After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

Six months ago my partner of 47 years died suddenly. We have no children and have always been very close and spent a lot of time together. This would have been our first real year of retirement together and we were looking forward to growing old together, just enjoying our free time and everyday things.  Now he’s gone I can find absolutely no meaning in life. Everyday I wake feeling panicky and dreading the day ahead. Throughout the day I’m hurt and upset over and over again at the thought of how he died, suddenly and at what we’ve both lost.

I’m not lonely but completely alone- I don’t want lots of people around , I just want him and the companionship we always had. Sharing news, a joke, gossip, a meal .

I try to keep busy during the day but there’s so little to do and the evenings are unbearable, by about 8.30 I can’t stand it any longer and go to bed. Then the next day I get up and have to do it all over again. What is the point?

People keep telling me “I’ll feel better in time,” but I’ve spoken to bereaved friends and neighbors, and most of them don’t feel better. One friend said 4 years after losing her husband she feels worse than ever. At 65 the prospect of years of this is unbearable, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.

Help please!  Yvonne

Dear Yvonne,

As you can well imagine, no simple advice can assuage the pain of losing a life partner who had become a soul mate, especially in circumstances like yours where no children or grandchildren exist to share your grief, and potentially provide supportive lifelines to re-connect with life in the ways that remain possible.  Just as you imply, the loneliness you feel in the wake of this unique loss is not simply a social loneliness that calls for “staying busy,” helpful though that may sometimes be, but rather is a form of emotional loneliness that reaches much deeper into our hearts and souls, from which we are not easily distracted.  The “panic” that you feel is also very real, stemming from a kind of separation distress that nearly all bereaved persons feel when they lose someone who was their “secure base” in the world, the person to whom they would naturally turn for consolation, comfort and care.

So, what might you do to recover a life that, as you say, has meaning?  Here a few suggestions, offered in full recognition that that there is no simple prescription for rebuilding life when the one we had was lost.
1.  Watch for the small changes.  Being as honest with yourself as you can be, do you notice any improvement in your sleep, any recovery of a capacity for positive emotions, any return of hope in the 6 months since your husband’s death?  This is not to say that you “should” be feeling greatly better—relearning how to live after devastating loss can be a much longer process than that sentiment suggests.  But if after half a year you see no signs of improvement in any quarter, then you may be headed into a form of “complicated” or “prolonged” grief that time alone will not heal.  Seeing a therapist who specializes in bereavement care could then become a high priority.
2.  Stay engaged.  This implies something more than “staying busy,” although both involve pushing yourself to go beyond the self-seclusion and shut-down that might seem like a temporary refuge from the pain.  Instead, real engagement implies involvement in activity that matters.  If it seems that “nothing matters” after your husband’s death, that may be much of the problem, calling for a sincere effort to connect to people, projects, and places that carry meaning for you, either by rediscovering those that once were a source of joy and purpose to you, or by discovering new ones.  What values, causes, communities of belonging or interest helped give value to your life and your husband’s?  What might he suggest you do, were you to invite his ongoing advice to you?  How might you tap into these sources of meaning now, and who might join you in this project?
3.  Choose life.  Your passive death wish—to go to sleep and never awaken—is common in complicated grief, as it also is in depression.  But it is also concerning.  If you seem to be frozen in your adaptation to this deeply unsettling transition, consider consulting a physician as well as a therapist, adding possible antidepressant treatment to your grief therapy.  Countless others have been helped by the right combination of the two, and have resisted the siren song of suicide to create the safe space needed to put down new roots in the soil of a new life.  Like any form of transplanting, this one needs careful cultivation to be successful; a neglected plant deprived of water and nutrients will surely wither.  Reach out for professional as well as social support to give yourself the care needed to again thrive in a changed world.
Dr. Neimeyer

2 comments on “After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life

  1. Dear Yvonne,

    I am so sorry for the loss of your husband. My wonderful husband, Ken, died 2 years ago, and I so get you when you speak of loss of purpose, and of not being lonely for people in general, but for your man, and for the thousand little intimacies you shared on a daily basis. The losses are immeasurable. Six months is very very early days. I imagine it’s somewhat alarming to hear that other grieving people aren’t feeling better, but, Yvonne, “better” is a term I prefer not to use. I do think it gets “different” – ways of living with this occur to us, and they do sometimes ease the pain even a little bit. It’s also quite normal to have periods of feeling “worse” again – they’re the “ups and downs” grieving people speak of. I also think that “You’ll feel better with time” is a platitude – time alone does NOT, in my opinion, improve anything. There is more than that required. I also understand the sense of pointlessness about waking up the next day when you know it will be the same… the only thing I can offer from experience is that this shifts when I build little things to look forward to into a day or a week.

    I had never sewn in my life, but within 4 months of my husband’s death, I decided to learn to make a quilt from his clothes. I decided to raise money for research into the rare cancer that killed him, and also adopted rescue cats. These things do not make up in any way for not having our beloved husbands – and they aren’t mean to – they can just make it a little bit less horrible to carry, and can generate a few smiles in a time when we perhaps feel we will never smile again. There were (and are) are still plenty of the (perfectly normal) dark days, but I thank god for the beams of light I’ve been able to see. And of course, grief brings with it what is – to me and others I’ve spoken to – a dreadful physical and mental fatigue; terms like “rebuilding your life” can feel huge and cumbersome. But re-engaging with life (one that we didn’t ask for and don’t feel that we want) doesn’t have to involve huge expenditure of energy; it can be browsing the net for crafting ideas for Christmas gifts. It might be as simple as deciding you’ll be kind to yourself and actually refuse an invitation that doesn’t feel right.

    Yvonne, darling, I had shocking anxiety, panic and insomnia after my husband passed, – for all the reasons Dr. Neimeyer mentions – and one of the best choices I made was to seek medication and counselling. Medication does not take away the grief, it just makes the uglies that go with it a bit easier to handle. Everybody who has suffered from them knows that anxiety and insomnia feed each other, and make anything else that much harder to cope with. I also sought out, and luckily found, a beautiful counsellor, who affirms even the smallest movement forward I make, as well as the fact that I will love Ken till my dying day and beyond. If you seek counselling, please make sure that the counsellor is conversant with grief and loss, and will not put time-tables on you for “feeling better.” You may want to ask them if they understand “continuing bonds” – and I don’t want to assume you don’t understand what that means, Yvonne, but in case you don’t, it basically means that while a loved one has died, our relationship with them hasn’t. You can have an ongoing, loving relationship with your husband. While it may look radically different than the one you had, it IS still a relationship, and it can grow and evolve over time. You have the right to find what will be the best “fit” for you and your situation.

    When Ken died, I felt that I had lost my reason for living, until I understood that he can still be my reason for deciding to live; I also believe that he is doing this journey with me. At two years in, my evenings more than any other time of day are still crappy, and I do find sometimes that deciding I’ll call a trusted friend after I’ve washed the dishes can help.

    Lots of love and all the best in this rough journey, Yvonne. Have all the support you can get – you deserve it – and keep coming back to this site – several things I’ve read here have made a difference. And if you are interested in reading, Megan Devine’s book, ”
    It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay,” is one of the best books I can recommend.

    Louise xxoo

  2. Thank you Louise for taking the time and trouble to reply to me.

    Your reply is very helpful and I will try to take your advice. At the moment taking cAre of our lovely dog, who misses him as much as I do, is the only thing keeping me going. Thank you. Yvonne.

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