Both of this installment’s letters are about the loss of a loved one, but more than that, they’re about the attendant loss of a sense of self.
These particular letters resonated with me because just a couple of years ago I simultaneously experienced the end of a marriage and the death of a parent. I wasn’t sure I’d survive either, but here I am reading your emails on these subjects and offering my advice based on personal experience. Life is weird. Let’s get into it.
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
I lost my father last fall.
At the time, I had a job with a fancy title and a lot of responsibility. My dad had been sick for years at this point. It felt like I was getting a phone call with worse and worse news every day. It felt impossible, trying to keep myself together and do my work. I was 27, running a department solo and planning an important event for the company. I woke up an hour early every day to cry in my closet before heading out to the office.
Meanwhile, I’m in regular contact with my brother, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years at that point. My personal life was in freefall and I was staring open-mouthed at the ground as it got closer.
On a Monday in late September, I sat down with my boss, and we talked about what was going on. We decided that I would take the rest of my accrued vacation time, and we’d figure it out from there.
On Wednesday, my brother called me at 8:30 a.m. and told me that my dad was gone. I was supposed to see my father that afternoon. I screamed and cried. I drank so much coffee I thought my hands might vibrate off my body.
I quit my job over email Thursday morning.
I thought I was giving up, that I’d failed somehow. I laid in bed for a month after that. I had burned myself out so intensely that I don’t think I had a coherent thought for at least two weeks. I don’t remember anything except somehow getting a new job, doing admin work at a wet goods warehouse. It was a nice change of pace, to be responsible for almost nothing except putting orders into the system and answering the phone.
How do you become a new person in your late 20s?
Six months later, I left that job and took a position at an industrial kitchen warehouse, where I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.
Am I supposed to be doing something? Am I coping? Is that the right word?
Who am I? Where am I going? Where will I be in five years?
It’s been a year and I haven’t figured it out. Maybe it hasn’t been enough time. Or has it been too much? Is there such a thing as too much time?
My father was a good person and a good dad. He loved having company over, and my friends were overjoyed to sit and talk with him in the living room while he smoked cigarettes. All of them miss him. I think that’s the mark of a good dad, when your friends miss him, too.
And while I do miss him terribly, I don’t think I ever lived up to who he wanted me to be. My brother was the favorite, and nothing I did ever measured up. I was just the horrible little girl who lived in their house. I was never enough like my brother to make anyone in my family happy.
I don’t want an office job with a fancy title like my brother. I don’t want to pretend to be someone anymore. I don’t know who I want to be.
How do you become a new person in your late 20s? How do I figure out who that person is? It’s certainly not too late, right?
—Lost in Philly
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Hi Lost in Philly,
I’m going to talk about my experience losing a parent. It will probably differ from yours, but it’s what I have to offer because it’s what I know.
Hopefully there’s enough convergence on the Venn diagram that you can find some relief in identification, but if not, maybe it can serve as a reminder that the experience of grief — no matter how it manifests itself — is shared by almost all of us. There are no prescripts as to how you’re supposed to feel. Thoughts like I should be feeling differently are untrue and unhelpful and only serve to needlessly add to your suffering.
One aspect of loss is the void that is left. I’ve never experienced the tidy version of closure people talk about, and I’ve never found the concept helpful. Another aspect of loss is its effect on your sense of self, your identity, particularly when one loses a parent. After all, they made you. They raised you. They, to a large degree, endowed you with the content of your character, both good and bad. They are you, you are them, but you’re also an individual. A whole human being. It’s all confusing stuff, whether your parents are alive or dead.
I lost my mom to cancer a couple years ago. I loved her so much. She was a great mom. I’m one of six kids, and raising us was her life. She herself did not have a good childhood. She was the eldest of five with two parents who were alcoholic and one, her dad, who was paranoid, delusional, and verbally abusive to a degree that it made life for my mom and her siblings a living hell.
Let yourself feel sad. Let yourself feel confused. Let yourself feel relief. Let yourself be unsure of who you are.
Her sole purpose when she started a family was to forge the opposite experience for us kids, and she succeeded. We grew up loved, nurtured, and supported. Home was a safe place for us.
When we got older and moved out and started pursuing our own lives, this was hard for my mom. The vigilance, attention, and care that she had given to the cause of being a mother no longer had the same practical application, and it turned to worry. Some of this worry was pretty well-founded: Four of the six of us struggled with addiction problems in adulthood.
What I’m about to say might sound insane, but I kind of attribute this in part to good parenting mingled with the genes for alcoholism. Here’s what I mean: Our childhood was joyful. It was idyllic in a lot of ways. There was no shortage of gentleness and love and humor. The real world isn’t like that. The real world is antagonistic and adversarial. People want to tear you down. I think that realization came later than most for us — the awakening was rude, and we turned to drugs and alcohol for their mitigating properties.
Before you yell at me for advocating for bad parenting as preparation for life, let me add that I also think having grown up loved helped give my siblings and me the strength, fortitude, and willingness to overcome addiction, because we all have.
My mom worried about us a lot. I felt that worry, and sometimes that worry felt like judgment. I do think that what often feels like — or even is — parental judgment is really fear. They have a conception of the way your life should look, one that minimizes risk and maximizes your emotional and financial security. When you take a path that diverges from that ideal, it scares them. Even if this fear takes the form of judgment, there is loving intent there.
When my mom died, I had the predictable feelings of sadness and loss — and regret for the ways in which I could’ve been a better son. I also had another feeling, and it was one that I found pretty troubling. That feeling was relief, and not just because she no longer had to physically suffer from the effects of cancer.
This may sound selfish, but I noticed that I was relieved that I didn’t have to worry about her worrying about me anymore. I felt really guilty about this. It’s one thing to experience relief when someone terrible dies, but it’s another thing entirely to experience relief when a person who devoted their life to your well-being does.
You are not your job. You are a spiritual being having a human experience. Let it be deep. Let it be difficult.
I had to examine this, and what I realized was that, much like there was love behind what I perceived as judgment from my mom, there was also love in my relief. I couldn’t stop her from worrying about me when she was alive. The relief came from knowing that she no longer had to be concerned about me or experience any other uncomfortable emotion. She was at total peace.
Let yourself feel sad. Let yourself feel confused. Let yourself feel relief. Let yourself be unsure of who you are. The last feeling is an expression of humility. Ego death can be fertile ground for creativity and new birth. Realize that you’re now free to be the person you are without having to try and meet the real or perceived standards of your dad. If he held these standards for you, he did so out of love, even if it didn’t always feel like it. So take the love and leave the rest.
Your life is very much in front of you. It sounds like you have good friendships. Don’t forget to count this when you take inventory of your life. Friendship is strength and power. Lean on your friends, and let them lean on you. You are not your job. You are a spiritual being having a human experience. Let it be deep. Let it be difficult. Focus your attention on what you value. This is how you will forge meaning, purpose, and direction from life. Go toward that, and you can’t go wrong.
When you catch yourself identifying with your job or the way you think others are perceiving you, recognize what you’re doing and know that these things cannot possibly contain all the information about what it means to be you.
The Eve 6 Guy
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
My fiancé moved out earlier this year, bringing our nine-year relationship to an end.
I met him when I was a confident, carefree 19-year-old. He was 22 at the time and moved into my apartment within a few weeks; we exchanged “I love you”s within a month. We were inseparable our entire relationship to a wildly unhealthy extent. We were never apart for more than a week, and that was only a few times. We texted all day, every day, and we always tagged along when the other went out with friends. We even worked together for three of the nine years.
Still, we were growing into different people with every year that passed. He was into spontaneity, kinky sex, not thinking too far into the future. I craved the opposite: stability, boring sex, and someone who cared about their own future and their future with me.
We got engaged in 2019, but since that time, things got progressively rockier. This year, we both realized that too many negative things had happened in our relationship that neither of us had healthily communicated our feelings about, ever.
In a sense, I feel like I’m still in a relationship — but now it’s with a ghost.
I have struggled with, and been medicated for, debilitating depression since around age 15, and he was diagnosed with Bipolar II about three years into our relationship. I was known for isolating, completely checking out, and neglecting him and our relationship. His M.O. was name-calling and telling me how much better he could do if didn’t love me so much to stay put.
Looking back, I also struggle with him pushing me to do certain sexual things I felt bad doing but did anyway, without voicing how terrible it made me feel. Another point of contention was when he would blame me for his bipolar behavior, saying I drove him to the cruel parts of his mania. In the months before he finally moved out, on two separate occasions he threatened to kill himself with a knife. I had to physically wrestle it out of his hands both times.
While I feel confident that the decision to break up is best for both of us, I can’t seem to get my brain to move on fully. I have yet to box up the items of his still scattered around the room. I struggle to stop obsessive thoughts about fights we had or questions I still have about issues from the past (including finding women’s clothing in our car on three different occasions). It’s like I’ve never been so angry and so sad all at once. I feel like I’m going to explode. In a sense, I feel like I’m still in a relationship — but now it’s with a ghost.
I also find myself ashamed and embarrassed at times about how extremely stunted my views are when it comes to real adult relationships — things like sex, intimacy, boundaries, and communication. My only frame of reference is my relationship with him. I know that at 28, I’m still young and have my whole life ahead of me, but that brings me more anxiety than comfort.
So I guess my questions are: How do I even begin to figure out what it is I want next or who I even am outside of this relationship? How do I explore dating and sexual freedom — when I’m ready — in a healthy way? Since I failed to pay close enough attention to all the red flags the first time around, how do I make sure not to repeat past mistakes?
—28 Going on 18
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Hi 28 Going on 18,
I relate quite a bit to your letter. You met your ex-fiancé when you were 19 and he was 22. I met my ex-wife when I was 23 and she was 19. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how young we all were. Then let’s look at the expectations that these relationships should last a lifetime and the guilt, shame, and sense of personal failure experienced when they do not.
Do these things square? I don’t think so. Looking back, it seems literally insane to me to expect a decision made by two people whose brains aren’t even fully developed yet to have no sunset clause. I’m not saying it’s impossible that a relationship entered into by people in their late teens/early 20s go the long haul. Of course it isn’t. I’m just saying it seems crazy to expect it to.
I see this as a societal failure. It is almost impossible not to get unrealistic expectations about what relationships are or should be from TV and movies — and the literal programming starts young.
Along with this often comes family pressure. It did for me. The idea of marriage wasn’t particularly important to either me or my ex, but it was to our families. We wanted to make them happy, so we did the thing. Not begrudgingly, but also not with a reverence that matched that of our parents and grandparents. We were just kind of doing what we were “supposed” to do.
You don’t need to rush back into dating but you also don’t need to have absolutely everything figured out before you try again.
I also relate to your codependency issues. Codependency is a tricky thing because it can present subtly at first and be difficult to distinguish from “how people behave when they’re in love.” When people who haven’t yet realized themselves as individuals get married it can be a slippery slope to becoming sick little twins. I’m saying this because I’ve been there.
As you’ve realized, over-identifying with your partner isn’t healthy. Space is very important in relationships. Freedom to discover yourself, to have experiences apart from your partner, to grow and change as a whole human being, aren’t just important — they’re necessary.
As to all your questions — how to figure out who you are, how to explore sex and dating, how to avoid repeating past mistakes — these aren’t things you need to solve through analysis so much as just giving yourself time to forge new experiences as an individual outside of a relationship.
It seems to me that you possess no shortage of self-honesty. You’re not doing the thing where you blame your ex for everything, even though it sounds like he fell short in the relationship. You’re willing to look at your side of the street. That willingness and humility is all you need to move forward and grow. The trick is to not look upon your mistakes with judgment but with a gentle perspective.
It is going to take time to calibrate after a change of this magnitude. Don’t rush it. Allow the feelings to be present in all their dimensions. Observe them with equanimity, not judgment. You don’t need to rush back into dating but you also don’t need to have absolutely everything figured out before you try again.
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A lot of the discomfort you’re feeling is likely coming from the fact that the prospect of dating feels unnatural to you because you haven’t done it in a decade. Just start by opening your mind to the possibility and potential fun of meeting new people. Get there inwardly first and this will hopefully open you up to new experiences.
If you feel the temptation to repeat past mistakes, notice it. Observe it. Feel that pulling sensation and then remember you’re not the same person you were nine years ago. You have the wisdom of experience and the agency of an adult who knows what is best for her. Be confident and trust your thinking. Continue to practice gentle self-honesty and face your fears in this spirit, one day at a time, and you’ll be just fine.
The Eve 6 Guy