Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my dearest husband 3 months ago after years of battling cancer. Our attachment deepened even more when he was diagnosed seven years ago; since then we got to be with each other 24/7. This perhaps is the reason why until now I can’t seem to move on. It’s as if time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Visiting his grave has become a part of my daily routine. I try to get busy with other things but he is always in my thoughts. Am i suffering from depression? I have done almost everything to ease the pain of losing him….I have made a memorial table in loving memory of him….I have collected photos to create a memorial album etc…..
I find solace in the chirps of the birds, the drizzling water from the fountain, and the sounds from the wind chimes. But I’m really torn into pieces.I am heartbroken…..Life seems meaningless without my beloved…..
Praying and hoping that you could help me get through this, Doc.
To experience keen heartbreak just three months after the death of your life partner is certainly a common experience with which countless bereaved spouses can identify. And it is easy to imagine, as you suggest, that the intense bonding required to negotiate his lengthy illness could have made a close relationship all that much closer. If, as your “24/7” description of togetherness implies, pulling together to contend with his cancer perhaps inevitably also entailed pulling away from others, this too would tie your heartstrings so fully to his that severing them could be especially anguishing, almost like being surgically separated from a Siamese twin. And you are right that time alone does little to heal such wounds, as studies of complicated and prolonged grief reactions tell us. Instead, it is what we do with the time that counts.
And so what might you do with the time to help you adapt to this changed world into which his death has thrown you? Some ideas are provided by contemporary understandings of grief. For a visual aid of one useful theory, adapted from the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement (DPM) by Maggie Stroebe and Henk Schut, try this:
1. Draw a wide oblong oval on a sheet of paper, from side to side. Label this “Everyday Life Experience.”
2. Then, within this oval, add two egg-like shapes standing up, one near either end, with a gap between them. Label the one on the left “Loss” and the one on the right “Life.”
3. Finally, starting near the top of the eggs, draw a zig-zag line going back and forth between them, from top to bottom. Label this “Pendulum Swing.”
Now sit back and take a look at the “Map of Mourning” that you’ve drawn. Imagine that the Loss sphere contains the raw pain of grief, the loneliness, the longing, the attempt to reconnect with your husband, to restore the bond. And imagine that the Life sphere contains everything else: buying groceries, relating to friends and family, pursuing projects, working, trying new things, taking on new roles. Both are important. Both are part of grief. The pendulum swing between them—even if initially much more time is spent in the Loss orientation—reminds us that we naturally are drawn to and require both. Perhaps at first we have only a few moments of “time out” from our grief when engaged in something that requires our concentration, but these moments are crucial to embrace, nurture, and enlarge, to provide a natural counterbalance to the absorption in loss. At the heart of the DPM is an audacious notion: that we make progress through grief when we give ourselves permission, even encouragement, to make time to grieve… and time not to. We need the former to learn how to love someone in his or her physical absence, and we need the latter in order to learn to live differently, but with meaning in the changed world.
Now make an honest inventory of all of the thoughts, actions, and projects you undertake in an average day or week. Of those you mention, nearly all focus on the left side of the model, falling within the Loss orientation: visiting the grave daily, constructing a memorial table, constructing a memorial album, etc. No doubt each is an act of love, and is deeply meaningful. But only “trying to get busy with other things” falls into the right side of the map, the Life orientation, and the way you phrase it suggests that the things you try to get busy with have much less meaning for you. To balance the pendulum, what might you add consciously to that side of the model? How about visiting a new or beloved place daily with a special friend? Rearranging a table top to feature a display of arts or crafts that you find beautiful? Making an album of new photographs you take yourself that touch or inspire you, such as the birds, fountain, or natural scenes to which you are drawn? The idea would be to promote a natural back-and-forth between loss and life, grief and growth, in a way that carries you forward in both domains.
One of the subtler implications of the DPM is that adapting to loss is not a straight arrow that moves from left to right on the map; it’s rarely that easy. Loss is a part of our everyday life experience as bereaved people… but only a part. With intention, tenacity, and good company we can also refresh and reinvent ourselves by giving the Life side of the equation equal time. Ask yourself if your husband would want that for you. If the answer is yes, you may owe it to him as much as to yourself and others who care about you to move forward by stepping first with your left foot, and then with your right, shifting your balance between Loss and Life, as naturally as walking toward a self-set goal… knowing that you will take your husband along with you.