Only months after my life-partner Kate died, a friend called me in need of support. As I listened, she matter-of-factly said that I wouldn’t understand how much she missed her ex-boyfriend. “What do you mean?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, “you don’t miss Kate.”
What?! My beloved recently died and she thought I didn’t miss her?
What are you talking about? I thought. I think about her all the time. Of course I wish I could look into her eyes, hold her hand, hear her laugh. Doesn’t that mean I miss her?
“Of course I miss her,” I said out loud.
At first, I was caught off guard by my friend’s comment. After our conversation, I reflected on what she had said. I wondered what gave her this skewed impression of my experience.
And then I realized – to my friend’s credit – she was absolutely right. I didn’t miss Kate. At least not according to the common connotation of what it means to “miss” someone we love . . .
Is heartache inherent in “missing” someone?
One of the things I realized is my friend had rarely seen me sad in the time following my partner’s death. And this wasn’t because I was in denial or holding back my emotions.
I cried when tears surfaced, but mostly I was filled with gratitude and enthusiasm for life, not heaviness and grief. I attribute this response to a variety of things – including a stellar support team, my spiritual practice, how Kate and I embraced life and death, and a euphoric experience of her actual transition.
For these reasons (and more), I typically talked about Kate with acceptance and a smile on my face. From my perspective, it is because my friend equated “missing” with sadness – and sadness with missing – that she made her assumption. Fair enough. I clearly didn’t miss Kate the way she missed her ex-boyfriend.
Ever since then, I’ve played with what it means to miss someone we love. In my self-discovery, I’ve found there are various layers and types of experiences we tend to call “missing.” It seems to me the missing we most commonly refer to resembles a “longing,” a tugging at the heart when someone has died, is far away or is simply inaccessible.
We wish they were here and then we feel heartache that they’re not.
“Missing” focuses on what’s not there
Language is how we convey our inner experience. It is how we create connection, empathy and compassion. But what if the words we use mean different things to different people? What if we think we’re understanding each other, but we’re actually not?
This is one reason I don’t talk about “missing” my beloved.
My immediate reaction to my friend’s comment was that she was saying I didn’t think about Kate, or that it wasn’t a big adjustment for me that she had died. But when she used the word “miss,” she was referring to an accurate literal meaning. And, though language can be slippery, this meaning aligned perfectly with what she meant:
miss (verb) = notice the loss or absence of; feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to enjoy the presence of.
According to this definition, yes, I regularly “notice the absence of” Kate’s physical being. I literally miss her physical presence in this way. But that is as far as my resonance with “missing” her usually goes. Believe me, this has come as a surprise to me. I expected to miss her intensely most of the time. So why haven’t I?
In my experience, the initial moment of “missing” just happens. On any given day, I can take note of Kate’s physical absence. But then, I get to decide what happens next. What I do with the act of missing is a choice. And this choice point is what determines if I “feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to enjoy the presence of” my beloved.
Choosing to focus on absence or presence
The use of the words “absence” and “presence” in the definition expresses exactly what has become the cornerstone of my process over the past couple of years: Absence or presence.
This is another reason I don’t talk about missing my beloved.
A few days after Kate died, I had a powerful experience in which I realized how much my thoughts matter. I witnessed myself feeling sad, and then decided to see what happened if I deliberately thought certain things. With thoughts such as “I’ll never get to ride my bike with her again. I wish we had traveled overseas together. Who will understand me?” I felt the tears of sadness well up.
When I stopped following these thoughts, and just came into the present moment, I felt more neutral. And when I focused on how much I enjoyed riding my bike with her and traveling in the US and Canada together, or how blessed I was that we were so close and compatible, I felt connected and uplifted.
Over time, I noticed what the thoughts had in common. Thoughts that generated sadness focused on her Absence – on what was missing, on what wasn’t there or on what would never happen. Thoughts that generated peace or joy focused on her Presence – on what had been fulfilling, on memories I had or on how she is still a part of me.
Instead of noticing her absence, my practice has been to notice her presence. The flip side of “missing” her.
From that point forward, I began asking myself “Are you focused on absence or presence?” The answers to this question have shaped my experience in significant ways. I can choose where I put my energy. And because of this, I can choose my response to Kate’s physical absence.
Making room for the miracle
There is, of course, so much more to say here. But this daily practice of absence or presence has been essential to my wellbeing. I can follow the absence to heartache and “missing” my partner, or I can find her presence in my life and feel connection. When there is connection, the “missing” vanishes.
I’m not claiming every day is easy. Using inner tools requires intention and commitment. Just the other day, I started crying as I drove to a nearby lake to enjoy the evening by myself. When I questioned what was going on for me, I noticed I felt the “absence” of Kate. A classic moment of missing her (even by definition!).
In that moment, I was able to decide what happened next.
I chose to allow the feelings of loss to move in order to make room for the miracle of presence. Through my tears, I was releasing absence. This is different than diving into the absence. For me, the miracle came the second I remembered to be grateful for my life. And for Kate’s role in it.
Often this begins by connecting to a memory, not from a place of wishing things were different now, but from a place of gratitude and enjoyment. “I really miss going on hikes with Kate” (regret or sadness because there will be no future hikes with her) becomes “I really loved going on hikes with Kate!” (calling forth the blessing it was to have had that experience with her).
Can you feel the difference? I get in touch with the joy, and bring that feeling into present time. One thought at a time. We are perhaps more used to memories highlighting what has changed, what is no longer there. But we can choose to use memories as a bridge to connection instead.
Do I choose absence or presence? It’s often that simple.
Being “real” about seeing the sun
Rather than sharing occasional times of “missing” my beloved in the truest sense of the word, it feels much more authentic for me to tell you about the deliberate choices I make that lead me to inner peace and happiness. I’d rather talk about how I choose to not miss my life-partner, even if it’s hard to put into words.
This is yet another reason I don’t talk about missing my beloved.
It feels vulnerable to even say this because sometimes people prefer that I share “challenging” moments so that I am somehow more “real” in their eyes. But any inner struggle is rare and fleeting – and not my primary reality. I believe this is because of my commitment to experiencing the presence of Kate in my life.
Please know I am being real. I’m not hiding experiences of sadness. I want to offer my experience in the most honest, truthful way I can. I want people to know it’s possible to live a life beyond heartache and grief, even after the “missing” begins.
My intention is to share that there are many ways to weather the death of a loved one. We are often told the forecast is filled with clouds, rainstorms, and occasional hurricanes. We are encouraged to get out our umbrellas, to expect a storm. But I am here to say bring your sunglasses, too, because the process can be filled with a clear blue sky, gentle breezes, and colorful rainbows. All of it is real. All of it is possible.
On extra grey days, when either Kate or I could see a very faint circle of the sun in an overcast sky, one of us would point up and say with exaggerated enthusiasm, “Look, it’s the sun!” to confirm it was actually a “sunny” day, despite what others may think.
Yes, we can see the sun through the clouds. It’s a matter of where we focus. This is key to choosing the miracle.
Why I’m telling you all of this
On a hike recently, a friend shared how sad she felt as she missed the physical presence of a beloved who had died two months before. She said she wanted to be with him in person again. I could see the sadness in her eyes as tears gently surfaced.
“You don’t seem to feel that way about Kate, do you?” she asked genuinely.
I told her how – earlier that same day – I had been sitting on a rock, and thinking how much I wished Kate would come hiking into the meadow unexpectedly. How I’d love for her to show up, body fully intact, beaming her smile at me. Yes, of course I’d love to be with her in person again. I could feel her presence, just by imagining it.
“But you don’t talk about missing her,” she said.
“You’re right. I don’t.”
“Why?” she asked.
. . . And this conversation prompted me to write these words, a glimpse into the heart of my process. Thank you for receiving my thoughts. I look forward to hearing yours.
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