Recently, I encountered a new term: counterlife. A counterlife is an alternative existence, a life other than the one that a person actually lives. Such a life is constructed by fiction, not fact.

Here’s a related phrase: what if? What if — all this was just some kind of waking nightmare? Could he be alive, still? Or again? What if — somehow, he could come back to us?

Early in grief, I indulged in these types of tantalizing thoughts. I pretended he had traveled for work, expecting to hear his key in the lock. These fictional ideas felt dangerous, like signs of collapse. Was I losing touch with reality? Living without him felt incredible. Every day felt surreal, unreal, unbelievable.

Now, more than 3 years have passed. At times, different versions of these thoughts still beckon to me.  And although I’m standing on more solid ground, with a clearer mind, wishing for his return feels delusional, regressive. His loss forced me to face a harsh new reality. I had to find a way to let go of fantasies, to carry forward. Because I’ve been forced to adapt to what is, not what if, the idea of a fictional counterlife reunion raises overwhelming, unanswerable questions.

If I could have him back, would he be the same person he once was? We’re both older now. Or I am — is he? Losing him changed me in countless ways. How would these changes affect our relationship now?

If I could have him back, what else could I have? Would he be in new forms of danger? Since he died, a global pandemic emerged. In a fictional death-defying world, a place without facts, could we somehow eradicate covid-19, for him? For everyone?

If I could have him back, how would that work? Could he somehow “catch up” on all that he’s missed? How would he feel about all that’s gone on in his absence? Would he regret missing our daughter’s high school graduation? If he could come back to us, what would he have lost?

If I could have him back, now, what would I lose? Since his death, I’ve forged many meaningful new relationships with other widows, new colleagues, neighbors, and friends. I’ve even fallen in love.

Time has carried me forward, against my will, away from him. As such, the reality of a counterlife fantasy is this: a reunion would be an occasion for affection and anguish, joy and jealousy, delight and despair. My boundless love for him endures. Still, the ever-changing world continues on, shaping me anew.