Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Since my partner died three months ago, I feel totally lacking in any desire to be involved in life. I just want to let days slide past without going anywhere, doing anything, seeing anyone. Going to places we loved and knew is hugely upsetting; meeting people who ask how I’m doing reduces me to tears every time… And I can’t stop remembering his last month, when we knew he was dying. The increasing vulnerability and fragility; the problems walking, talking, eating; the incontinence… all so undignified for a man who prided himself on his ability to help others and to always look his best.
I feel like I’m in limbo: somewhere between life and death. A big part of me wants to die; a much smaller part knows I need to get back into life. I am stuck and I don’t know what to do.
Any advice or suggestions, please?
From your description of your life since your partner’s death, I have the sense that you are adrift, without orientation or direction, and with little wind in your sails to steer toward any chosen destination. And that makes sense, as you have lost the moorings provided by the man you loved, and seem to have no access to the safe harbor he once provided. Without him, even once familiar destinations seem foreign, and venturing into them without his companionship becomes merely a reminder of all you have lost. However achingly common this might be in the early months of bereavement from someone who has been our soul mate, your loss is unique because, well, he was, and an eternity will not return him as a physical being who can provide the simple but profound reassurance of a human hug. Grief is the appropriate response to such a loss.
And yet, an as yet small part of you is reaching out, if only through your letter, in the hope of embracing a future that is different from the seemingly endless present. Let me speak to that part, and offer a few ideas to consider as you contemplate not only what you lost, but also what you are willing to change.
1. Allow the tears. When those who genuinely care ask the anxious question, “How are you doing?”, respond with your emotional truth. You are unspeakably sad, disoriented, hurting. Let them in to the extent it feels safe. Express appreciation for their presence and willingness to listen, even if there are no easy answers. Accept the consolation and companionship offered by others who have known their own histories of loss, without need to compare them for their severity. We are soft bodies in a hard world, and are all ultimately vulnerable to death and loss. Holding this reality together, while still connecting with others in compassionate understanding, is the truest gift we can give to one another at points of hard transition.
2. Process the loss. Even if your partner died a natural death, there is much in his dying that was traumatic, likely for him as well as you. Certainly the haunting images of his being reduced by his illness call for attention, which entails the hard practice of calling them to mind, speaking them to another willing to hear, and possibly even drawing them out as images on paper, however unartistic we may be. One thing we know is that attempts to avoid the troubling imagery has at best a fleeting effect, after which it returns with redoubled force when we let down our guard. This is not work for the faint of heart, however, and working with a therapist who is practiced in trauma interventions can be very helpful here. Integrating the story of the loss, in all its vividness and difficulty, will allow you ultimately to hold the story, rather than having it hold you. Seek a safe and therapeutic relationship that can help you toward this goal.
3. Reclaim the world. As impossible and unjust as it may seem, the world did not die with your partner. All that you loved together is still there, awaiting you, even if it is also now alloyed to pain. Reconnect, one step at a time, to the people, places and projects you shared. Go there. Do that. Gradually increase your participation in these spheres of life, perhaps accompanied by a reliable friend. And as you do, you may find that your partner is still there, in a sense, cheering you on. Even in that most difficult final month, it is unlikely that he wanted you to die with him.
4. Ask his permission. Understandably, we sometimes feel that lessening our anguish is equivalent to lessening our bond to the one we have loved and lost, as if embracing life in its fullness would be a kind of betrayal. Question this logic. Did your partner require you to suffer as an expression of your love? If not, why would he do so now? Even acknowledging the profundity of your grief, consider what his counsel would be, given his identity as ” a man who prided himself on his ability to help others.” What would he suggest would help you now? As you meditate on this question—perhaps facilitated by an AfterTalk correspondence with him—allow his counsel to serve as a compass for you, as you invite him to be present to you in the steps you take from loss to life. As you do so, you will likely find many ways in which he will be with you as you continue your voyage, ultimately forming a safe inner harbor that you can carry with you into a world that still beckons.