Grieving an Unfulfilled Future

There comes a time in life when the realization that we will not see the fulfillment of all our passionately desired good dreams hits hard and strong. When a woman hears “you can’t have children” from her doctor, when a man has yet another birthday alone and knows he won’t ever be an energetic young father, when the dream job turns into a nightmare, when your husband or wife divorces you and you realize you’ll not grow old together, when your body or mind breaks down before you get the chance to succeed in what you thought God wanted you to do, when the person you are in love with marries someone else, when the friend you thought you’d have this close relationship with forever moves on without you, when your lack of finances, ability, or status in society strips your opportunities away, when choices you made years ago limit your options now, when it’s just too late. This will happen to every human at some point as we age and life continues on in all of its complexity of disappointments and blessings.

When I led GriefShare for a couple years, I was able to walk through grief with those who had lost a loved one. There are books and therapies and counseling strategies galore for the grief we experience over death, and rightfully so. But what about the grief that stems from loss other than death? Where do we go for help when our losses are often considered lesser? How do we make it through our grief when those around us honestly can’t understand what we’re going through, and are often confused at our seeming inability to move on? This is heightened even more when the specific loss is something the majority of people will not experience.

I’m going to spend the next few blog posts on the grief that can come from the dashing of dreams and expectations related to marriage and children. 

When the vast majority of American men and women will get married, and the vast majority of American women will have babies (even with the current declining fertility rates), it can be easy to downplay the grief experienced by those of us who will remain unmarried and/or childless. Sympathetic, well-meaning friends may get to a point where they don’t understand why it’s still a big deal to some of us. I hope to present some common themes I’ve seen in counseling people through miscarriage, singleness, hysterectomies, and aging to help us think through the reality of these non-death losses that are very real with singleness and childlessness.

Each individual experiences singleness and childlessness in their own ways, so I will be exploring a few general themes that have come up in my own experiences, as well as some of my counselees. This will by no means be exhaustive, nor will they all apply to everyone. In fact, some singles and some people without children are perfectly happy in that state and prefer it, or have already grieved and moved forward with our lives so are in good places. As always, when it comes to helping your loved ones walk through life, it’s best to ask each person if they are willing to share a little about how they are doing in these areas and how you can support them.

For the next 3 weeks, I will post a short blog each Tuesday and Friday morning exploring 5 different aspects of grieving an unfulfilled future. I hope these short blogs will be a comforting balm to those grieving their own singleness or childlessness, as well as a little glimpse into the reality of these losses for their friends and family. So come back Friday as I delve into the first theme: Grief is often strongest when we lose our hopes for the future.

The Myth of Marital Maturity

In conversations with many married friends from their late 20s on, the following phrases can sometimes arise:

  • I didn’t know what unconditional love was until I got married
  • God uses our husbands/wives to grow us the most 
  • It wasn’t until I got married that I understood how to love
  • I was young and immature and then I got married and realized how much about myself needed to change
  • Without my husband/wife I would never have grown in this area

While all of the above statements may indeed be true for that specific person, there is an implied connotation that marriage = maturity. There is a subtle (or sometimes not at all subtle) insinuation that God uses marriage to mature Christians in a way that He uses nothing else, an implication that outside of marriage this level of Christian growth actually isn’t possible.

Biblically, this is incorrect in several ways:

  1. The only perfect, whole, mature Christian to walk the earth was single. That’s right, I’m pulling the Jesus card. And most of the leaders of the early church, the disciples and apostles, were also single.
  1. God has promised to complete the good work He began in us – each and every one of us (Philippians 1:6). This is not limited to married folks.
  1. God uses EVERYTHING in our lives to help us grow. So yes, if you have a spouse, God will use them. But guess what, He also uses roommates, kids, coworkers, parents, siblings, friends, and every other kind of person you interact with.

A lot of maturity happens in the decades in which many people get married. So perhaps maturity has more to do with the age, experiences, and brains of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s than it does the specific relationships they have. Which means single or married, most of us do a heck of a lot of growing up in this time.

And yes, there are indeed people in these middle stages of life who aren’t as mature as others, some of whom are single, which could lead you to believe their non-attachment to a significant other is the reason they never grew up. But I happen to know quite a few immature married men and women who still struggle with adulthood in spite of the responsibilities of marriage and often even parenthood. Marriage isn’t a silver bullet to wisdom and maturity.

Marriage also does not create the sudden ability to love deeply and sacrificially. Thinking that your spouse is the reason you can truly love underestimates the ability for singles to love and commit to loving others wholly. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Our love is not contingent on another person committing to love us ‘til death do us part. We have to love others knowing they may not be available to us. While we are usually lower down on the list of priorities in the lives of others, we keep loving. Love does not require a single lifelong object. We may love more widely, more broadly, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less deep. We are the aunties and uncles, the godparents, the children who will care for our elderly parents, the best friends who will drop everything when you need us, the church volunteers, the committed employees who never miss work, the best roommates ever. We learn to love without expecting another person to love us back in the same way. We get our hearts broken, we feel unappreciated and overlooked. We feel second, third, or fourth best. We are sometimes truly alone. But we keep on loving. 

There are incredibly selfish husbands and wives, narcissistic and abusive spouses who care more about themselves than their families. Marriage does not teach true love. God just often uses it in his children’s lives to help expose their need for him and help them develop some level of selflessness. It is not easy, marriage, but neither is being an excellent roommate at the age of 38, or adult child to a parent who is aging. Our ability to love well does not hinge on how well we are loved by another human being. I am wholly loved by God, and that is enough. 

God uses more than just people to help season us. Our circumstances and our spiritual disciplines also help us grow more Christlike. Since most people get married in their post college years, it’s easy to attribute all growth to the marriage, but so much more is happening that singletons also experience. We’re all learning how to pay bills, how to rent apartments, how to buy cars, how to find jobs, how to find friends outside of the school context, how to contribute to society. Many of us also experience loss during this time, which is a growth experience of its own. Some of us travel, opening our minds to a more global view of the world. We have trials and suffering, we have successes and joys. All of this happens in adulthood, not just to married people. In fact, singles who have to navigate much of this on our own may “grow up” pretty quickly.

God also uses our spiritual disciplines to help us grow. Spending time meditating on His Word, talking with him in prayer, obeying him, worshiping him, finding good teachers and wise counselors, learning how to lament, and growing in our ability to rejoice in him and love others will inevitably add up to more maturity as a Christian individual. None of this requires a spouse.

Married friends, the next time you find yourself thinking something like this, maybe stop yourself before you say it out loud until you consider how condescending you may sound to any singles around you, or indeed anyone who is struggling in their marriage and might not feel particularly mature or loving due to their husband or wife in that moment. God does use life partners as iron sharpening iron if the two people in the relationship are growing separately in their walks with God, and are committed to helping each other grow. I don’t want to discount the beautiful and meaningful bond that a couple has when committed for life. I’m a fan of marriage and try to encourage and help my married friends as much as I can. But it isn’t the secret recipe to growing up and “adulting” well. 

Perhaps it wasn’t just your husband or wife who made you mature and made you learn how to love, but just the fact that you actually, well, just grew up. Like a normal person. Like most of us do, married or not. If the last time you were single was in your teens or 20s, it’s easy to see why you might equate singleness with immaturity. But we singles don’t stay 20 forever, we grow up too, we learn how to love sacrificially just like you do. We singles in our 40s or older have some relationships, experiences, and spiritual growth under our belts which God has used to help us become better versions of ourselves. We don’t stay stuck in our youth just because we don’t marry.

So, single folks, before you worry that perhaps God isn’t pouring as much effort into helping you grow because you don’t have a spouse to prod you on, take heart! He is already at work in you. He is using everything in your life to help you glorify Him and find joy in Him. I see you, I see how well you love those God has placed in your life. I see how much you strive to help your friends and family. I see God growing you into incredibly beautiful, wise, important, loving human beings who bless so many around you. We are as much whole, mature, loving adults as the married couples around us. You are not lacking anything you need to be who God wants you to be (James 1:4). We are all capable of the growth God has ready just for us.

Reassurance that the Awkward Spinster Does Still Exist

Hello, dearest readers! It’s been awhile. Where have I been? Home. Pretty much just at home. For some reason, the general Covid fatigue blended perfectly with my natural inclination toward depression and the tough losses of the year (job, church, friends, ability to touch other human beings, etc.) to make writing impossible for me for a very long time. But I did miss it, and you guys, so I am getting back to it.

A new job at a local library (yay!!! I’m gainfully employed again!!!) that has a weekly writing club which does word sprints is rejuvenating my desire to blog. Huzzah! 

The single, childless life during Covid is such a unique experience. I know parents and married folks have had it HARD, as a couple of my dear friends are now in the midst of divorces and everyone I know who is a parent is barely hanging on to sanity. So I’m not playing the comparison game of who has it the hardest. We all do. The whole freakin’ world does. A global pandemic sucks for everyone (except possibly the top 1% who have gotten richer – though I’d argue that it probably hasn’t been good for their souls). 

But to my singletons – I see you. I see how hard this time has been for you. I see the loneliness and the anxiety, the burden of decision making and the loss of community. I also see the comfort for the introverts of finally being able to work from home and say no to awkward social situations and the stress for the extroverts who have to weigh every much needed social interaction. I see the relief for those of us singletons who have embraced celibacy as a lot of the pressure to date has been removed, and the added difficulty for those still trying to meet someone and figure out life with a love in a time of quarantine. I see the city-dwelling singles who have witnessed a lot of death, poverty, and destruction over the past year and the suburban and rural ones who may feel stranded and far from others. I see the singles who’ve had to go in to work every single day, risking their lives to go home to an empty apartment or to a roommate or to at risk parents, and I see those of us who have lost our jobs so have had the added stress of scrambling to make ends meet. I see those of you who have had incredibly beautiful and good moments in these past few months – graduations, new relationships, new pets, new friendships, new babies, new jobs, promotions, new flats, books published, art created, new skills learned (all you breadmakers are welcome to send me a loaf of sourdough!) but haven’t been able to have the friends and family around to celebrate as you normally would. 

Singles – I just want to acknowledge how hard this past year has been for you. I want you to know you are not alone. The Lord of the universe has been with you every step of the way, catching each tear, celebrating each joy. I’ve been walking through my own depression during this time too, so I might not have experienced exactly what you have but I have been with you in the trenches. 

So how are you all doing? How have the past few months been for you? Please comment or message me to let me know how I can be praying for you, what topics I can write about in upcoming blogs that may be helpful, and general updates on how you’ve been. You are valued and loved, each and every one of you fabulous singletons, and our married friends too.