Loss and Grief: Coping with the End of Intimacy

Ann Weber, Ph.D.

Welcome to the last session of our online course on Close Relationships! It may seem odd to end a course on close relationships with a discussion of grief and loss, but as you will see, I believe, along with many other researchers, that the pain of loss is closely connected to the joy of intimacy. It is my hope that by learning how to cope with loss, risking it will seem more worthwhile.

-- Dr. Ann Weber

For the third time today, Jennie dials Neil's number, expecting to hear his answering machine yet again, and simply to recite once more, "It's just me. Call me when you get back in town." To her surprise, Neil picks up, the familiar, distracted voice saying, "Yeah?"

"Neil, you're back! It's me. When did you get back? Is everything okay?"

"Well, sure. I got back on Sunday, like I said," he says.

"Sunday . . ?" Jennie mutters, confused. "That's four days." Neil was supposed to be gone just a week, and had promised to call her "soon as I get back!"

"Everything's fine," Neil snaps, "and I'm sort of busy, so-"

"Well, I just thought you must still be in Oregon, when you didn't call, and I got no answer, so I called . . ."

"I know," Neil sighs, "I got all your phone messages. Look, I have a lot of work to catch up on, so I have to go."

"Well, sure. So, when do you want to get together?" Jennie asks, trying to sound more hopeful, less anxious.

"I'm not sure. How about if I call you? Okay, then. 'Bye." The line clicks and Neil's voice is gone again.

Jennie stands a minute, looking at the receiver in her hand. Neil has never talked to her this way before. He's always been warm and affectionate. This was abrupt, it felt dishonest. What's he not telling me? Jennie wonders.

Still, sadly, at some level she knows: their relationship is over, just like that after eight months. There was no fight, no conflict. Neil went away for a short trip, eager to come back -- but never called her once he did return. He wasn't eager now -- except to get off the phone! thinks Jennifer. Without warning, something has changed.

Later Jennie must struggle through weeks of heartbreak, worsened by Neil's refusal to talk to her. He avoids their old crowd too. She has no idea what happened. She is reconciled to the breakup and long past any desire to have Neil "back." But sometimes she wakes from a dream that Neil is finally going to tell her, simply, "why."

How can love end so suddenly? What could happen to make Neil change his feelings so dramatically? And if it wasn't sudden, then how could Jennifer fail to realize that Neil was so unhappy that he was ready to end their relationship?


"Thanks so much for coming, it meant a lot," says Gregory, automatically, without feeling, as the sympathetic couple exit the house. The funeral feast is ending, and people are slowly leaving. Gregory had sneaked away from the kitchen to take his post by the front door. Small talk had become impossible. He had to get away from the other mourners. Now he stands like a robot reciting the same toneless farewells as each guest departs.

Gregory's sister Cara edges over between guests, touching his elbow lightly. "Hang on," she urges, "it'll all be over soon. Try to be nice. These people really loved Papa."

"I am being 'nice,'" Gregory almost chokes out the words. "If I weren't being nice, believe me, you'd know. It's just all so phony to me, I hate this whole thing. Everyone acting sad, saying how sorry they are . . . Then they're all talking up a storm, like it's a party. They're all eating like they're famished. And they keep laughing! I don't get it. It's not funny. What's wrong with these people?"

Cara shakes her head. She smiles at another departing guest, exchanges platitudes, and turns back to Gregory. "You know people get anxious when someone . . . when they lose someone. They don't know what to say. They want to pay their respects. But you can't expect them to all stand around crying. Would that really make you feel better?"

"No, of course not. But this doesn't help, either! Why do people do it this way? The service, the cemetery, now this 'party.' Soon they'll all be gone, and then what? How does any of this help?"

"I don't know," Cara admits. "I don't remember what everyone did after Mama died. But maybe we just have to keep doing stuff and not push it. When everyone's gone, we clean up. If you feel like talking, talk; if you don't, don't worry about it. Go on upstairs. I'll manage fine down here."

"Hey, I can't believe you said that. You're letting me get out of doing dishes? I might take you up on that." Gregory grins briefly, and he relaxes a little.

"See?" nods Cara, "Now you're even laughing a little. It's okay to laugh. Daddy was a funny guy, he'd laugh, don't you think?"

Gregory's face crumples a little but he smiles again. "I think that's what I'll miss most, Carrie. I feel so . . ."

What's the best way to handle grief? Do funerals and other rituals really help? What should you say to someone who is grieving?


Lucy looks up from her paperwork and blinks at the clock. Twelve-thirty. Thank goodness -- lunch, people will be leaving the building for a while. She gets up quickly, closes her office door, and relishes the first moment of privacy all day. Leaning against the door for a minute, she exhales and tries to keep her mind blank -- but then a few tears come. Nothing major, but she needs Kleenex, and reaches toward the desk.

"Knock, knock?" she hears Tasha's singsong voice on the other side. Her coworker just pushes open the door as usual and breezes in. She stops short when she sees Lucy's red face and puffy eyes. "Whoa, lady, you got a cold or something?"

"No," sniffs Lucy, dabbing her face and tossing away the tissue. "I'll be okay."

"That why you were out the last two days? I thought maybe you took a long weekend, someplace fun. Came to hear all about it."

"No," Lucy frowns. "I thought maybe you'd heard, maybe Alice told you? I did call in on Monday . . . It's just . . . Fred died, you know Fred. It was sudden, I've been so upset. I needed some time. But I couldn't stay out any longer. I'm here today but it's hard to concentrate. I keep thinking."

"Oh, right, I did hear something," Tasha clucks, "Sorry, lady. You were pretty attached to Fred, huh?"

"Well, yeah -- it's been twelve years," Lucy whispers hoarsely. "I know I should feel grateful we had that much time. But I don't feel lucky, I feel angry, and really lonely. I miss him! I keep seeing him in the house, or the car." Lucy feels relieved to be able to talk about it. "At night I swear he's in the room, I can hear him walking around the apartment. Then I remember, and my heart breaks again. I just can't imagine my life without him now. It'll be so different without him. I guess I'll be okay, I need some time, thanks for checking on me . . . "

"Well, I just came to see if you wanted to get some lunch . . ?" Tasha quickly suggests.

"Oh, thanks, not today, I have so much to catch up on. I'll just stay at my desk."

"Okay, lady. I'll let you get to it. But my advice is, try not to take it too hard. I know you were real attached and all, but remember, it was just a dog."

How can Tasha be so insensitive about her coworker's loss? Why aren't all losses taken seriously? How can you cope with a loss if others won't give it the respect you feel it deserves?

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