All human development entails suffering losses that need to be grieved. At every stage of life, we are propelled beyond familiarity and security into a new situation: A baby's first steps mean that she will soon leave behind the comforting security of being carried. A young adult going off to college feels the thrill of freedom but has to contend with homesickness. For all the important gains, there are also losses that bring up anxiety and sadness. Grief might be thought of as the growing pain of human development.
A child's love is really no different from dependence, and that equation haunts us to some degree all our lives. The residues of early dependence in all our intimacies play a large part in making the loss of love so hard to bear. Yet we all go through such loss, leaving behind a trail of casualties—outdated selves, broken promises, lovers we realize we chose for the wrong reasons. Mourning these helps change what can seem like failures into wisdom.
In learning how to grieve our losses, it doesn't help that American culture, with its emphasis on romantic love and happy endings, isn't very hospitable to mourning. But when we enter into the deeper and more difficult stretches of loving, Hollywood can't shield us from the truth: All love stories come to an end, even those that last a lifetime. When loss hits us hard, it can be difficult to know what to do with it, or even how to bear it. Many people in grief turn to antidepressants, which may reduce the pain but don't necessarily provide much by way of self-discovery.
Mourning teaches us how to accept the end of love and helps us start the process of feeling whole again. True, the self you get back is never quite the same as the self you relinquished to your relationship; although wounds can heal, they leave scar tissue. But there's more to gain than just surviving the breakup; there's also the possibility of becoming more than you were, more able to undertake the experience of love in its moments of sadness as well as joy. As with any art or skill, the only way grieving can be learned is through practice—whether we like it or not.
Michael Vincent Miller, PhD, is the author of Intimate Terrorism (Norton).
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