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Another Birthday in Heaven and the Phantom Pain of Grief

Friday would’ve been Greg’s 39th birthday. It would’ve marked his 20th birthday since we met and the 19th we would’ve celebrated together. He loved that we were getting closer to having been together for more than half of our lives. Friday would’ve been that day.

It would’ve been his 14th birthday post-heart transplant and one away from a decade we thought we’d have together. After getting a heart transplant at 25, it seemed unlikely he’d see his 50s. But we hoped he’d at least get to enjoy his 40s. But of course, he didn’t. We’ve celebrated his last 4 birthdays without him.

I’ve been surprised by how hard grief has hit as I anticipate his birthday this year. We have these preconceived notions that grief gets easier over time … and in many ways it does… but we tend to think it gets easier and easier until it disappears (which our culture assumes happens by the first anniversary of a death). I’ve found grief to be so different than I ever expected.

People say the closest analogy to losing a spouse to death is amputation. I’ve never had a limb removed but the analogy makes sense. God says that when a husband and wife marry, they become one flesh. It’s a union unlike any other: your body becomes theirs, your memories are shared, your identity is tied up in theirs and all your choices, successes, failures and words effect the other person. We observe elderly people losing a spouse and see how some simply cease to function. They die so quickly afterward that it almost seems romantic that they couldn’t live without the person who became so much a part of them.

And in that way, the amputation an apology makes sense. If any of us lost a leg in a car accident tonight, we wouldn’t just “get over it”, “move on”, or “look on the bright side”. There would be tremendous pain and unspeakable trauma. After all, it wasn’t just a limb; it was our way of being in the world. Our way of being is now forever changed, against our will. The loss of a limb is a loss of ability, identity, freedom, and independence. It's the loss of a lifestyle, maybe even a career, and the entrance into a life of difficult limitations.

We may learn to use crutches, get fitted for a prosthetic and learn to walk again, but it won't be the same. The most motivated among us might even find success post-amputation. Maybe we determine that our loss won't destroy us and train to compete in the paraolympics. We might write books, talk to children in schools about overcoming obstacles, or start a blog about life without our limb. Things may look really good to those who meet us - especially those who never knew us as a two-legged person. But what even though life may be sweet again, it will always be marked by loss and the longing for what was. We who live without our limb cannot go back, cannot "get over it", can't ignore it, can't be the person we were before our loss. The sorrow of what was lost and the permanent changes it brought would last a lifetime.

So it is with grief. We who lose a spouse are forever changed. We adapt, we learn to live again and we may even look to others like we are thriving in our new way of being. But we are forever marked by loss and the longing for what was.

There's a phenomenon among amputees called "phantom pain". 8 out of 10 people experience this after losing a limb. The Cleveland Clinic explains phantom pain like this:

After an amputation, some people experience pain in the part of the limb that’s no longer there. This sensation is phantom limb pain. The pain is real. The phantom part refers to the location of the pain: the missing limb or part of the limb (such as fingers or toes).

Phantom limb pain ranges from mild to severe and can last for seconds, hours, days or longer. It may occur after a medical amputation (removing part of a limb with surgery). It can also happen after accidental amputation, when you lose a finger, toe or other body part. Phantom pain can be managed.

Phantom limb pain is a common occurrence after amputation or extremity loss. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed to seek help. These feelings of pain are real. Your healthcare provider can determine the cause of pain and provide treatments. Phantom limb pain often improves over time.

Did you catch the parallels between phantom pain and the pain of grief? The very thing that is missing is the source of the pain. It's not visible to others, but the pain is unmistakable to the one experiencing it. It aches, it hurts, it refuses to be ignored. The pain is real even though the limb is gone. It doesn't matter how the amputation happened - whether it's the "best case" scenario in a hospital with plenty of anesthesia and pain reducing medication or the "worst case" through an uncontrolled accident - the pain is still there. And because it's real, there's no need to be embarrassed. There can be improvement, but you will need to seek help to experience relief.

So it is with grief. Years and years after loss, the pain is still real. It may be invisible, it may be forgotten by others, but it cannot be forgotten by the one experiencing it. Because what is gone was there and was intrinsic to the body, it is not easily forgotten. It may come and go. It may be worse on certain days, in certain seasons, or even in certain weather - all of that is normal. And there can be improvement, but that improvement doesn't necessarily mean the pain will disappear. Through help from others who understand the pain, it may simply become manageable.

It helps me to know these things. A fresh wave of grief isn't a sign that I'm doing grief wrong, but that I lost someone precious to me. The pain continues because the love and longing for what was simply doesn't disappear with time.

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