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I am looking for some advice on a situation with a fairly new partner of mine.

To set the scene:

~10 years ago she was dating someone, first love etc. I think he moved away so it ended.

2 years ago they met up again, he was married so they became friends, but she has stated that is when she realised that she did really love him.

1.5 years ago his wife committed suicide.

1 year ago he then committed suicide as well.

6 months ago I met my current partner.

Due to work commitments we only see each other every other week.

The problem that I am trying to understand is that she keeps saying that she misses this person as her best friend, and it genuinely upsets her. Even when together she occasionally mentions being sad that he is gone, but when we are apart she gets really down, and I call her only to hear "I miss him".

If this was a simple case of missing an ex-boyfriend then I would say she hasn't moved on and probably have to end the relationship, but I don't know how to factor in the death and the fact that they were not together in the last year since they reconnected.

What I am looking for is advise on how to approach the subject with her? I feel very hurt that she craves for what I think is essentially an ex partner, but I don't want to say that straight out because that will undoubtedly upset her. How can I have a conversation about this and what things should I consider so that we can both understand each other's feelings properly?

I feel that I should add a few more things for clarity.

  1. He isn't the only person she has lost recently, this includes her biological mother and several other friends who she never really mentions.

  2. I hate suicide with a passion and it boils my blood that someone who knows how painful it can be to lose a loved one to suicide is selfish enough to inflict it on someone else who doesn't realise that. For this I am not bothered about if my opinion is right or wrong, it is what it is so answer based on my opinion, not your own please.

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tl;dr

My answer got a bit long, and is primarily focused on some of the more generic skills for having difficult conversations. Since Avazula provided an excellent answer with some very specific suggestions for things you can do to move forward, I'll leave my answer with just the skills for how to have the conversation instead of what conversation to have.

To have the conversation you need to focus on

  • Understanding where each other is coming from
  • Finding a common ground to build a solution from

Background

I've been in a very similar situation as your partner. The second girl that I ever dated, Julie, (who was the first person that I truly loved) died of cancer in her mid 20's about 2 years after we broke up. Two months later a good friend of mine's husband (who I also knew fairly well) died in a car wreck and a few months after that I lost a cousin with whom I was very close, also in a car wreck. I'd like to start my answer by walking you through what your partner is likely feeling, and then I'll get into how you can start the conversation about it.

What she is likely going through

When Julie died, she was the first person my age that I'd ever known who died. Along with my grief, there was also a great deal of shock as I was forced to really confront my own mortality for the first time. That shock overloaded my emotions and as a result it took me much longer to get over my grief than normal.

The other major thing that happened, was that Julie's death resurfaced a lot of my romantic feelings for her. When someone dies, we often remember the good things about them and brush past the bad. My relationship with Julie ended pretty amicably, and I'd seen her a few times after the breakup and we were still friendly, so it was fairly easy to remember the best parts of our relationship. Reminiscing about my relationship with Julie, combined with my already overwhelmed emotions and made me long for a return to our relationship even though we had broken up 2 years prior and I had gotten over her in that time. It stings quite a bit having these feelings come back up when you know that the finality of the other person's death means that there is no way your feelings can be reciprocated. You mentioned that your partner realized that she loved her ex when she reconnected with him, so I would think that she is experiencing the pain of unrequitable feelings even more strongly than I did.

A quick note about multiple deaths close together

I definitely would not discount the point you made about the other people she's lost. When you start to lose multiple people in a short period of time, the grief compounds quickly and it is easy to get overwhelmed by your feelings. By the time I'd experienced a third death in about a 6 month span, I couldn't process my feelings at all and I completely shut down.

How to have the conversation

I'm not going to lie, this conversation will probably be a very difficult one to have, but it is important for your relationship that you do have it. When I found out that Julie had cancer I was dating Lucy and we never really talked about what I was experiencing. In dealing with my grief, I was not a good boyfriend, and our relationship ended quite poorly.

Mutual understanding

How can I have a conversation about this and what things should I consider so that we can both understand each other's feelings properly?

You're off to a good start because you already understand that the first thing you need to accomplish is to understand each other's feelings. I recently had training at work on how to have difficult conversations, and the thing that we talked about as being most important is to get all of your emotions on the table so that you can understand each other. One of the best ways to do this as we discussed in my training was to ask open ended questions. For example, when she says that she misses him, you can ask her what she misses about him. Just have an open and honest dialogue about her relationship with him. Talking through her relationship with him will help her to get her emotions out in the open for you to understand them.

At some point during this conversation, you'll also have to get your feelings out there. During this part of the conversation you need to focus on how you feel rather than how she is acting. A good way to do this is using "I" language instead of "you" language.

“I” language is often the best way to communicate with someone during a conflict. “You” language can be construed as blaming others and placing the emphasis on what they are doing wrong. “I” language consists of taking responsibilities for your own opinions and emotions and gives you more control over your emotions.

When you are explaining your side of the issue, focus the conversation on your feelings and minimize talking about her actions so as to avoid casting blame. Ultimately, she can't stop herself from feeling the emotions that she does, and saying things like "I have trouble not feeling hurt that you still have feelings for him" will soften the impact of telling her that her actions hurt you. Unfortunately, you won't be able to completely take away the discomfort that the two of you are going to have during this conversation, but hopefully you can keep it to a minimum.

Another useful technique that we discussed in my training was to create contrasts as a way to clarify where you stand. This is particularly useful if anything that you've said upsets her. As an example, say that you tell her that you feel hurt and she responds defensively.

You: I have trouble not feeling hurt that you still have feelings for him"

Her: Well I can't help what I feel.

You can respond by contrasting the incorrect meaning that she gathered with what your actual intention was.

I don't mean to imply that it's bad for you to have the feelings you have. What I do mean is that I also have feelings that I can't make go away.

Common ground

As you are talking, make sure to express your goals for the conversation. For example, "I want our relationship to work, and ..." The goal is to establish some sort of common ground for the two of you.

In rhetoric and communication, common ground is a basis of mutual interest or agreement that's found or established in the course of an argument.

Finding common ground is an essential aspect of conflict resolution and a key to ending disputes peacefully.

Even though the two of you are not currently in an argument, finding common ground is important because it can help you avoid having this conversation turn into an argument. If the two of you can agree that you are working towards a common goal of having a healthy relationship, that will help shape any decisions you have to make about how you move forward.

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I, sadly, have a very dear friend of mine who encountered a very similar situation to what your girlfriend is currently experiencing. My friend lost her best friend to suicide about 18 months ago and as your girlfriend, feelings were involved, as she fell in love with him shortly before he died.

My friend - let's call her Ananda - has been with her partner for three years now, and met her best friend - Bob - about a year before he died. A few months before Bob died, Ananda and her partner were going through a rough phase - she just discovered that her partner was cheating on her - and she became more and more closer to Bob. Bob offered his help and attentive ear and they slowly fell in love. But what she didn't know is that Bob was going through a rough time himself (he's been hiding it from her) and he committed suicide a few months after.

When Bob died Ananda was both in love with her partner and him. She told me later that she'd have leave with Bob if he decided to stay. After his death she dealt with her issues with her partner and decided to stay with him- because, after all, she loved him too. Now her partner stopped cheating on her and they're living a happy relationship.

Where I want to go here is that as for Ananda, I think your girlfriend has some kind of "unfinished business" with her late ex. As you said in your question, they likely broke up because of the distance. Now, surely it doesn't change anything to what she feels for you, it's just that death is a traumatizing experience for most of us - it's irrevocable, and now she will never be able of telling her ex things she may have wanted to tell him while he was still alive. This messes people's brain. As much as she may love you, it seems that she's not done yet with grieving her ex/best friends. I don't think it's because she once had feelings for him - from Ananda's experience, I would more believe that she has to let go of a person that once was very important in her life, friend or ex.

What helped Ananda, and what could help your girlfriend, is therapy. Now, you can't force her to seek professional help - it would even be counterproductive and could discourage her from going. But you could express your own feelings and give her a hint. Following the nonviolent communications principles, I'd say something along the lines of:

Hey [girlfriendName], I feel that you've been talking a lot about [bestFriendsName] lately. I don't mind you talking about it if it makes you feel better, but I'm sad to see you suffering. Could you let me know if I can do something to help you?

From my experience as Ananda's friend and as an ex-depressed person, I believe that acknowledging someone's pain without judging is the best way to give them a hint that they might benefit from seeking professional help. Pain blinds people and oftentimes they would get stuck in it without realizing they can get help to go through it. For the record, Ananda's partner was not the one suggesting her to try therapy: I was. So maybe you could invite her to talk to a friend about it?

[aCommonFriendName] was his friend too, right? How do they feel about their departure, have you talked with them about it?

It may remind her that she can talk about it to someone else. Sister Emmanuelle once said "pain is less hurtful when shared", and I believe that talking with someone who also suffered from his death really could help her grieve.

Apart from this, only one thing will make it go- time. You say he took his own life a year ago, but grieving takes time. Suicide is a very violent way of dying for people who remain. You also say she's lost a few people who was very important to her recently. That's a lot to handle at the same time. Moreover, she's currently starting a very important relationship ... with you! Starting a strong relationship with someone else may also trigger memories of the good times she spent with those people. When my father passed away 18 months ago, I found myself feeling guilty when I would feel good ... without him. That's a normal thing in grieving. Time will take most of her pain away, and if not enough, therapy will help. In the meantime, being present for her and suggesting to talk to a common and/or close friend about her best friend's death would relieve your suffering of having her talk about it too frequently.

If after a few months she still mentions it too often for you (you say you don't understand people who commit suicide so I would guess it's difficult for you to have her frequently talk about it), I suggest you express your feelings without judging her:

Hey [girlfriendName], I know it was a very traumatizing experience to lose your ex. I'm sorry you have to go through all of this. Unfortunately, I feel that I can't bring you the answers you need to make you feel better and it makes me feel sad to see that I can't help you in grieving. Could you maybe find someone trustful you could talk to about it?

This will acknowledge her pain once again but also point out that you don't feel qualified to help her and that maybe it's time for her to face her pain, with the help of a professional or a friend. It also outlines that you're also suffering from the situation - mentioning him as her ex would give her the hint that you think it's time for her to finally grieve so that she can live her best life with you, her new lover.

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