After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life 12.13.21

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
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2 thoughts on “After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life 12.13.21”

  1. Hi Yvonne, ( My Journey out of Left Field )
    I felt compelled to reach out to you, you are me, just 8 months behind. For many months life seemed pointless with no need to continue, so unbelievably different than life with my Jim.
    Today the PAIN of Grief is gone and armed with the amazing things Jim taught me purposely and through Osmosis, I am learning how to SURVIVE. Yes half of me was gone and I had a lot to learn. Like you, my husband passed away unexpectantly from an undiagnosed heart problem. Our retirement was in its first year and the future looked even more amazing than our wonderful past. We do have children and grandchildren but their lives were becoming independent from ours and for once we were responsible for our happiness only, wonderful. We were entering territory that was new to us and exciting as well, we had grown older together and retirement seemed like
    the reward we both deserved after many years of hard work and sacrifice. This ended suddenly in Oct, 2020.
    The panic and dread that you described were my feelings for so many months. A shudder of sadness for you went through me when I read this.
    Yvonne, not sure why I am responding to you except, I think I know exactly how you feel. Let me continue because you have suffered a tragedy that is rarely discussed unless it happens to you, then obsession sets in. I thought I had lived through several tragedies in my life, my journey like everyone elses has been up and down, no one goes through life unscathed. I was blessed to have Jim as my spouse as he was my rock and always softened the blows.
    Well things were put into perspective starting in May/2020, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 terminal Cancer after returning from a romantic amazing winter in Florida, we even purchased a Winter Vacation Home. Then the miracle happened, Chemo Therapy many, many times and eventual surgery in Sept,2020 and my Cancer was in remission. Jim on his way to Costco the following month to fill one of my last Cancer related prescriptons passed away at the bottom of our driveway.
    Yvonne, you can take over from here because you know exactly how I felt, panic, terror, unbelievable and how could this happen. My fault, he was uncared for and unloved for 5 months, my Cancer and treatments were the priorities even though Jim was dealing with Emotions that were new to him, working at our summer business and looking after me.
    Well so far this email has been therapeutic for me but I am sure there are similarities in your life that you recognize, long term spouse, your confidant, your lover, your rock ,your companion and basically your everything.
    Yes, your line about being totally alone and not wanting people around jumped out at me and again sad that someone feels the way I did after Jim passed. My Grief will always be with me, sad, mad, longing etc., the difference today is that the horrible, debilitating PAIN of the Grief is gone.
    Okay, what has allowed me to want to live and get up in the morning, this could change tomorrow but I hope it doesn’t.
    Acceptance (Jim is not coming home), he is okay and it would be selfish for me to ask him to come back, he is in Eternal Life and deserves to be there. We might even meet again someday, but he is fine and this gives me peace.
    I am lucky that we have a retirement summer business and I learned how to manage and keep it a success. Any successes were bitter sweet but, I did stay busy.( tears and some smiles, I bet during the first 6 months of Jims passing, my tears would have filled numerous buckets.) Oh yes, glad that so much from those initial months is being forgotten, I was so lost and hardly able to function, the pain of Grief is debilitating.
    Yvonne, my Faith grew strong during my Cancer, fear was taken away, appetite returned and eventual remission and now over one year Cancer free.
    Professional help was received, doctors, nurses, social worker etc., this is all becoming dim but I am sure played a part in the fog clearing.
    I wrote 14 journals, best therapy ever, one written during 5 months of Cancer treatments and 13 since Jim leaving my life.
    Haven’t written anything since working this summer, this email has me thinking I should start again.
    Loneliness was overwhelming and Jim had to be replaced, drugs, drinking, eating, new relationship, no none of these would work. Again I turned to my Faith, haven’t been to church in many years but without getting into too many details, I developed a relationship with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My loneliness lifted and most days life is truly worth living, never thought this would happen again, how can I not believe, terminal Cancer in remission and able to overcome the pain, panic, loneliness and desperation of my Jim being physically gone. Praise God in the name of Jesus!
    I will always have tears, sadness and the what ifs. My life is not as we had planned but I can truly say that my destiny is not complete and I am not scared to face it without my MAN!
    Well, learning how to survive on your own at 67 was something that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams. Yvonne, I am amazed that the boy I met 50 years ago and married for 42 years would become the most important part and person in my journey. Hopefully, armed with Faith, determination and the things that Jim has taught me, I will be able to have Joy, peace and calmness in the years moving forward. Everyone’s journey is different but I do want to leave you with one thing, please look out the window at how beautiful God’s creation is, none of this is the result of a speck of dust dividing, it is too perfect and God’s will is behind it all.
    You are not alone,
    PS Not my nature to put so many personal thoughts on the Internet of all places, I hope you are not upset by what I wrote and just know that these ramblings were something that I don’t quite understand, they are heartfelt and seemed necessary to express to you.

  2. Wendy,
    Your comments just helped me this evening. My husband family farm was our business that we worked in together for 25 years. My husband Gilbert died in an accident while cutting down a tree on our farm. He was alone and my staff and I discovered him. We were just beginning to consider the possibilities of slowing down the progress of the business so that we could enjoy some summer RV trips together, as well as winters in a warmer place while our full time staff would keep things going for us. This ended for me in May 2023. I have been in shock and learning everything that he did to bring our apple crop in for harvest. It is mid September and my adrenaline is starting to wane. I am realizing that I’m not just taking care of things while he is away. There is so much life here still to live but I’m struggling to find the meaning in it just by myself. I have also felt the presence of our Lord and Saviour as we had just begun to attend an amazing local church just 6 months before he died. I feel lost at times and then purposeful. My mind and heart are trying to fine something familiar to cling to. I found that exercising and having plans are the only things that make me feel good. I am crushed and heart broken and have been trying to hold it together for my 3 grown children. Your words have given me hope. Thank you

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