Dear Dr Neimeyer,
My attention was recently drawn to your website, and especially this section of it, and I now have a great desire to ask for your help.
My beloved husband wanted to die at home. We had been married for over 50 years, and he had suffered with lung cancer and eventually dementia for nearly seven years. With a little help, I looked after him at home, with the help of a nurse who I consider ‘midwifed’ his last hours in his own bed.
I cannot get over my overwhelming sense of loss and grief, despite quite a lot of counselling. I always knew that my husband had rescued me from a childhood home of sexual abuse when I was a teenager, providing me with a sense of safety, reassurance and quiet steady love. I had a good life with him, with interests and hobbies outside my home, although I was almost his only interest. With his death I lost my sense of safety in life, and I know so clearly now that I just do not want to be alone. Mostly, I want to be dead. I have no religious beliefs and I find myself turning more and more to the idea of suicide, because, although I have tried to make a new life for myself, I don’t want one. I have children, who seemed afraid of their father’s illness and did not help with the caring work when he was alive, although they visited regularly then. Now they seem to prefer not to visit, even when I suggest I would like some help, telling me that I can look after myself. And I can, I just don’t want to.
How can I turn myself around now? Or rather, maybe, how can I make myself want to stay alive?
First, let me emphasize what should be obvious: that my necessarily brief answer to your overwhelming grief and growing suicidal resignation is no substitute for direct, face-to-face professional intervention and support. You refer to “quite a lot of counseling,” and I am hopeful that you are still engaged in that, and with a therapist you view is fully competent and trustworthy. If not, I urge you to find such a therapist in your community, as well as a psychiatrist skilled in evaluating and treating depression. It is clear that the loss of your dear husband has been devastating for you, and you need and deserve the same quality of care from a professional team that you and others provided to him during his own period of suffering. Finding alternatives to the tunnel vision that leads to suicide as the only solution would be the first priority of such work, and you might well find that antidepressant medication makes a contribution to lifting the sense of hopelessness with which you may contend. Medication is surely not a sufficient answer to the challenges this loss raises for you, but it can make it possible to stick around long enough to find the other answers that can appear.
Second, much of your letter underscores the very special sense of safety and security your husband provided for over half a century, against the backdrop of a harsh and abusive childhood. No doubt that greatly accentuates the sense of aloneness you feel now. I will not trivialize the impact of the loss of his physical presence in your life by suggesting that you can find someone to “replace” him; we both know that such love is irreplaceable. But I would counsel you to look deeply within, in a quiet moment of radical honesty, and ask yourself the question, “What did my husband give me that has enduring value? What did our 50+ years of quiet, steady love install or instill in me that is with me still?” I very much doubt that the answer is, “Nothing.” Almost certainly he gave you a unique sense of validation, of worth, a sense that you have value, preciousness. What did he discern in you that goes even beyond his relational gift to you? Meditating on these things, perhaps with a trusted therapist, could provide the strands of continuity–his lasting gift, your enduring value–from which you might begin to re-weave the fabric of your life now.
Finally, Viktor Frankl once famously said, after surviving the Nazi concentration camps, “He who has a ‘why’ for living can withstand nearly any ‘how’.” In other words, to the radical questions posed above, you might add another: “What now might be the meaning of my life, even as I work through this suffering? What purpose might I pursue, of which my husband would be proud?” This goes beyond hobbies or staying busy, as it requires listening for the clear note that resounds through the static of our grief, that calls us to what now is ours to do. Perhaps this involves relational gifts of your own, like those your husband gave you, whether these would be conferred on a child, a grandchild, or someone in need who you have not yet met. Finding this renewed or revised reason for living is the strongest bulwark against the tragedy of suicide, and the inevitable scars it leaves in the hearts and minds of the living. My hope is that you will seek and find the compassionate counsel you require to do the hard work outlined above, and win back a life of richness and joy that honors your husband’s lasting contribution to your life, and invites the engagement of many relevant others–children included–in the next chapter of your ongoing story.