How do I deal with knowing my true love is as mortal as the rest of us?
May 25, 2010 8:17 AM   Subscribe

I have found "the one" I want to spend the rest of my life with and I cant stop thinking that one day she will die. How to deal?

After almost 4 decades on this here mortal coil, I am finally with someone I want to grow old with. This of course is an anonymous posting, but if you knew me you would understand how terribly rare that is for me. I've never felt this way and I've certainly never referred to anyone as "the one" before.

And luckily for me (and against all good sense and judgment on her part :P ) she feels the exact same way about me.

The only problem is that now that I have someone in my life whose welfare I actually care about more than my own, I cant help but think (a few times a day) that one day she will be gone. As we all will. Of course this relies on a best case scenario of us staying together forever, but it's within that context that I have these thoughts.

Now before you copy and paste "get therapy" from one of the other askmefi threads, you should know that I'm not really obsessing over this in the sense that it may seem. I am not at all the morose or even melancholy type really. We are very happy and this isnt a detail that I spend time languishing over. But it does pop into my head at least once a day or more. That one day she will be gone and the only one that could comfort me about that fact is....her.

Sorry if this all comes off as saccharine, but I've never had anyone that I've cared this much about. Not friends, not family. No one. I've had many, many, many serious LTRs over the years and I've never been confronted with these kind of thoughts.

Part of me wonders if I would have been better off in the long term without her even though I know that's not true.

So I guess, how do you reconcile the love with the looming loss, even if its possibly decades away?

Note: I'm an atheist, so notions of afterlife wont help
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Give yourself time to reconcile yourself to the idea. This is part of caring about someone deeply, and being mortal (and possibly believing in no afterlife). Let yourself feel the emotion, acknowledge it, and move on. Even if you have to go through that process daily.

I used to have a "death thing," but it's gotten better--not through therapy or medication but through time and trying to make my relationship as happy and good as possible while we're here. It's normal and human to feel these things.

Really, it'll be okay.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:25 AM on May 25, 2010

This troubles me too. But at 40-ish, surely you have known other people who have died. Are had a beloved pet who has passed on. Both of my sets of grandparents were married 50+ years and both of my grandmothers are now widows.

My beloved dog is the only pet I have ever had this long, and I raised him from puppyhood. I love this dog more than any other pet I have ever had and it pains me to know I will outlive him, but it doesn't affect my daily relationship with him.

My husband is almost a decade older than me, so it's likely I'll outlive him too. But just a few months after we married he was involved in a serious wreck that could have been much worse.

You can't let mortality control you with fear. She could die tomorrow, for all you know. The trick is to understand that we are all mortal and to make the most of the time we actually do have. When you think of it this way you'll find yourself more likely to let go of the petty things and just enjoy what you have that's good.
posted by Brittanie at 8:25 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

A. You'll probably die first.
B. The more time you spend together, the more this feeling will fade into the background.
C. Better to have loved and lost, yada yada.
posted by rikschell at 8:27 AM on May 25, 2010

It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again. It pesters to remember
the lover who is not in the bed,
to hold back what is owed to the work
that gutters like a candle in a cave
without air, to love consciously,
conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

I can't do it, you say it's killing
me, but you thrive, you glow
on the street like a neon raspberry,
you float and sail, a helium balloon
bright bachelor's button blue and bobbing.

-From "Risking Everything: 110 Poems of love and revelation

I know what you mean, my gut reflex is always AND THEN WE DIE. But I am working hard to stay in the moment. Being present is more helpful than worrying about how to handle the future. Good luck. It takes practice but I've found it helpful.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:27 AM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Death destroys a man: The idea of Death saves him. " E.M. Forster (Howards End)

In other words Carpe Diem and use that knowledge to remind you to make the most of every day that you have together.

That's all you (or any of us) can do.
posted by Chairboy at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you're dealing with mortality, really. The same thing has happened to me: the more you care for people, I find, the more mortality begins to bother you. Not your death, but theirs.

I can only really weigh in with what I do: ignore it and move on with my life. I think you're sort of either in two camps: fear of death is crippling you and you DO need therapy, or its sort of a nagging piece of your brain that really just has to be ignored. Straightly put: People die. You'll die. She'll die. That, as they say, is the mystery of life. What can you do? As trite as it sounds, try and enjoy every moment you can. We have one life to live so you sort of have to make the best of it in any way you can, and this person can be an important part of that for you.

If anything, I try and use that feeling you talk about to be a reminder. Instead of being like "oh man this person I care about is going to die," when I get that feeling, why not tell someone you care? Why not buy them a dumb little meaningless gift that will make their day a little better? Why not compliment someone on the street?

Everyone copes with mortality in a different way. I think its worth giving some thought to because while now it might not be hard, in time if you don't sort of pin things down, I think it could get harder.

Didn't mean for that to be long but there really is no good answer. You just have to sort of mix things around and see what gives you peace, because its entirely personal.
posted by wooh at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, my husband feels somewhat similarly, in that he tells me that he hopes he dies first because he wouldn't be able to handle it.
posted by emkelley at 8:29 AM on May 25, 2010

You don't state how long exactly you have been with 'the one', I am assuming it is a relatively short time.

I used to worry about this a lot when I got together with TheOtherGirl. Now, less so, but of course I love her more than ever.

Upon reflection I think it comes with having a 'bank' of shared experience over the years. At the start of a relationship, it is so full of possibility and, if it is on the back of a long spell of singlehood, I was petrified it would all be snapped away from me.

But now, we have shared our lives for nearly a decade and we have a lot of shared fond memories. If the worst happens, I will be devastated, but I would like to think I would have those memories to treasure and.. maybe... one day give me closure.

At the start of a relationship, you don't have those, and the torture of losing a newly found love (or even just the thought of it) might just cut that little bit more deeper. So for the love of {$deity | $dawkins}- don't throw it away for fear of that inevitability.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:29 AM on May 25, 2010

So I guess, how do you reconcile the love with the looming loss, even if its possibly decades away?

Fuck like rabbits, laugh like hyenas, socialize like gorillas and squeeze every drop of joy you can out of it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:30 AM on May 25, 2010 [35 favorites]

Some times death is mercy.
posted by milarepa at 8:31 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the practical side, get some insurance for both of you so whoever doesn't die first can spend some time mourning without having to work or worry.
posted by meepmeow at 8:39 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Love them now. As in right now. That'll give you less chance to think about some vague, undefinable future. Or, use the fear of that future as a spur to loving them more now.
posted by Solomon at 8:39 AM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

A lot more can go wrong with relationships than death, and often enough does, at least temporarily, now and then.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:41 AM on May 25, 2010

Wow I envy you sooo much....

Moving can deal with this by acknowledging the possibility that most likely you'll die first (cause you are guy), and start living in the moment, the present, holding on to it as much as you can......
posted by The1andonly at 8:51 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

You deal with the expected death of loved ones the same way you deal with your own: Allow yourself to remember, occasionally, that it's going to happen, and live your life accordingly.

If that sounds a little pat - which it should, I guess, because it is - try this.

Everyone dies. The people you love, the people you're fond of, the people you hate - they die. You'll die, too, some day. But if you've lived your life right, you won't die alone. Neither will she.

When we have children and the child wants to have a pet, we tell them that a pet is a big responsibility. Everyone takes that to mean cleaning up after it, walking it, feeding it, et cetera. But it also includes knowing ahead of time that you are almost definitely going to outlive the wee thing, and that if it is yours and you have loved it and made its time on Earth a full and good one, then you will one day find it incumbent upon you to shepherd it out of this wonderful, crazy, ridiculous life; you don't have to be happy about it when it happens, of course, but you really should do it. When we say that it's a big responsibility, this is what we really mean.

If you love this woman - and it sounds like you do, and for that I offer sincere congratulations - then you'll find that getting old together is more than just sending the kids off to college, or the waltzing barefoot on the beach that movies like to use as visual shorthand for an old, happy couple. Inevitably there is sacrifice, and love means that a lot of the time you won't even mind, because their happiness is your happiness. Some day there will come a point where this wonderful woman who's been with you your whole life will have to make her exit from it. You'll be afraid of what your existence will be without her, and you won't know how you can live even ten seconds without her being alive and joyful and vibrant, and to this I say that the greatest gift you can give the old and gray (and still beautiful, always still beautiful) love of your lfe is a peaceful and happy departure from this world in the arms of her favorite guy in the whole universe. It's one of those sacrifices. You'll be sad, sad beyond measure, and you'll grieve, but you'll know that your sadness was not the equal of the love you had for her; that you could shunt it aside a while and ensure that she did not die alone or scared.

And after that? After that, I suppose you'll say your goodbyes in whatever way is best for you, and you'll live out what's left of your life surrounded by every wonderful thing you built together. For my grandfather, who outlived his beloved by a fair margin and never even looked at another woman, that meant basking in the company of his children and grandkids, and seeing the big happy family he started. Life won't be the same, but it will be more tolerable than you expect by a long shot, and when your work is done in this world you will join her in the next, whatever it looks like to you.

You'll miss her terribly sometimes, the way you miss everything you've loved that has gone away. You'll maybe find yourself talking to her picture, or talking to her when you can't sleep. When you can, you'll still sleep on your side of the bed, more often that not. And in the ways you express your devotions to the one you love best, in the way her face is reflected in your progeny (should you choose to have them), in the thousands and thousands of ways that she has shaped you and leaves her mark on you, clearly visible in the world around you, you'll see - I promise you that you will see - that though everyone dies, and though there is grief when they do, the things we love, and which love us back, never truly leave us.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:55 AM on May 25, 2010 [27 favorites]

"Our greatest fears lie in anticipation."

Used repeatedly in Season Three of Madmen, ultimately to comic effect. Yet, it's true I think. We worry deeply about something. It happens (or a version of it anyway) and we find we have coping skills we didn't realize we had. Meanwhile, the thing that really knocks you off our foundation is the thing you never worried about.

Bottom line (and, in fact, a line from a different show):

"It's always your fear of death versus your commitment to life."
posted by philip-random at 8:56 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

the looming loss

Wednesday Is looming.

2060 is the distant future. you'll have a g-damn hover car by then.
posted by French Fry at 8:57 AM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's what works for me whenever any sort of obsessive thought comes up. As soon as I notice it, I stop myself. I say to myself "This sort of thinking is unproductive for me right now. It's irrational. Move on." And I continue about my day. Sometimes the thought doesn't go away right away. Sometimes it comes up again shortly. But I do the same thing again.

I have found that over time even though similar thoughts might appear, they don't have the same impact. It's sort of like going from worrying about someone dying (serious) to worrying that you forgot to take a library book back (not a big deal).

My family has a history of this sort of obsessive thinking. It was interesting for me to read about it and finally understand it so that I would not let it consume me like it did some of them.
posted by thorny at 8:59 AM on May 25, 2010

Have you ever had a pet? Did you love that pet? Even though you knew they'd die before you? Why bother?

This sounds counter-intuitive, but focus on death until it doesn't bother you anymore. Buy flowers, they die. Light a candle, it burns out. Play a song, it ends. Etc. But you enjoy the sight, smell, or sound of them while they exist.
posted by desjardins at 9:00 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the vein of carping your diem, take a look at the activities you enjoy, both personally and with her. Consider which of them can be used as practices of mindfulness and presence in the moment. You probably realize that lot of people look to prayer or meditation for that sort of excercise, but that's just because it's how they learned it. All sorts of things work, from martial arts and athletics to various sorts of craftsmanship, to art appreciation and simple regular walks outdoors. Anything which is improved by attention to detail, really.

That practice, whatever it be, can be applied to help you share more with her in every moment you spend together. When the last day comes, you'll have drunk as deeply as possible from your relationship. You'll also have a set of tools to truly behold that moment and come away without feeling as though you've missed anything.
posted by qbject at 9:02 AM on May 25, 2010

I've always thought that What Sarah Said by Death Cab for Cutie summed up the sudden and unanticipated fear of mortality I encountered after I met the Mr.

And it came to me then
That every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself
That I'd already taken too much today
As each descending peak on the LCD
Took you a little farther away from me
Away from me

Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines
In a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds
But I knew that you were a truth
I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground
As the TV entertained itself

'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news
Then the nurse comes around and everyone lifts their head
But I'm thinking of what Sarah said
That love is watching someone die
posted by Zophi at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've lost several family members over the past few years, and as a result I occasionally get those flashes of "everyone I love will die" that you talk about. It's not debilitating, but it is scary.

I've come to the conclusion that, when it happens, it's crucial for you to do your best to keep going, because that's the only way we can continue to love others. Everyone important to us will lose someone important to them, and if they all react by shutting down and losing the will to live, then we'll effectively lose them too, and then we will all shut down. The ability to love - yourself, others, life, whatever - despite experiencing loss is how love can keep going and reach new people.

And this is pretty corny, but it helps me to think of stories in which the main character suffers a major loss and continues on to fight. What if Star Wars had ended with Obi-Wan's death? What if the final Harry Potter book had never been written? (See, I told you it was corny.)

So, really, it's about trusting in my ability to keep living and finding good in the world if/when it happens, and not allowing myself another option. And it does help to remember that it's probably decades away.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:38 AM on May 25, 2010

Check out Lucretius, book 3 of On the Nature of Things. (There's a good new translation by Stallings). It's from the first century BC, and is sort of poetry, sort of philosophy. He offers arguments for the claim that death can't be bad for the person who dies. This isn't to say that your lover's death won't be bad for you, but still....

“Nothing can befall us, we who shall no longer be... It’s clear, therefore, that Death is absolutely nothing we need fear, and that he who is not cannot be wretched or forlorn“

“No one is given a life to own; we all but hold a lease
Look back again – how the endless ages of time come to pass
Before our birth are nothing to us. This is a looking glass
Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come
After we finally die. What is it there that looks so fearsome?
What’s so tragic? Isn’t it more peaceful than any sleep?"
posted by kestrel251 at 9:40 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

You have what time you have to be together and that's all that you have.*

*from somebody who lived with someone for 23 years that then passed on.
posted by lordrunningclam at 10:00 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do not have a novel answer; I essentially agree with all of the previous answers, but I am going to give my own formulation, nonetheless, in case it speaks to you. Life can be compared to a video game. You try to get the best score you can, although the score is going to be finite. Every good thing that you accomplish in your life, everything that brings you some pleasure, that helps make the world a better place, or that accomplishes whatever objective you may have, earns points. You play the best game you can and earn as many points as you can. Why? Because it is, so to speak, the only game in town. This is what we have. We might prefer to play the game forever and seek a score of infinity, but that cannot happen, so we do the best we can.
posted by grizzled at 10:06 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

It may be that you've had a traumatic loss at some time in your past, and that you've avoided caring for others deeply as a way of protecting yourself from the pain of loss. The fact that you're 40 is germane, as the mid-life transition is a time when we have the opportunity to look at, and reconsider, choices that we've made.

In addition to a personal meaning that loss may have for you, this is the ultimate human existential dilemma. It might be that you're interested in learning and working in this vast darkness. If you're not interested in therapy, there are several books I could recommend. Or it might be that you'll be happy finding a way to live in the present, instead of in the dark imaginary future.

I've heard from many people who found value in Viorst's book, Necessary Losses. I also have a very high regard for Ernest Becker's work, including his amazing book The Denial of Death.
posted by jasper411 at 11:26 AM on May 25, 2010

The ultimate answer to the question "what if s/he dies?" is that if you get together today, you will have spent every day together. Accept that as the gift and blessing that it is.

There is a reason Tennyson wrote:
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Take your gift and open it every day.
posted by plinth at 11:46 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made my partner promise to let me die first.

(I also made him promise to still be attracted to me even when someday I look like my grandmother. Gotta cover the bases early, after all!)
posted by Eshkol at 12:45 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cryonics. Arrange to both be frozen at death and revived when you can both be brought back.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:37 PM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really struggled with this when I met and fell in love with my husband. Even if we lived into old age together, I felt it wasn't enough time. It was a terrible, exquisite pain that never really left me, though it's muted now.

He commutes on a motorcycle. It's meditative for him; he says it keeps him sane. I haven't asked him to give that up, but it lies there in the back of my mind: how exposed and fragile he is on that thing. I hate it. Passionately. Quietly.

Five years ago, I honestly don't know if I could have come through if he'd died. Time changes things, though. I don't love him any less, but I have a little girl to live and care for now*, and I am more emotionally robust than I was.

We made the same deal Eshkol did: he has promised to let me die first.

How do I reconcile the love with the looming loss? I don't. I try not to think about our limited time, and I remain grateful for every second I have with him in my life. Every moment makes it worth it, and all those moments add up. I am greedy; I want as many of them, and as much of him, as I can get.

*And oh, man, having a precious, vulnerable, beloved child starts the whole thing all over again.
posted by moira at 4:09 PM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I met "the one" two years ago, after being a confirmed bachelor for 25 years. You can imagine how terrific he is, dealing beautifully with this deficit from day one, though in my own defense allow me to contend that I'm a quick learner.

To your question, though: if Kevin were to die tomorrow, I wouldn't only grieve. I would celebrate my astonishing good fortune that I ever knew him at all. He brings joy into my life, and, whatever else may happen, that is what I will remember as long as I live.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:40 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think about the things that I might do when he's dead, things that I could only do over his dead body.

For example- I'll sell the house, leave the suburbs, get a condo in the city, decorate the condo in a modern, colourful style he'd never agree with, get another dog, and hold political gatherings for marginal third-party candidates in my ultra-modern condo. Alternatively, I'll keep the house and take up breeding dogs and supplementing my income with beekeeping. I'll sell all his tools, change the garage from his shop into a soundproofed music studio, and learn to play drum kit.

Of course I'd rather have him here and I do value the time we have together. Being a bit humourous or light-hearted about whatever a husband-less future may hold helps me to defuse the big, scary death thing into something a bit more manageable.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:29 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a serious problem for me, too.
I'm cheered (sort of) that it resonates with so many other people.
Three books:
The force of character and the lasting life. James Hillman. 1999.
The soul's code: in search of character and calling. James Hillman. 1996.
Jung on death and immortality. Selected and introduced by Jenny Yates. 1999. This last is a little heavy going in places, and there are huge parts you can skip. But some very useful bits as well.

If you solve this one, let me know.
posted by feelinggood at 7:42 PM on May 27, 2010

Somewhere I read that our partner's first goal should be to prepare us to live without him/her. Love in each moment as if it were your last and you'll both grow in ever higher levels of loving. Ultimately you'll reach the secure state in which you know that you can never wholly be separated by anything.
posted by Pamelayne at 1:44 PM on May 30, 2010

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