Why It Hurts when a Loved One Dies

I know it seems obvious but I have been piecing together a new thought about this.

One of my Psychodrama buddies recently said to me the J L Moreno (founder of Psychodrama) once said that you are not dead until everyone in your social atom is dead. Now, before I give my version, an explanation. The social atom is the group of people with whom you have a relationship of some significance, with respect to some criterion or other. So you can have a work social atom, a sport or art social atom and a primary social atom.

Actually, I think it’s more accurate to say that you aren’t dead until everyone of whose social atom you are a part is dead. This is because we don’t live solely inside our bodies, we live outside them, too. We are social beings. We are defined by, we come into existence through our relationships. It is the modelling, doubling (Moreno-speak), mirroring (more what it sounds like) and role reversal (us with others and they with us) that we experience that enable us to develop a personality. That’s what I think, anyway. ‘Socially constructed’ is the contemporary parlance for this, I believe.

OK, so, even if you don’t know everybody who knows you, your existence is defined, at least to some small extent by the way that they perceive you. Therefore, in some small way, you live on while they do. Really famous people continue to ‘live’ among us in some way for many generations or longer.

What this doesn’t explain is why it hurts so much when a loved one dies. In fact, it rather suggests that it would hurt less because the person lives on in our hearts and memories. Actually, that is true for me. There is a great deal that Jane has given me that I hold dearly inside me and do not have to let go.

The rub is that, as well as the other person living in us, we live just a little in them. When a loved one dies, then they take with them some of ourselves. We experience a small death of ourselves.

I know that I invested a lot of myself in my relationship with Jane. That relationship still exists. Jane is still in my social atom. My experience of that reminds me of what I’ve heard of phantom limb syndrome. I keep on relating to Jane as if she were here. My own imagined sense of Jane even relates back to me. At the same time, it is also increasingly noticeable to me that no ‘real’ Jane is relating back to me; that much of what I have invested, the me that I have invested in Jane, is gone.

A few days ago, I was talking about the persistence of the relationship with Walter. He said to me that I continue to learn from the relationship. That makes sense to me, but I think it is for another post.

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