Am I going to lose control?

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,I lost my husband 13 months ago. I have cried some. But I always feel like I have to be strong. I’ve been told by several people I haven’t given it enough time yet. I’m afraid one day I’m just totally going to lose control. Any ideas to help me?



Dear Judith,

The first question is whether you really need help, or whether you are actually responding quite adaptively under the circumstances. Culturally in the western world we have largely adopted a set of “feeling rules” for grieving that emphasize the adaptiveness of expressing negative emotion in the wake of loss, whether we do so with friends and family or grief counselors and therapists. In this view, failure to do so sounds suspiciously like “bottling up” our sorrow, with the implication that this could lead us to “crash” several months down the road when the feelings become too much to bear. Better, we think, to let the feelings out, and only then begin to heal.

But a good deal of evidence collected over the last 15 years seriously questions this assumption. As it turns out, about half of all grieving people–including widowed persons–cope “resiliently” with loss, moving back into life quite adaptively despite their sadness and missing their loved one, and typically do so after a few weeks. (This is not to say that they do not grieve–but rather to say that their sadness does not totally displace their capacity for joy and love.) Moreover, long-term studies of how people cope with loss suggest that very few of those who, like you, are “strong” for the first 13 months following the loss later break down into a complicated form of grief; nearly always, they simply continue to make progress in reclaiming and living their changed lives.

So my counsel would be to reflect occasionally on what you are doing well in coping with this deeply unwelcome life transition, find people who can appreciate and celebrate these skillful choices with you. The time to start to worry about whether you are ignoring or inappropriately containing important negative feelings is when and if other troubling symptoms (self-isolation, unshakable depression, intrusive thoughts about the loss, guilt) clearly emerge. If this occurs–which is unlikely–you can be reassured that there are professional resources that can help you get back on track. But until then, just keep practicing the determination and optimism that are serving you, and others who care for you, well during this hard passage.

Dr. Neimeyer

3 thoughts on “Am I going to lose control?”

  1. Louise McOrmond-Plummer

    Hey Judith,

    Your letter reminds me so much of what Megan Devine calls the “correction” in grief. There’s a social expectation that people should be “better” after a certain time, but your letter seems to be saying that after 13 months, people think you shouldn’t be better. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, huh? It’s your process, and where you’re at is very very okay. Full marks for your resilience, and there is no reason to expect that some sort of a breakdown lies ahead.

    I guess I’m concerned though that you said “But I always feel like I have to be strong.” “Be strong” is a platitude handed to grieving people with boring regularity – or that is certainly my experience. I may be wrong, and I hope I am, but I’m worried that what you said may indicate that you are feeling pressure – from yourself or others – to be “strong”, and you are afraid of blowing a fuse. If this is the case, Judith, please know that you don’t have to bow to pressure to be “strong”… you can give expression to any pain you may feel, and that this will not make you weak. If it is the case that you are experiencing pressure from others, please find one or two people you can be you with – the sad, the strong, the okay.

    1. I agree with the “Be Strong” comment being harmful. I have always recommended crying when needed; it is cleansing and comforting. Sometimes I have felt like I wouldn’t stop crying, but I always have and felt somewhat relieved afterwards. We need to be free to feel what we are feeling and understand the toll that losing your husband takes. It is emotionally and physically draining, but is different for everyone depending on your individual circumstances. Dear Judith, I really doubt that you will lose control. And don’t listen to other people; it can make you crazy.

  2. My husband died two and a half years ago. He had a brain-killing illness for our whole 17-year marriage. I cared for his every need at home for all those years (with home health aides) until his death. I have trouble because we had little communication because of his cognitive destruction; this will always be unresolved for me. I have a strong faith in God, developed during the caregiving years, which keeps me going. I find that grief gets worse when life batters me; I have had a year of everything breaking, trees falling, tech problems, and numerous nonstop aggravations which bring on the grief and make me feel like giving up. I try to be good to myself, not push myself beyond what needs to be done. I am grateful for my many friends made during my caregiving and widow years. The Well Spouse Assn. sustained me during caregiving, as it does now as a “former” well spouse, and I went to many grief groups as a widow and read many grief books which were helpful. EVERYONE DOES GRIEVING ON THEIR OWN TIMELINE. THERE ARE NO RULES. Seek as much help as you can. I have little family support, so I sought out support groups. I go to a therapist, take a low dose antidepressant, and go to Mass every day and stay close to God in prayer.

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