Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband died in November. He was in his early 40s. We were together nearly 25 years; he was my other half. We did everything together. It is so hard for me. All I do is cry. I know that’s not going to bring him back but I’m so heartbroken. It is like I’m dying inside. Each day I talk to him and I get goose bumps on my right arm and my hand gets numb. Is that a sign? Is it true that they come to you? I just wonder if he misses me as much as I miss him. How can I live without him? It’s killing me.
Although we live in a culture that emphasizes individualism, the reality is that we are wired for attachment. As the feeling of yearning that you express poignantly conveys, we need others—and particularly a few “special” others—to feel whole. This is why one common feature of profound grief is the sense that a part of ourselves has died; in a psychologically real sense, it has. To lose a partner so early in life reduces us, and even our earnest attempts to retain a connection to him or her can feel like a pallid alternative to the gift of our loved one’s full presence. Learning to live with this very present absence often requires a considerable effort over time.
For all of these reasons, intense grief alone is not something pathological, something to be worried about. Certainly missing our deceased loved ones keenly and experiencing tearfulness when we think about them is common early in mourning, and probably occurs in proportion to our love. But as you move into your 7th or 8th month of bereavement, if you find that the tears are a constant companion and that pleasure is a stranger, if you seem to have lost touch with the uniquely valuable aspects of yourself, if you find yourself cutting off from others and having trouble functioning at home or at work, and especially if things seem to be getting worse rather than better, then consciously taking steps to reclaim your life may be in order.
So, what to do if this description seems to fit? One thing is to follow your instincts to talk with your husband, not only about your missing him—though that surely would be part of it—but also to share the highlights of your day, discuss your plans for the week, or solicit his advice about an important decision you are facing. AfterTalk can provide a portal for just this sort of communication: messages that affirm life as well as loss. Just as a weekly phone call to a parent or child living in another state naturally would include conversations about interesting and important updates on your activities, so too can a written letter to your husband continue to include him as an audience to your life in a way he might appreciate, not only in a way that would cause him concern. Your letter even suggests that you believe he may have a spiritual presence in your life, missing you in return. If so, you might sit quietly for a moment after writing and re-reading your letter, and try to sense what his response might be. Giving it voice in a letter written back to yourself can help strengthen your bond, and perhaps even offer you helpful advice and encouragement on setting aside your grief at times in order to reengage other people and projects. Though it is not a panacea for the pain of loss, reaffirming a living bond as a part—though not the entirety—of life can help ensure that the second six months after the loss is not merely a darker version of the first.