Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife of over fifty years died a little over a year ago from a stroke. I have talked with my pastor, a psychologist, my family and friends and it seems nothing helps me. I was her caregiver for about eight years, which given the opportunity I would do it all again. I know she is well and happy and with God. I am so proud of that. Still I grieve for her, and yearn to just to be able to touch her velvet skin. I am worried about myself possibly harming myself if I don’t come out of this. I know it would be a terrible sin, but as others have said why do I want to live? My life here I feel ended the moment she went to heaven. My question is: Where do I go from here?
You are right: your life, as you knew it, did end with your wife’s death. And the burning question, “Why do I want to live?” insistently seeks an answer. To go on without an answer is unthinkable, and yet the meaning of your previous life seems to be undone by this loss.
So how might you find meaning in the life you have now? Some clues might be provided by your question:
First, you clearly seem to be a person of faith, and one who is integrated into a church community. If so, I presume that there are many other older widows and widowers in your congregation who have lost spouses, and who faced similar challenges in finding new direction in a changed life. Might you invite some of them out for coffee, and have a chat about what worked, and what didn’t, in handling this difficult transition? Might your church, or another in your denomination, even offer a support group for widowed persons where you could find support and understanding?
Second, you devoted yourself to caregiving for your wife for many years, and no doubt developed not only skill, but also compassion, in doing so. Are there others in your community who might similarly benefit from your occasional care? Extending this part of the story of who you have become in relation to your wife in the service of others who need care or their families who need respite could in an important sense honor the special person for whom you cultivated this part of yourself.
Finally, you mention your pride in relation to your wife, which she no doubt felt and appreciated during your life together. What now might you do that she could take pride in, as you find a way to move forward in a life that was precious to her? Sometimes the question of finding meaning in life is not answered with a single, grand answer; sometimes it comes in a hundred little installments. To find them, you might ask each day, “What is one small thing I can do today that would make my wife proud?” Then do that thing—perhaps it is organizing your study, planting a flower, venturing out of your home, lending a hand to a friend or neighbor—and then have a private conversation or symbolic correspondence with your wife in which you tell her about it. In this sense, perhaps she can return some of the support that you generously provided her for many years, as you move through a difficult period of your own.