Love and Loss on St Valentine’s Day

Guest-blogger Professor Michael Gratzke thinks about love and loss this St Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s day has become a major celebration of romantic coupledom. Some of us may feel uneasy about the apparent commercialisation of love which seems to be driven by the interests of florists and restaurateurs. However, even the grumpiest of spouses feel the pull towards more or less original romantic gestures on 14th February because being in love is something worth celebrating. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life we too often take each other for granted.

Let’s spare a thought though for those people who do not have a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend to spoil and to celebrate on Valentine’s day. We place such a large emphasis on being in a couple that we may forget that there are people who choose to be single, who do not feel that their life would be richer with a partner. Or think about people who are without a significant other because of break-up, divorce or bereavement. To them the run-up to Valentine’s day can be difficult each year. They may feel sad, lonely or even guilty depending on the circumstances of losing their loved one.

Loss is a very powerful thing but is it as absolute as we often think? Are there ways of understanding loss as a normal part of love and life? Can we learn to talk about loss without shame or embarrassment? Can remembrance help us to accept loss?

Plato’s Academy. Roman mosaic of the 1st century BCE from Pompeii, Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples.

If we look into the history of our culture we find that there are influential love myths and love theories which put loss at the beginning of love and not at its end. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote a book called Symposion (The Feast) in the fourth century BC in which the all-male guests over wine and food compete with each other who can give the best speech in praise of love. The term “Platonic love” refers to one of the models developed in these speeches. Another love myth cited in Symposion is that in beginning humans were complete, rounded beings with two heads, four arms and four legs. They were so perfect that their existence threatened the authority of the gods. In order to protect the dominance of the gods, all humans were cut in half and their heads turned. From that point on the poor, confused things have been looking for their other or better half. Jump forward into the 19th century and you will find that the most influential theory about the soul, psychoanalysis, explains love as our lifelong quest to be reunited with our mothers. The baby does not see itself as separate from the mother until later in its development. The imagined dyad or double entity gives the baby a (false) sense of being all powerful. When [I] cry, [I] make food magically appear. When [I] cry, [I] get comfort. Searching for love as an adult can be interpreted as an attempt to feel complete and mighty again. And we may be far more self-centred in romantic love than we care to admit. A lot in love is about fulfilling our needs.

Symposium scene from the 5th C BC Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, Italy. Image courtesy of Parco Archaeologico di Paestum.
Leonardo da Vinci – illustration of androgyn corpus with two heads. Public domain.

Christianity, too, comes with a theory of loss. God as man sacrifices themselves out love for humankind. This loss of life to create eternal life has been translated into a whole series of ideas around the value of sacrifice. We would give our lives to protect our loved ones. Or in extreme cases such as young, sorrowful Werther, I can love forever in the afterlife if I sacrifice my life now. Or think of literary characters such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Effi Briest. The heroines of 19th century literature are sacrificed because the tensions between romantic love and social conventions cannot be resolved without the loss of female life.

One way or another, loss is an ordinary part of romantic love. Can we think of ways of dealing with loss in the 21st century which do not involve killing off more people, fictional or real ones? When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin split up, there was talk of “conscious un-coupling”. The actor now denies having introduced the term. Be that as it may, why were the two ridiculed for trying to manage their loss? After all, when children are involved, many former couples find ways of sharing responsibilities and maintaining some kind of relationship. Loss of love does not have to be total. It is rare to find good expert advice on break-ups. The psychologist and academic Meg-John Barker, in their book Re-Writing the Rules, gives sound advice: if we accept the end of a relationship as a normal part of the relationship, if we avoid blaming and self-blame we may be able to build post-relationship relationships which mirror the shared values of the people involved.

Hull clinical psychologists Emma Wolverson and Lottie Cowell have worked with another group of people who experience a profound and seemingly total loss. If you are a spouse of someone who lives with dementia there may very well be a time, when you hand over care for your loved one to professionals. You are likely never to have the privacy again to experience the intimate aspects of your relationship. Putting someone in a care home can be associated with intense feelings of guilt. There are many myths surrounding dementia. One of them is that people with dementia quickly become devoid of personality. Ask the partners and spouses and they will tell you that they carry on loving regardless. To someone who loves the (relative) unresponsiveness of the beloved does not have to be a deterrent. I can do justice to our love by remembering it and by continuing to be involved in parts of your care.

Jo Bell, also from the University of Hull, and colleagues have researched online (mostly Facebook) memorials to deceased loved ones. Some people take control of Facebook profiles or set up memorial profiles after the death of their child or partner. These may be used to continue an imaginary dialogue with a dead person or to collect memories from their friends and family. Some of these profiles are public, others are shared only with friends. Public memorialisation of love and loss takes many forms. There are large-scale expressions of grief as this country saw when Princess Diana died. There are flowers and teddy bears tied to lampposts or fences near the sites of road accidents. Cycling activists would place totally white “ghost bikes” near spots where a fellow cyclist lost their life.

The most enduring and by definition public displays of loss and remembrance are headstones. If you are in Hull and have the time I suggest you take a little walk along Springbank. Beyond Princes Avenue there is an abandoned 18th century cemetery followed by protected ones on either side of Chanterlands Avenue. You can take a walk through the history of memory culture form beloved first and second wives who died in child birth to current memorials, some of which have photographs incorporated, some have finely crafted images of Elvis, Bob Marley or Jaguar automobiles. These are moving examples of the ways in which we deal with loss: here by telling the world about the things our loved ones loved beyond their families, the values they stood for, how we wish them to remembered.

Michael Gratzke is Professor of German and Comparative Literature as well as Associate Dean for Research. He previously held a post as Senior Lecturer in German at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His research focuses on representations of extreme experiences and states of mind such as in masochism, war, and love.

Feature image: Plato’s Symposium, Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880). Google Art Project.


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