Phantom Pains: Letting Go After Loss


I’m driving down the freeway, letting my left arm dangle out the window. I like the feeling of the breeze whipping against it. And then—instinctively—I clench my fingers together in a fist because I’m afraid my wedding ring will slip off and go clattering down the road. And then I remember: I’m not wearing my wedding ring. I haven’t for at least two years. And yet… I can still feel it. Physically.

And it brings me back to my wedding day. I remember looking at my new wedding band as I gripped the steering wheel while pulling out of the church parking lot. “It feels strange,” I said. My father smiled. “Get used to it,” he replied. And I did.

Over the years, it became like just another part of my body, physically inseparable from who I was, like my brown eyes or my arms and feet. It constantly reminded me that I was now joined to my wife, and she and I had become one flesh. The ring literally bonded with my skin to remind me, and others, of this reality.

Years went by. My wife and I made love and argued and cried and wondered how we’d pay bills. We suffered miscarriages. We pulled through. We were young and we learned as we went. And through it all, that titanium ring clung to my finger, an anchor holding me in place even as life circumstances threatened to rip our union apart. I was proud to wear it. It made me feel special. It made me feel connected to another person through every trial and celebration. It was part of me.

One anniversary, we went snorkeling in the Pacific. My fingers shrunk in the cold water and my ring slid off. I quickly clenched my fist and barely saved it from sinking. A close call, but I clung to it tightly and swam the rest of the day with my left hand balled into a fist. I was not going to lose that ring. And I never did.

Then one night, I came home and my wife sat me down on the couch and made a confession that shattered our marriage. We split up. I moved out and found a new house. We started our divorce paperwork. But I still wore the ring. It was still too much a part of me, and the way I saw it, we were still officially married.

A few months before our divorce became official, I finally took off the ring. For weeks, it rested on my nightstand. Then I placed it in a desk drawer where I couldn’t see it, where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded of it. Gradually, the pale line and indentation on my ring finger faded and it looked as if I’d never worn it.

But then one day after the divorce, it happened. I was driving and I felt—physically felt—the ring on my finger. I clenched my fist to protect it, but then realized, of course, that it wasn’t there anymore.

Medical professionals call this “phantom pain.” Often, when someone loses a limb or other body part, the body still “feels” the appendage as if it had never been removed. Missing feet itch. Missing knees bend. Missing hands grasp. What causes phantom pain? Even today, no one knows for sure. Current theories focus on altered neurological pathways as the culprit.

The term “phantom limb” was first coined by American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell in 1871. He described the phenomenon of “spirit limbs… haunting soldiers.” Occasionally, I still feel my wedding ring. Not always. But from time to time, it still “haunts” me. Maybe it always will.

It’s been estimated that at least 80 percent of amputees experience phantom sensations at some point, while others experience it for the rest of their lives. Maybe it’ll be the same with me. Or maybe one day, I’ll get married again and the pains will go away. I’m not sure. It’s all a mystery, just like most things involving the body and mind and soul.

But I believe the pain can be good. Every time I “feel” that ring, it’s like a holy reminder that I lost something precious, a once-vital part of myself that will always be missing now. And that’s okay. Because that just reminds me that I’m alive and I’m capable of feeling and loving. And healing.

And as I think about it, I suspect that the path to healing involves loosening my grip. When I drive down the road, I may occasionally feel that phantom wedding band slipping off my finger. But I don’t need to clench my fist tight anymore. I’m not going to lose the ring. The ring is gone. I just need to let it go. The future is ahead.



  1. Vicki-633701 May 30, 2014 Reply

    Very well written. You have put into words all the emotions, thoughts, love and commitment that my wedding ring meant to me. I kept my wedding ring for about 8 years after my ex-husband and I divorced…then let it go. Hoping for new love…God is silent on that topic for the time being. Keep writing, you are very good at it and I pray for new love for you.

  2. Walter-533749 December 16, 2013 Reply

    The phantom ring is is very real. I.lost my to cancer over six years ago and still get the phantom ring sensation from time to time. I hope for the day when I can wear another one.

  3. Laura-56149 December 8, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for sharing this deep personal experience. It hits home with many of us. God bless you and may He grant your heart’s desires.

  4. Sharon-626753 December 6, 2013 Reply

    What a wonderful piece! I finally sold mine, I thought I would save it for my first grandchild but it represented so much failure, pain and heartache I didn’t want anyone to have it. Instead I bought a “divorce ring” for myself and one day I will give that to a grandchild. It is beautiful and it represents the stronger version of me, not the broken, lost one that my divorce left behind.

  5. Joan-529855 December 6, 2013 Reply

    During the divorce process my now exhusband bought me a “mother’s ring” with the birth stones of our 4 children. I wear this ring on my left ring finger as a reminder of the love that never ends…..even after “divorce”.

  6. Hope-1025655 December 6, 2013 Reply

    Thank you. I feel the phantom ring pains now and then, too.

  7. Jes-951157 December 5, 2013 Reply

    Fantastic piece!.. Thank you for it.
    I sometimes feel like putting it back on, just to feel the feeling of it on my finger again.
    Even though the marriage is over, I just can’t bring myself to have it melted-down or sold to one of those “We Buy Gold” places. Perhaps in time?

  8. Maura-1030942 December 5, 2013 Reply

    Very well-written, and although I lost a much-beloved husband to heart failure a year ago, I understand what you mean. When my first husband and I divorced, we had 2 fabulous childen, an 8 year-old daughter and a 5 year-old son. I went into a massive depression; I had lost my dream of the future as a family.

    I met my late husband by complete chance, and I simply knew that he was the one; God had clearly created us for one another – it had just taken about 35 years before our paths crossed. We had 7 years together and and I awoke every morning happy and full of gratitude; and ever since he died this past January, I slog through each dark and gray day.

    What actually caught my attention was the titanium ring – my husband also chose titanium – carved with the Celtic symbol for eternity. We were in Puerto Rico, on the first vacation we had taken that did not involve family when he died; afterwards, I found an SD card from the underwater camera that he took when he went snorkeling. Among the photos of fish and coral was a photo of his left hand, close up, showing his wedding ring. Although the death was a sudden shock to everyone, I think he knew it was coming somehow. When the coroner came to take the body away, he removed his ring and gave it to me. The sight of his hand without it was so painful, I could hardly stand it. Once he had put it on when we were married, he NEVER took it off again.

    So… I understand where you’re coming from – a divorce represents the death of the dream for a specific future; I’ve been through that as well. The death of a spouse in a very happy marriage is simply even more devastating and I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Be well; good things are coming your way.

  9. Lauren-927923 December 5, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for this article. I lost my husband to a work accident nineteen months ago. I literally felt as if the left side of my body had been amputated — like that side was only a gelatinous shell — for months and months. It is beginning to feel a bit more solid but still definitely changed. I removed my ring and Pete’s which I wore since his death,about a month ago and I can still feel them on my hand. I have often wondered if phantom pain would apply to what I was feeling.

    • Maura-1030942 December 5, 2013 Reply

      I’m so sorry, Lauren – if you read my comment below, you will see that I am undergoing much the same thing – and I often feel so much that half of me has been ripped away, I wonder why I don’t leave a trail of blood everywhere I go.

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