A Widower’s question: Dwelling on the past…

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I’ve been following some of the advice given in your column in the 3 months since my wife, Linda, died, and although my life will never be the same, I can see that I am improving.  I was a real mess for a while, but now I’m able to work and concentrate on projects better, and have lost some weight that I needed to lose.  I even have better control of the waves of grief that I was drowning in just a month or so ago.  But all I do is work, and when I don’t, I tend to sit at home and feel sad, thinking about all the things Linda and I used to do.  I love her and miss her so much, and know that no one can ever take her place.

So here’s my question:  Should I be dwelling on the past, or avoiding these thoughts because they bring me down?  I really don’t know the answer to this, but I don’t seem to be getting past the sadness they bring up in me.

Mario

Dear Mario,

First, congratulations on the clear progress you are making, even in the few months since Linda’s death.  Your love for her is clear, as is your motivation to recover a life worth living, even if it is a different one than the one you had when Linda was physically by your side.  In this effort, patience and persistence are good allies.

Second, though, is the question about whether thinking often about what you and Linda once had or did is a good thing or a bad thing as you strive to cope with your bereavement.  The answer might turn on the distinction between rumination on the one hand, and deliberation on the other.  So let me say a bit more about each, and offer a couple of practical tips.

Rumination–the cognitive process of going over and over certain thoughts or concerns–tends to be automatic, unintentional, and circular, in the sense that it feels like something that comes over us uninvited, and leads to repetitive preoccupations that leave us dispirited, hopeless or anxious.  There is plenty of evidence that rumination plays a big role in depression and panic, and in the context of bereavement, reinforces complicated and prolonged grief.  While it is to some extent a normal part of adapting to loss, helping us “take in” the deeply unwelcome change in our lives, the longer term consequences of giving over to it frequently likely do more to block our movement through grief, as we get caught in the quicksand of memories and regrets that threaten to pull us down.

Deliberation, on the other hand, is characterized by conscious, intentional and progressive thinking, in the sense that it is something to choose to do at a certain time and place, that moves forward toward fresh insights or possibilities, and leads to genuine problem solving, resolve and hopefulness.  For example, there is nothing wrong–and a lot that is right–in systematically reviewing things you once enjoyed with Linda, as you ask yourself, “How can I recapture some of the joy that gave me?  Is there someone else I might enjoy that with now, even if it is not the same as with Linda?  What would I need to make a step in that direction possible for me?”

In other words, deliberation turns preoccupations into plans, and plans into vital purposes.  Step by practical step, action replaces inaction, and hope replaces resignation.  Of course, like the progress you have made in other areas, deliberative goal-setting isn’t easy, and will likely raise your anxiety and grief initially until you settle into a new and larger world that your choices make possible.  But as my psychiatrist friend David Burns once usefully said, “Action precedes motivation.”  Don’t expect that change will follow from feeling better and wanting to try something new, as the reverse is more likely to be true:  acting on the changes will gradually boost your motivation to pursue others.  Access cherished memories for what they tell you you need more of in the future; deliberate on a plan of action; and go for it.  Ultimately, you may feel closer to Linda in the places and pleasures you once shared, strengthening your bond with her as well as with your new life.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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