Complicated Bereavement: Mourning Someone You Never Really Knew

Posted on April 15, 2012 by

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Well, I never really knew you ’til you said goodbye~Vince Gill

If you want to know something about bereavement that slides from ‘normal’ to ‘complicated’ in a moment of revelation, due to unimaginable circumstances, you need look no further than to the mourning experiences of Julie Metz and Reeve Lindbergh.

As you can see in my post on complicated bereavement, one theory on the cause of complication is that normal grief can become complicated  as a result of ‘difficult circumstances’ surrounding the death. Common understandings of ‘difficult circumstances’ include multiple losses in a short time, losing a loved one to a sudden and untimely death, lacking a body to bury, or mourning–with thousands of others–the loss of a loved one due to devastating destructive circumstances–tsunamis, earthquakes, holocausts.

But Metz and Lindbergh introduce a whole new layer of complexity into ‘difficult circumstances’ surrounding death: they both discover that the loved one for whom they are mourning–or thought they had completed mourning–was not at all the person they thought they knew.

Meet Julie Metz. Raised in the trendy Upper West Side of Manhattan, she worked in graphic design after graduating college.

Metz claimed she didn’t have marriage on the brain–or even as part of her life plan–when she met Henry Churchwell at a party in New York. She was 26 and self-sufficient–and even had an inkling all would not be right with the handsome man who openly expressed his interest in her. [I myself think an 'inkling' is rather a vague response to this behavior, but we all know what it is to be young and smitten, I suppose.]

In a move signaling either tremendous moxie–or a serious commitment problem– Churchwell first asked Metz out at a party he attended with his girlfriend, who was standing a mere 10 feet away at the time of asking.

Ms. Metz says she declined, but Churchwell was persistent, and clearly in love with her.

Said Metz in an interview with Louise France: “His whole manner communicated that he was interested in you and what you had to say. He could listen. He could make you feel like you were the only person in the room. He made you feel very noticed. I loved him like I had never loved anybody before. It was completely overwhelming. . .When he proposed, I thought I was the luckiest person in New York. I thought we would grow old together.”

Julie Metz’s book on her husband’s betrayal and her complicated bereavement.

And they were married for 12 years, years where they seemed compatible, and years brought the birth of a beloved daughter.

During that time, Churchwell was something less than the financial breadwinner. Metz, freelancing in graphic design, kicked in and more or less supported the family, although Churchwell always seemed to have a plan for money-making, if the stars aligned right. And so it went.

One night Metz was up late working, with Churchwell in bed sick, when she heard him get up–and fall. She ran up quickly to assist, even attempting mouth to mouth, but he’d died of a pulmonary embolism, right in her arms. Nothing could have prevented it–and nothing could have stopped it once the process had begun.

Thus began the process of grieving. Says Metz, “I had lost the love of my life. What had I done it all for? This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Like so many bereaved, she could sit, unmoving, crying for hours. She had no appetite, and eating seemed a worthless chore. She kept the door closed to his office in the house, unable to explore the memories lurking behind it.

And as terrible as her suffering was, it was still normal bereavement–not major depression, not pathological, just the biting hurt and pain felt by a woman who had lost the love of her life.

But then, nearing the 6-month mark of grief, when, researchers suggest, most normative mourning begins to abate in severity and transform into coping mechanisms, Metz’s bereavement was thrown off course–forever.

It was then that Ms. Metz learned that her husband–who had seemed so devoted and attached to her and her child, who had pursued her so actively–had been a serial philanderer.  She had never really known him at all.

As is common in complicated bereavement, one of Metz’s main emotions was anger–really more like furor, at the man who had betrayed her and played her for a fool. But it is such anger that leads to complication in grief–for there is no ability to express it to the deserved recipient. He forever has a pass, this man who was both her lover and a stranger–and the mourner is left with unexpressed rage that is not easily resolved.

Thus Metz’s world was flipped on its axis twice–with her lover’s death, and then with her realization that her lover was someone she never knew. And when she fully understood the depth of her husband’s betrayal, the grief that is part and parcel of mourning had turned to the famous fury of the woman scorned. She said, as she came to realize how Churchwell had treated her, she would say to herself, “Henry, you are so f***ing lucky to be dead.”

Responses to such scenarios are as individual as people themselves, and working through the anger at betrayal takes time. Metz’s coping strategy was to go straight for the jugular. Lacking the rightful object of scorn, she heaped her furor, rage, and sense of betrayal on the women with whom Churchwell was unfaithful, and found her healing that way.

Writes Declan Cashin in “The Independent,” “Devastated, humiliated and furious, Julie didn’t have the option of having it out with her cheating husband like other wronged wives. So she did the next best thing: Julie tracked down and angrily confronted all five women about their relationships with her husband.”

She is most hurt by the discovery that Churchwell had been having an affair with one of Metz’s acquaintances, a woman who lived in their small town. Upon figuring this out, her anger is doubled, fortified, of course, by the underlying rage against the man she can never confront: “ “A gun was too swift, too merciful. I wanted to slit her end to end … I wanted to kill that f***ing woman.”

Metz’s bereavement has lost its sad, mournful quality, and has metamorphosed into a pure, clear rage.  Healing comes to her by hurling words like this at her former acquaintance: “There is nothing genuine about you. . . . What kind of woman does that and thinks she is being a friend? A psycho case, that’s who. You disgust me. You’re like poison.”

In fact, ‘complicated’ seems a terrifically understated word to address Metz’s bereavement–and the process could have continued, unabated, until Metz had left a path of destruction in her wake great enough to console herself for her own sense of betrayal.

But, having taken out all her anger at her spouse on his former partners, Metz seems to have come to an adaptation of sorts, as she has moved out of the small town they lived in, begun dating new men, and left off the attack and counterattack aimed at Churchwell’s former lovers.  However, it’s an adaptation that acknowledges that her love–and sense of loss–have been tainted by betrayal.

She says she thinks of her husband rarely, as “he is not present in the way he would have been if none of this came out. Which is sad. When you die you live on in people’s memories – if those memories are compromised, do you exist any longer?”

Metz is more than ready to cease grieving–since it’s a process that feels futile, as she never truly knew the one she had once expected to mourn.

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Reeve Lindbergh, children’s author, novelist, and poet, and youngest daughter of world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, thought she had finished mourning her father’s death years ago.

After decades of death-defying solo flights, Charles Lindbergh died in 1974, aged 72, somewhat anti-climactically, from lymphoma.

It is well-known in bereavement theory that different life stages reactivate grief. For the Goldbergs (see “A Tale of Two Shivas“) who had suddenly lost their son in 7th grade, each missed milestone brought waves of sadness and loss, as the parents sat out what would have been his graduation from elementary school–and then high school, as they watched his classmates go off to college with a stone in their hearts, and as they attended weddings of their son’s former friends, feeling the loss of their son again, fresh and new and devastating in its pain.

Charles Lindbergh and Spirit of St. Louis

Thirty years after her father’s death, though, enough time had passed that Ms. Lindbergh felt she had moved through the stages of grief, and had mostly come to a peaceful adaptation.

Moments of irresolution remained. Her father had written a letter to her sister in college, chastising her for having too many boyfriends–and it had a cruel and unsettling undertone, as it hinted at the sister’s ‘promiscuity.’ Her anger at Lindbergh regarding that note never subsided; it just banked quietly under some ashes, waiting for its moment to roar forth.

And on that topic–she resented his ‘endless lectures’ on the Population Explosion, with, she writes in her latest book, Forward From Here, “all those graphs and charts on ‘exponential growth curves.’ (That’s a direct quote.)”

But those two pieces of unsettled business lie dormant, allowing a Ms. Lindbergh a truce with her grief–until, nearly 30 years after Lindbergh’s death, Ms. Lindbergh–and the world–discovered that the famous aviator had had not one, not two, but three secret families in Europe, including two girls and five boys, born after Ms. Lindbergh herself.

As with Ms. Metz, bereavement becomes complicated by the overwhelming sense of anger–and of not having any way to address the object of it. When she confirmed the stories, writes Ms. Lindbergh, “I became furiously angry, as angry as I have ever been in my life. I raged against his [her father's] duplicitous character, his personal conduct, the years of deception and hypocrisy.” Her father as a figure worthy of honor and respect was shattered. She found his teaching about how to behave “false, and his life cheap.”

And there was a comfort in that anger, as Lindbergh writes, “My anger was all-consuming, a satisfyingly fiery and righteous rage, very comforting while it lasted.”

That near-debilitating anger, coupled with the inability to make it right with the object of it, define the complications of mourning someone who, it turns out, you never really knew at all. And without good coping strategies, a strong support system, and potential therapeutic interventions, it can be easy to get stuck in that state of rage and remain there, impotent, brought to your knees by one no longer living.

While Ms. Metz came to terms with her sense of betrayal and loss by acting out her anger on those who had participated in hiding her husband’s essence from her, Ms. Lindbergh chose another path once she recognized that her all-consuming rage couldn’t last. Because, as with so much of complicated bereavement, behind that rage, that sense of betrayal, the desire to despise the deceased–behind all that, still lay a love and respect for her father that even his treachery couldn’t wipe out. Lindbergh would have to come to terms with her father’s startling actions, in order to once again put to rest her own bereavement.

So rather than acting out her anger, she put that to the side, and travelled to Europe to meet the families that were, she had so shockingly learned, inextricably connected to her.

And perhaps as a result of how well she had previously come to terms with the loss of her father–and with her father’s very existence, larger than life as it was–Ms. Lindbergh does marvelously well in meeting her new half-siblings, traveling across several continents, and finding joy and connection and understanding. Ms. Lindbergh makes peace with her current reality, and that, perhaps, is the best one can do to ease the complications attendant upon mourning someone you never fully knew.

After her visits to the families, Ms. Lindbergh dreams of her father for the first time in many years. She tells him of her visits to his other families, and he seems pleased. But when she tried to explain how all of his children had been hurt by his actions–she was met with nothing. He could not hear the message; he was missing the piece, so to speak, that would have allowed him to understand the sufferings of others.

That is a painful realization to come to about a parent, at any stage of life. But perhaps it is precisely the one that allows Ms. Lindbergh to move on so smoothly, unentagled in decades of complicated grief.

For by discovering three extra families, she learned that she never really knew her father, and that, in a sense, he had betrayed her and her siblings and her mother for decades. But in working through her anger at this man who seemed a stranger, she finally came to accept a deficiency she may have spent years resenting and fighting against. In his daughter’s more mature eyes, eyes which had seen a truth she never expected do encounter in such vivid reality, Charles Lindbergh was handicapped when it came to realizing how his behavior could cause harm to others. And in that acceptance came peace and adaptation for Ms. Lindbergh, and the ability to put her 30-year-delay of complicated bereavement behind her.

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Vince Gill croons “I never really knew you ’til you said goodbye,” and that was true for Julie Metz, for Reeve Lindbergh, and perhaps for countless others with stories they don’t dare to share. It means the mourner must mourn twice–first for the person they thought they knew and loved, and then for the loss of a life lived in that false knowledge.

It certainly complicates bereavement, and therapeutic interventions are recommended to assist those with complicated grief.

But when the betrayed mourner comes out the other side of her bereavement, there is an inner strength, a better sense of self–and, if these two women are any indication–a book in the offing.

Well, that’s one way to get a book published, I suppose. But I’m all for getting it done in a way that’s less, well, complicated.

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References