Do I have a right to grieve the loss of dreams I was never promised?
As my marriage withers to an unceremonious end, that's one of the questions with which I now wrestle. Depending on the day of the week, I waffle between mourning the dreams that will now never be realized—feeling at times justified and at other times guilty for what could be perceived as entitlement—and feeling pretty grateful for the life I've led.
The days my emotional boat stays afloat, I'm grateful for all I've enjoyed. My physical needs have always been met. I share life with three incredible kids. Now 12, 13, and 15, I marvel at how remarkable each one is. (They're actually sort of delightful.) I was afforded an incredible education. Professionally, I love the work I get to do as a writer, editor, and speaker. Many days I do it in the comfort of my pink and green polka dot pajamas. I have steadfast friends who've walked with me for decades and ones who've joined the journey and supported me during this most recent bumpy season.
The days I'm sinking, though—the days when I'm pushing a grocery cart toward the checkout line and am suddenly gripped by a sadness that takes my breath away—I do mourn the future I'll never see.
I won't press shoulders against my husband as we sit together in a pew when our kids get married.
If and when grandkids visit, I won't turn to my husband and recall the way the baby's father also did that funny crawl with one knee and one foot, or how her mother also used surprisingly big words that no three-year-old should know.
I won't celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary with someone who remembers me when I was 23. And for that matter, I won't whisper and giggle with someone beside me in bed about how crazy it is that we're those old people that our grandparents used to be.
On my difficult days, I grieve that I won't share life with a partner who's shared my life.
The bigger picture
Yet as someone who cares deeply about the suffering of a larger world in need, I'm aware that the death of my Norman Rockwell fantasies aren't as tragic as they feel. In a world where mothers struggle to feed their babies and fathers' strong bodies are attacked by cancer, I haven't forgotten others who suffer.
And, in fact, this season has softened my heart to many in my own web of relationships whose lives have also not unfolded the way they'd once imagined:
The friend who would have liked to have shared her life with a committed partner but who recently celebrated her 60th birthday without having yet tasted the kind of relationship for which she's longed.
A fellow writer who was forced to get "a real job"—grueling hours, exhausting commute, bringing work home at night—to support her family.
The precious friend with Stage IV cancer whose daughters won't have their dad at their college graduations. Or weddings. Or visits with grandbabies.
A dear friend, full of faith, whose husband left her for another woman.
The mom whose young, fit husband died unexpectedly when he was out on a run.
The 70-year-old colleague who's experienced a lifetime of same-sex attraction but has, for personal reasons, decided not to pursue an intimate relationship.
The professionally ambitious mother who has spent the last three decades at home serving her child born with a severe disability.
As the list of those grieving unrealized dreams gets longer and longer, I realize that I'm far from alone.
And as I hear the question which hovers near my own heart echoed in the tone and cadence of each of these unique voices—"Do I have a right to grieve the loss of dreams I was never promised?"—it sounds a bit different than it does when it jangles around alone in my own head and heart.
Though I'm quick to dismiss my own grief, tempted to bully myself into a posture of faux gratitude, I'm much more generous when I imagine the wondering—Do I deserve to grieve my dreams?—assigned to friends. Because I am certain of their belovedness, their worthiness to love and be loved—more certain, it seems, than I am of my own—I know instinctively that they not only have the "right" to grieve, but that if they are to be well, to be whole, that they must grieve the dreams which won't be realized in their lives.
When I imagine my critically ill friend asking, "Do I have a right to grieve the loss of dreams I was never promised?" I rush to blurt out, "Of course you do!"
Should an older adult who won't experience lifelong intimacy in a covenant relationship question his or her right to mourn, I know in my deep places, "Yes, that's worth grieving."
Were the mother of a child with a disability to ask me if she had the right to grieve the life she'd imagined for her child, the one she'd pictured for herself, I'd know intuitively that she does.
So as I listen on behalf of people I know to be worth loving, the question haunting me is turned on its head. My "right" gives way, as it often does, to responsibility. Suddenly it's no longer a question of whether my friends are allowed to mourn the future they'd imagined for their lives. Rather, through the eyes of love, I see that they need to grieve. And I do too.