Cancer Death of a Boyfriend

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My boyfriend died very recently from cancer. We never had a chance to say goodbye. How do I move on from the feelings of did I do enough and is he okay with things between us? I keep thinking I should have done more. Thanks for your help.

Charlene

Dear Charlene,

When love is cut short by loss, we are left with many unanswered questions, and often many unspoken feelings. In fact, research suggests that the closer the relationship, the more likely people are to report unresolved relational issues, sometimes called “unfinished business,” with their loved ones at the end of life. For obvious reasons, when the death is relatively sudden, with few opportunities perceived or taken to talk through the difficult topics and make peace with what you had, and what you didn’t, the distress about such issues is greater. In fact, our study suggests that nearly half of bereaved people acknowledge regrets, many of them, like yours, about missed connections, or the failure to make sure all was well in the rel at ionship as the loved one reached life’s end.

At the same time, your use of the present tense (Is he okay with things between us?) suggests that he has a kind of continuing existence for you, perhaps of a spiritual kind. If so, does your faith in his existence include the sense that he can hear your earnest entreaty, prayer, apology, or even simple attempts to continue the conversation with him? If he is a sentient being who is still attuned to you, then consider speaking aloud or on paper what remains to be said, what you wish you had expressed at the time of his illness, and how it is for you now. Perhaps the Private Conversations function of AfterTalk could provide a safe place for this kind of dialogue in written form. Then, giving yourself a day or two to let this potentially emotional communication settle, consider writing back as if from him, growing quiet to sense what he might say. In this way, perhaps even more than during the time of his terminal illness, given the fogging of his attention with pain-regulating drugs, and the impersonal press of a hospital ward, you might find that the conversation you yearn for is still possible, though in a non-physical form. Take time to finish the unfinished business between you, and then move on to thinking creatively about how you might create a life in which he would wish to intangibly accompany you with pride and pleasure.

Dr. Neimeyer

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