive. Here is your friend impermanence. We should all move forward with the understanding that what exists now, will cease to exist. This does not mean that you should not love or that you should not enjoy your friendships. Just enjoy them as they are now.

Impermanence does not come to the party alone. Along for the trip are clinging and aversion. If your loved one dies, or your loved one lives but your relationship dies, you may find yourself wishing for a different outcome. You will miss him or her or them. You might rebel against reality. You will mourn the future that you thought was yours. 

Let your Buddhist practice support you. Maybe your Buddhist practice can be that “lifetime” relationship. Guiding you in this life and reminding you to:

1. Return to the teachings of the Four Noble Truths.

2. Accept that this person is gone.

3. Use mindfulness to recognize when you wish for a different outcome.

4. Use mindfulness to recognize when you find yourself wondering where they are, or what they are doing, or if you will ever have a relationship again.

5. When you recognize that you are experiencing clinging and aversion, practice metta.

6. If you find yourself feeling angry over the breakup, practice metta. This is the antidote to ill will.

7. Repeat the above as needed and it will be needed.

You may prefer how your relationships end—the finality of death versus estrangement, or physical death versus living death. Either way, rely on your practice.

* Timber Hawkeye: Proceed with Curiosity (The Death Dhamma Podcast)

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)

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Maia Duerr
5 months ago

very helpful guidance and reminders — thank you, Margaret.