Than Never Loved At All

When you do an internet search for “death of an unrequited love,” some interesting things pop up, but never the right ones. What about when the person for whom you have an unrequited love dies? What then? What about the closure that will never be, the hope that had continued to exist, the possibilities that have now vanished? We had a story, in my mind. Now it will never have a resolution. 

You were a big part of my life, but I wasn’t a big part of yours – I always thought I’d get the chance to change that. You weren’t perfect, but I spent a lot of time thinking you were. You spent so much of your life essentially belonging to other people, yet you never really belonged to me. How can I reconcile this with the fact that you occupied such a huge place in my heart, which is nothing now but a gaping hole, a wound? 

I can think of you as “the one that got away,” but were you ever fully in my grasp, within my reach, to begin with? These are things I’ll never know. On the night that I bared my soul to you to tell you how I felt, you told me that you had once had feelings for me too, but you were currently unavailable. I will always wonder, was that true? Or were you just trying to make me feel better about the situation? People have told me you wouldn’t have just said it to be nice. People have said to me, “You both knew the truth of your relationship.” But that’s the hardest part, that’s the problem – I don’t know what I was to you. I don’t know if my unrequited love for you was truly unrequited. I don’t know if I meant anything more to you than just being a friend, an acquaintance, or even just part of your job. And now I’ll never have the chance to find out. 

I’ve spent so much time mulling over the words left unsaid, it feels like they’ve been spoken aloud a thousand times. But when it comes down to it, there were words spoken – I did tell you how I felt. That should have been enough. But our friendship continued even after that rejection, and you hinted at times that things had changed for you – that your love life was in a different place than it was when I told you my feelings. What would have happened if either of us had made another move? Can you regret things that someone else didn’t do? I regret what wasn’t, and grieve what will never be. 

The world was such an exciting place when we inhabited it together, when we shared the same space, even just living in the same town – the thought of the proximity of you, of the possibility of even glimpsing you from afar, was altogether thrilling. To fall in love at nineteen is not a unique experience, but it is unique in its own right, in the passion and electrifying feelings that come with being a young person falling in love. I felt things so deeply; I fear that I will never love like that again. And yet, I have loved like that, all these years. And how pathetic does it make me feel to know that I have loved the same person for eleven years while getting nothing in return? Because yes, my love for you still persists, even though you no longer exist. Death doesn’t automatically cause love to vanish. You are the only man I’ve ever loved, and I may have just been an infinitesimal speck in your life. How can I cope with how small that makes me feel? 

But you never really made me feel small. You were the greatest. You made me want to be a better version of myself. Were you the best version of yourself? You seemed like the very best person to me. I believed you could do no wrong. But now I wish I could have met your flaws, because then I would know that I really knew you. I often wonder, was my love for you any different than the love someone has for their favorite movie star? Because I wonder if I even really knew you at all. 

You will never see this, and yet it feels so incredibly vulnerable, far more so than all the unsent love letters I wrote while you were still here. Maybe that’s because there’s a chance someone we both knew will see this and know my greatest “secret,” the truth of my life – just how pathetic I am for still loving you after all this time and everything that’s happened. And while I call it my greatest secret, I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at keeping it. In the wake of your death, I told countless people that I once had a “major crush” on you. I think I was trying to explain in a small way how much you meant to me, to show people that I had a right to be grieving as fiercely as I was, that I had a right to be part of this tragedy unfolding, that I had some kind of claim on your life. The truth is, it was and is love. 

I wish I could have told people that we were in a relationship, so they could see that it wasn’t just you who meant something to me – that I meant something to you too. What an honor it would be to hear someone say, “He cared a lot about you.” But that hasn’t happened and it won’t. Yet I need to learn to accept my grief as legitimate – just because you didn’t love me in return doesn’t mean that my love for you didn’t mean something. It doesn’t make the pain any less real. I can still miss you even though we hadn’t seen one another in four years when you died. The truth is that I had already missed you for a long time when you left this world. 

I’m scared of letting go of the love I have for you. It’s defined part of me for so long now, I don’t know how to exist without it. I don’t want to move on, but life and death are forcing that from me. And I hate that the grief that was once so raw and overwhelming is now dulled, that it no longer makes me literally double over in pain. It’s just a part of life now, and that’s maybe the worst thing – that I have really come to accept that you are no longer here. That you aren’t just out wandering in the woods somewhere – you are truly gone. 

Now I have to learn to see the pain as beauty. To understand that this hurt grows from love, which is in itself a beautiful thing to experience in life, even when it isn’t necessarily returned. Love still exists even when it’s not reciprocated. Unfulfilled love isn’t necessarily a discounted version of the emotion. It’s still love. But I need to learn how to go from being in love with you to just loving you, loving the memory of you, cherishing the memories that I have of you, just like everyone else who knew you. 

I don’t know if I can say I believe that “it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all,” because the pain that accompanies such an experience is immense. Losing the dream of love, of being loved in return, hurts. And let’s be honest, you were my dream. I don’t really know how to create a new one. I don’t want heartache and disappointment to define me in this life, especially not in the realm of love. But I don’t know how to look at other men and not compare them to you. Someday, though, I hope I do meet someone who can receive my love and give it back in return. The hope of a great love still exists, even though the progression of time is starting to tell me it’s foolish. But even though you didn’t necessarily return my love, I can still think of you as a great love of my life. I just have to learn how to not be selfish and wish that you had loved me too. The love that existed and continues to exist was and is beautiful. And someday, I will learn to live with that.   

-Mary Trollinger 

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Mary Trollinger was born in southwestern Virginia, grew up in central Kentucky, and currently works in fund development in Lexington, Kentucky. Her interest in religion and spirituality led to a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt. She is also a nature photographer and her work has been featured throughout central Kentucky. When she isn't writing or snapping pictures, she can be found playing with her various dog friends and hanging out with her twin sister.