Inconsolable Grieving for my Wife

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?

Samuel

Dear Samuel,

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.

–Dr. Neimeyer

6 comments on “Inconsolable Grieving for my Wife

  1. I relate very closely to this loss. I too lost my wife of 35 years – almost 4 years ago now. I have had moments since when I felt like I was ‘finally through this’ and had ‘moved on’ as many of my friends tried to suggest I do. ‘She would want you to be happy’; all well-intended platitudes that did more to silence my expression of my on-going pain so THEY could move on and not have to deal with it. I still cry sometimes.

    This kind of wound doesn’t heal. After this many years together, odds are, like me – this man is in the last stage of his life. This is a burden we learn to carry but carry it we must. Sometimes the weight seems unbearable – other times, it’s like a cloud passing before the sun – the warmth still comes through. That said, there is still hope – this weight can be lightened in positive ways – by sharing the good memories of her with others – by keeping her present in every way possible.

    The reality that death and loss teaches us is that ALL we ever have is today. We cannot live for tomorrow – but we cannot live for yesterday either. How do you give your life meaning? You do it by finding new ways to make it meaningful no matter how small – a little thing every day. Force yourself to be present – be aware of every sense and sensation. I try to ground myself in TODAY whenever and however I can. Some days I have more of a capacity to do this than others. That doesn’t mean I ‘failed’ it only means I didn’t have the strength that day.

    You cannot and should not do this alone. Find the right grief support group and the right grief therapist to guide you through this catastrophic experience. A loss like this changes EVERYTHING – it redefines you. You are not who you were anymore, and not sure who you are supposed to be now.

    Given her long illness, you were likely also a caregiver – and now that role in life is gone as well. When it feels right, seek out new ways to channel your natural capacity to love and care in meaningful ways that honour her memory. Your gift to others becomes another way of sharing the love you received from her for all those years – and that keeps her loving spirit alive in the world.

  2. I sympathize deeply with you, Samuel, as I too lost my beloved husband of 30+ years very suddenly (almost five years ago now); we too worked together and were never apart; we too had no children (except for our cats!); we too were best friends, lovers, life partners, soulmates. I sense that you are a somewhat introspective, introverted person, as I am. Dr. Neimeyer has much sensitive, caring advice on this website, but what I have taken most to heart is to maintain a relationship with your loved one–talk to her, write to her, ask for advice–you will know how she thinks, how she would/will advise you. My metier is writing, and I have written many thousands of words about our lives together and events that have occurred afterward, saved poems and other quotations from books I have read (many of them beautifully written grief memoirs by insightful authors), inserted photos–it’s a journal just for us. Your creativity may take a different path–just exercise it. It will reward you many times over in bringing you close, returning forgotten memories, sharing your life still.

    I think learning to live with deep grief and heartbreak is a lifelong journey, with much sorrow and occasional unexpected gifts of light and joy. It has taken me all these five years to understand, for example, that I am diminishing my life in significant ways by refraining from engaging in many of the simple pleasures that we shared–driving with the convertible top down on the first warm spring day, going to our favorite beach or restaurant, sitting on our deck as evening darkened. I am going to return to them this year, as I am certain that they will bring me the same unexpected reminders of our life that my writing has done, and perhaps in a fuller, more embodied way.

    I hope that you find your own path for this journey and that it brings you much love and some peace.

    Wendy

  3. So gentle and kind is your spirit Dr. Neimeyer.

    It’s been 6 years, 3 months, 1 day ago, 10 hours 1 minute and 36 seconds ago, to be precise; when my concept of LIFE with meaning was shattered.

    Our marriage endured much of every conceivable twist and turn, and yet, the “ETERNAL FLAME” that ignited our being “ONE” still survives death.

    My heart tears bitterly for Samuel.

    I know inconsolable grief well. Though it’s no longer inconsolable i believe.

    And it’s my absolute profound loss, not the world’s, although the world has truly lost a great advocate, a great bastion of light embracing kindness and true love without condition.

    If i could say “anything” to Samuel, there are no words, offerings or comfort to be found, none!!!

    But! as Samuel attempts to assimilate his profound loss in this very lonely world – we call life, he will realize, he’s not alone!

    I have no scientific or credible data of support to back up what i say, so here it is: Samuel, your beloved has gone before you, because she knows how ( not you) to prepare the perfect, eternal home in our true home in heaven that the BOTH of you will FOREVER EMBRACE — but!!! you must be called by her.

    What I’m saying here is simple. TRUE SANCTIFIED LOVE ” CANNOT!!! PERISH”…for it abides in all things, from the dawn of time even.

    You will know when she calls your name to join with her, “once and again” that PERFECT LOVE, THAT PERFECT JOURNEY.

    You are in my perpetual prayers til you meet her again.

    Rodd

    • Your comment about Samuel’s beloved going before him has brought me a glimmer of joy and hope today. I unexpectedly lost my husband, Clay, five months ago. He was my Soulmate and Best Friend of 34 and 1/2 years. Before we were married, he was working in Memphis and found an apartment for us, a place to call home. When we left Memphis, Clay went ahead of me for a job and once again looked for a place for us to call home. For a few months it was a suite in a hotel, but then we found a house together in an area Clay had previously driven around and took me to. When I read your words, it struck me that Clay always went ahead of me to find us a home. I am holding it in my heart that now, once again, Clay (who was always up for an adventure) has gone ahead of me to seek out our true home. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words that I came upon by accident today.

  4. Dear Samuel,
    I am so sorry for your devastating loss. My husband died three years ago, after being totally disabled for most of our 17-year marriage by a genetic neurodegenerative illness. He was physically and cognitively destroyed, and I cared for him at home until his peaceful death. He could do nothing for himself for about 15 years; I had aides help me, but I was an Xtreme caregiver. Since he died after years of not being able to even speak to me, I have not really wanted to live in this horrid world. But the faith that my husband taught me sustained me through the caregiving years and now I carry his Catholic faith with me as I serve the church in many ways. I read something once that really struck me: it’s not what we want from life (because I want nothing except to be with my husband), but it’s what life wants from us. We are still here because we have a purpose we have not finished yet. So I look for ways to serve others, and that has been really good for me. Nothing about this is easy, but I hope you will find your way; it does take time. Meanwhile, just be good to yourself, and don’t pressure yourself to heal any sooner than you are able. After so much caregiving, you need to rest and just do what you feel like doing. Wishing you peace and comfort.

  5. This is a lovely detailed and thoughtful answer.

    I am in a similar situation and I get through each day and sleepless night, I’ve had counselling which helped relieve the pressure a little.

    After 14 months, however hard I try, I am “just filling in the time” nothing I try to do has any meaning for me now.

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