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?
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.