My partner died…

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?

Miles

Dear Miles,

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.

Dr. Neimeyer

5 comments on “My partner died…

  1. Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

    While I have read and felt personal consolation with so many of your beautiful responses to grief letters, I think this may be one of the most profound to date.

    Indeed, to quote you, “We are soft bodies in a hard world. ” But when we visit your site, when we read your advice to your bereaved community, when we meditate on your words of comfort, we always leave a little bit better because our soft bodies have fallen into a soft place.

    Most kindly,
    Mary Jane Hurley Brant

  2. Dear, Miles –

    I could have written your letter myself. It probably doesn’t help at a time like this, but most of us have felt lesser or even greater degrees of your emotional pain – that’s what has lead us to the helpful, healing forum. I lost my wife just over 2 years ago now. It still pains me to see these words, and there is rarely a day that I am not brought to tears over a memory or some other emotional landmine I have unexpectedly stumbled upon. I went through a similar experience as that monster, C took her from me with voracious speed.

    Don’t let anyone tell you there is a timetable to grief. You need to feel what you feel for as long as you need to feel it. I have only just recently begun to emerge periodically from the shadows. I get caught up in my own maelstrom of self-perpetuating sadness and wallow there until I can’t stand my own company. The best and simplest thing I have found is fresh air and walking – even alone. Fresh air and movement are critical to process thoughts and emotions, as is good therapy and support. But seeing friends can be hard. My dear wife and I were together for over 35 years. I don’t have MY friends, I have OUR friends, and most times seeing them only make her absence more palpable.

    But the other day when I came home, I said hello to her as I always do even now – but this time I allowed myself a moment of fantasy. I visualized her peaking around the bedroom door to greet me back with a smile. It was both heartwarming and devastating but it caused me to consider: IF it were real… IF she really came back – am I who she want to see? Is this the man she married? The man she encouraged me to be? I need to find that man again and find a way to make her proud of me. To be the man she deserves. The man I need to be for me – because right now ME is now all there is.

    I am sure your partner would want the same for you. Just like physical strength, emotional strength doesn’t simply appear when you need it – you need to work on it. You will get there. The dark clouds seem impenetrable right now, but the sun is still there – do your best to trust in that.

    RD

    • Thank you so much, RD. I am ‘Miles’. It is not yet 4 months since D died… without him, the world feels a very bleak and lonely place. And scary. I hadn’t anticipated the fear… or should I say terror? Sometimes, my grief surges into a kind of panic attack as I contemplate life alone: at 57, I am having to reimagine my whole life: not the easiest thing to do at the best of time – virtually impossible under the burden of grief.

      Tomorrow I am getting a new puppy. D always said I could get one when I retire, or semi-retire: at 57, it’s now or never! The dog may outlive me (DV). But I find the house suffocatingly empty and it is starting to feel like a prison. Eventually I may move to somewhere smaller and cosier, but not yet…

      The thing that surprises me is that so many people who have lost their most loved person have felt that life is no longer worth living and have wished that they could also be dead. Not many people write about this in grief books, but virtually everyone I have spoken to tells me that this thought is extremely common. There is a difference, I think, between not wanting to be alive, and planning to kill yourself: I know, for sure, that D would never, ever want me to go down that path. But not wanting to be alive – well that just feels like the inevitable truth for me right now.

      Before – life was rich and multi-textured. Now – it feels grey and shrinking. Weekends are long and empty; Christmas was a special time for us – now I’m dreading it; travelling was a big pleasure for us too – now, where would I go, and who with? Like you, I find being with ‘our’ friends very difficult because, yes, his absence is even greater. All I want to do when I’m with others is talk about him, what happened to him, the confusion in my head that this all happened so damn fast – and yet, conversation quickly veers off onto banalities which I can’t focus on. And then I just want to get away and be alone so that I can think about D and let the tears flow – which they do pretty much any time, any place.

      D once described bereavement as ‘a long road with no short cuts’. He was right. Most roads do, at least, lead somewhere; at this point, I have no idea at all where Bereavement Avenue will take me. I’d love to just lay down by the side of the road and never get up, if that were allowed and possible.

      Thank you for your encouragement. And for the walking advice. I am hoping that a new puppy will get me out more into fresh air, so that I don’t feel so conspicuous walking alone.

      I wish you all the very best on your journey; I can tell from your writing that the pain of losing your wife has devastated you. It *is* the price we pay for true, deep love. It’s unbearable, and yet, somehow, we bear it. My prayers for you.

  3. Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

    I have been reading your posts for the past few years.

    I must comment on your unique talent to acquiesce the bereaved’s pain or at the very least offer words of gentle kindness and good counsel.

    On this post: His partner’s passing. You specifically make reference for the bereaved to seek permission or acknowledge his partner’s permission to continue. I’m not certain that this counsel is not paradoxical. I’m still grieving over my husband’s (Life Partner’s) passing, BECAUSE his passing demands JUSTICE.

    You see, he should NOT have died, because of OUR country’s (State and County) et al, legislative mandates WILLFULL INTENT to deny him MUCH NEEDED MEDICAL CARE. I know my Wayne Anthony would have endured a grueling regimen of treatment for cancer, which subsequently after being perfunctorily diagnosed, he lived (lingered) for 14 month’s. This issue I take with humanity. The pain and agony is unique to every’ loss.

    So I ask, how do I navigate my pain, which was his pain in the paradigmatic sense?

    I’m still enduring rationalizing my loss.
    If Life is valued at a cost, why do we value it. (not a question) only an observation. The bereaving anger I feel must be appeased, but by whom?
    Society,shakes a stick at the weak, sick and dying.

    With my utmost respect and adoration.

    Rod

  4. Thank you Dr Neimeyer for your very compassionate and insightful response to my letter. There is much here for me to reflect on and ponder and I thank you for taking the time to respond so fully… grief and loss are, I think, the very worst experiences for human beings to endure, and for some – with particular emotional and psychological histories – even more difficult. I am waiting to plug into therapy: I recognise that I need to do this, but it’s also important to find someone really good to work with and so I am being patient and it may have to be early January before I can get started.

    Thank you again. Your compassion and care make a difference.

    ‘Miles’

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