Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife of almost 35 years died suddenly four weeks ago. Yes she was ill for many years but I took care of her full time including doing her dialysis at home, running her feeding tube every night and doing everything in the house as she was unable to do those things do to her various illnesses. Despite her illnesses she had been doing well until the day she suddenly died next to me in her sleep.
We were ALWAYS together. We lived and worked together and literally were never more than a few feet apart for the last 27 of our years together. She was my whole life and my whole reason to live. She made me what I am. I am nothing without her. The pain of losing her and our whole way of life is unbearable. I cry all the time.
All I ever wanted was to be married and have one person to be with all the time. We didn’t have children so we could just focus on our very special marriage. Now I am alone and have no reason to go on. I can’t stop grieving for my wife.
I guess my question is, why should I go on? I see no life for me now. I wish I had died with her. I never planned on being without her. I need a reason to live. Can you give me one?
No, I cannot give you a concrete reason to live; no human being can engineer that for another, however much we might want to. But I can stand with the side of you that hopes for such a purpose, for some way to fill the terrible void created by your wife’s loss–the part of you that wrote this letter. So joining my hope with yours, let’s see what now is possible.
First, any compassionate response to your pain would have to validate your profound grief, so fresh and raw, scarcely a month after your wife’s death. No doubt most of us who experience so recent and anguishing a loss would identify with your sense of desolation and questioning, and all the more so given the deep and dense bonds of connection you and she shared. Your grief is in proportion to your love, and when she was everything to you, of course it would feel that everything has been taken away. So I would hope first that you might accept that psychological reality and be caring and generous to yourself now, exactly as you would hope that she would be compassionate to herself had you been the one who died first.
Second, consider the essential roles she played for you: the attentive presence, tuning in to your feelings, perhaps talking things through. Especially because you turned to her so completely for these basic functions that all human beings require, you likely feel like a ship without a rudder or anchor for navigating the stormy waters in which you now find yourself. Psychologists speak of the profound way grief challenges our “emotion regulation,” the gale force angst that surrounds us, without the safe harbor once provided by the very relationship we have lost. In mourning such a loss, we need to find another haven, even a temporary one, to ride out the storm. In your case, with seemingly all or most of your ballast once provided by your wife, it may be especially wise to seek such a haven in an attuned relationship with a counselor or therapist–perhaps especially a woman–who can help you orient to this changed world, find the landmarks, and with support, begin to rebuild. Like reconstructing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this is not something accomplished in a month or two. It begins with psychological first aid, continues with support from others, and gradually takes the form of a new life, livable in its own terms.
Third, however, this new world need not be so completely different from the one now lost in a physical sense. As you ruminate about what you have lost, I would also invite you to meditate on what you have retained. Certainly your professional skills as a healer persist, and perhaps even were sharpened by your attentive care for your wife for so many years. What other lives might be touched, saved or transformed by your efforts? And equally fundamentally, consider the gifts that your wife left for you, engendered by decades of loving interaction, even in the midst of her illness. What did you learn about yourself, the world, and suffering nobly that you might draw on now, and deploy in the service of others? Might you write an AfterTalk letter to her enumerating all she gave you, and that she would want you to use rather than discard as if it had no enduring value? And imagine her response to your letter, fully acknowledging your pain, but also affirming your worth: how might she ask you to care for yourself in your suffering now, as you long cared for her suffering before? In these important senses, and in the invisible cloak of care she would ask you to wear and draw close, she can remain a key part of your support team, even as you gradually open to other relationships that can take on meaning in their own way.
In sum, be gentle with your tears as she no doubt would be, hold her close now in the lessons about love and life that she taught you, and reach toward renewed reasons for living that honor this bond, even as you revise it with the help of a caring professional and others. And–perhaps with the supportive structure of AfterTalk as well as others who care for you–keep her apprised of the progress.