Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I recently lost my husband to lung cancer. The chemotherapy was not working and they were debating whether another form of treatment would work. He then got an infection and was admitted to hospital. He never left the hospital as he got sepsis. I feel responsible as I was his caregiver 24/7 for about a year. I was with him when he died. I don’t know how to move on. I have family but I feel like they don’t understand how much it hurts to lose my soulmate. I keep getting told it will get better in a couple of weeks. Everywhere I look or go brings back memories and I end up in tears.
All I want is to be with him and am only just getting through the days. I have been given anti-depressants and recommended grief counselling. I am a bit shy of asking for counselling as I may be wasting their time. I just feel so lonely even in a room full of people and like I have lost my place in life.
You have lost your place in life, and it is not an easy thing to find or create a new one. For many years your place was by your husband’s side as you became a family, and both enjoyed life’s joys and navigated its sorrows together. And for another compelling and compassionate year you tended to him lovingly through his illness, no doubt sacrificing much to provide that constant care and companionship. Although you did not ultimately take his life—an invisible infection did that—it is understandable that you relive that hardest of all moments, and ask yourself why you did not or could not save him, when everything in you wanted nothing more. And you also ask yourself the questions that no other naive, even if well intentioned family member can answer for you: What now will I do with my life? Where now do I turn?
Unfortunately, time will not make things better in some simple, automatic way that requires only patience to discover. This is an natural enough wish, especially for others who want you to suffer less, but who do not understand what your suffering means, or what you need to alleviate it. You yourself might not yet know the answers to these questions. And so how might you address them in a self-compassionate but brave fashion going forward? Here are a few ideas:
1. Reach for the memories you need. In our grief, we are primed to look back on what was, to seek in our distress the solace of a better time. And we do so for two reasons. Sometimes our thoughts are magnetically drawn to the unsettling or unresolved moments—times of illness and pain for our loved one, tension in the relationship, or helplessness at the time of the death. In such moments we need patient witnessing of the review of these experiences and their associated emotions, so that we can take them in, make sense of them, and fit them into our larger life story—but only as part of that story, not the whole of it or the end of it. At other times we are drawn to memories of the good times that will never literally return, however much we wish they would. And here, the goal is to hold on to them not as literal wishes that cannot be fulfilled, but as cherished moments that remind us that we are lovable, worthy, and capable of joy, contentment and purpose. Seek these memories and the lessons they have to teach about what you need now.
2. Build bridges, rather than walls of confinement. Courageously sitting with memories of when your life was full and fruitful, sit also with the questions: What sources of meaning did I draw on then, and how might I find more of that today and tomorrow? Don’f rush toward answers; let yourself live the question, but with curiosity and a self-caring (but not self-indulgent) attitude. Perhaps you will see a theme in those positive memories about what once gave you joy. How now might you seek something of the same? Perhaps there will be clues about what kinds of intimacy or companionship you crave in life. What would be one small step you might take to invite that? The lessons of loss are typically unwelcome, but potentially clarifying. Seek this clarity. And step by step, when you are ready, act on it.
3. Find fellow travelers for the journey. Your loneliness is itself a clue to what you need: shared sojourning, with understanding others. Often we can find family and friends to walk alongside us toward a changed life. But here too we must ask ourselves hard questions: What can this person give, in light of his or her strengths? Some will be good listeners, who will not rush to give advice. Others will be good practical problem solvers, even if they are awkward with intimate emotions. And still others will be good activity partners who you can turn to for seeing a movie, having a lunch with light conversation, taking a walk through the park, or other diversions from the hard work of grieving. The secret is to turn to the right people for the right things, recognizing that few people are strong in all of these areas, and realizing that no one can answer the above questions for you—even the counselor who will find that time with you is well spent when you jointly and patiently seek to learn from loss and life, and who will help you find a way through this difficult terrain, a little less alone on the journey.