After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

Six months ago my partner of 47 years died suddenly. We have no children and have always been very close and spent a lot of time together. This would have been our first real year of retirement together and we were looking forward to growing old together, just enjoying our free time and everyday things.  Now he’s gone I can find absolutely no meaning in life. Everyday I wake feeling panicky and dreading the day ahead. Throughout the day I’m hurt and upset over and over again at the thought of how he died, suddenly and at what we’ve both lost.

I’m not lonely but completely alone- I don’t want lots of people around , I just want him and the companionship we always had. Sharing news, a joke, gossip, a meal .

I try to keep busy during the day but there’s so little to do and the evenings are unbearable, by about 8.30 I can’t stand it any longer and go to bed. Then the next day I get up and have to do it all over again. What is the point?

People keep telling me “I’ll feel better in time,” but I’ve spoken to bereaved friends and neighbors, and most of them don’t feel better. One friend said 4 years after losing her husband she feels worse than ever. At 65 the prospect of years of this is unbearable, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.

Help please!  Yvonne

Dear Yvonne,

As you can well imagine, no simple advice can assuage the pain of losing a life partner who had become a soul mate, especially in circumstances like yours where no children or grandchildren exist to share your grief, and potentially provide supportive lifelines to re-connect with life in the ways that remain possible.  Just as you imply, the loneliness you feel in the wake of this unique loss is not simply a social loneliness that calls for “staying busy,” helpful though that may sometimes be, but rather is a form of emotional loneliness that reaches much deeper into our hearts and souls, from which we are not easily distracted.  The “panic” that you feel is also very real, stemming from a kind of separation distress that nearly all bereaved persons feel when they lose someone who was their “secure base” in the world, the person to whom they would naturally turn for consolation, comfort and care.

So, what might you do to recover a life that, as you say, has meaning?  Here a few suggestions, offered in full recognition that that there is no simple prescription for rebuilding life when the one we had was lost.
1.  Watch for the small changes.  Being as honest with yourself as you can be, do you notice any improvement in your sleep, any recovery of a capacity for positive emotions, any return of hope in the 6 months since your husband’s death?  This is not to say that you “should” be feeling greatly better—relearning how to live after devastating loss can be a much longer process than that sentiment suggests.  But if after half a year you see no signs of improvement in any quarter, then you may be headed into a form of “complicated” or “prolonged” grief that time alone will not heal.  Seeing a therapist who specializes in bereavement care could then become a high priority.
2.  Stay engaged.  This implies something more than “staying busy,” although both involve pushing yourself to go beyond the self-seclusion and shut-down that might seem like a temporary refuge from the pain.  Instead, real engagement implies involvement in activity that matters.  If it seems that “nothing matters” after your husband’s death, that may be much of the problem, calling for a sincere effort to connect to people, projects, and places that carry meaning for you, either by rediscovering those that once were a source of joy and purpose to you, or by discovering new ones.  What values, causes, communities of belonging or interest helped give value to your life and your husband’s?  What might he suggest you do, were you to invite his ongoing advice to you?  How might you tap into these sources of meaning now, and who might join you in this project?
3.  Choose life.  Your passive death wish—to go to sleep and never awaken—is common in complicated grief, as it also is in depression.  But it is also concerning.  If you seem to be frozen in your adaptation to this deeply unsettling transition, consider consulting a physician as well as a therapist, adding possible antidepressant treatment to your grief therapy.  Countless others have been helped by the right combination of the two, and have resisted the siren song of suicide to create the safe space needed to put down new roots in the soil of a new life.  Like any form of transplanting, this one needs careful cultivation to be successful; a neglected plant deprived of water and nutrients will surely wither.  Reach out for professional as well as social support to give yourself the care needed to again thrive in a changed world.
Dr. Neimeyer

18 thoughts on “After sudden death of a husband; finding meaning in life”

  1. Louise McOrmond-Plummer

    Dear Yvonne,

    I am so sorry for the loss of your husband. My wonderful husband, Ken, died 2 years ago, and I so get you when you speak of loss of purpose, and of not being lonely for people in general, but for your man, and for the thousand little intimacies you shared on a daily basis. The losses are immeasurable. Six months is very very early days. I imagine it’s somewhat alarming to hear that other grieving people aren’t feeling better, but, Yvonne, “better” is a term I prefer not to use. I do think it gets “different” – ways of living with this occur to us, and they do sometimes ease the pain even a little bit. It’s also quite normal to have periods of feeling “worse” again – they’re the “ups and downs” grieving people speak of. I also think that “You’ll feel better with time” is a platitude – time alone does NOT, in my opinion, improve anything. There is more than that required. I also understand the sense of pointlessness about waking up the next day when you know it will be the same… the only thing I can offer from experience is that this shifts when I build little things to look forward to into a day or a week.

    I had never sewn in my life, but within 4 months of my husband’s death, I decided to learn to make a quilt from his clothes. I decided to raise money for research into the rare cancer that killed him, and also adopted rescue cats. These things do not make up in any way for not having our beloved husbands – and they aren’t mean to – they can just make it a little bit less horrible to carry, and can generate a few smiles in a time when we perhaps feel we will never smile again. There were (and are) are still plenty of the (perfectly normal) dark days, but I thank god for the beams of light I’ve been able to see. And of course, grief brings with it what is – to me and others I’ve spoken to – a dreadful physical and mental fatigue; terms like “rebuilding your life” can feel huge and cumbersome. But re-engaging with life (one that we didn’t ask for and don’t feel that we want) doesn’t have to involve huge expenditure of energy; it can be browsing the net for crafting ideas for Christmas gifts. It might be as simple as deciding you’ll be kind to yourself and actually refuse an invitation that doesn’t feel right.

    Yvonne, darling, I had shocking anxiety, panic and insomnia after my husband passed, – for all the reasons Dr. Neimeyer mentions – and one of the best choices I made was to seek medication and counselling. Medication does not take away the grief, it just makes the uglies that go with it a bit easier to handle. Everybody who has suffered from them knows that anxiety and insomnia feed each other, and make anything else that much harder to cope with. I also sought out, and luckily found, a beautiful counsellor, who affirms even the smallest movement forward I make, as well as the fact that I will love Ken till my dying day and beyond. If you seek counselling, please make sure that the counsellor is conversant with grief and loss, and will not put time-tables on you for “feeling better.” You may want to ask them if they understand “continuing bonds” – and I don’t want to assume you don’t understand what that means, Yvonne, but in case you don’t, it basically means that while a loved one has died, our relationship with them hasn’t. You can have an ongoing, loving relationship with your husband. While it may look radically different than the one you had, it IS still a relationship, and it can grow and evolve over time. You have the right to find what will be the best “fit” for you and your situation.

    When Ken died, I felt that I had lost my reason for living, until I understood that he can still be my reason for deciding to live; I also believe that he is doing this journey with me. At two years in, my evenings more than any other time of day are still crappy, and I do find sometimes that deciding I’ll call a trusted friend after I’ve washed the dishes can help.

    Lots of love and all the best in this rough journey, Yvonne. Have all the support you can get – you deserve it – and keep coming back to this site – several things I’ve read here have made a difference. And if you are interested in reading, Megan Devine’s book, ”
    It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay,” is one of the best books I can recommend.

    Louise xxoo

    1. Samantha Hatcher

      Thank you for posting this. I too am trying to cope with the loss of my husband of 12 years. He was murdered and taken from me on July 4th. It’s only been a month and people look at me like what’s wrong with me and aren’t I over it yet. I also feel like I have nothing left to get outta bed in the morning for but your post gave me a little bit of hope that I might find a little bit of joy to keep me going and that it’s okay to not be okay and that no one can tell you when you should be okay.

  2. Thank you……I lost my beautiful husband 6 days ago and I just want to go be with
    Him…..I have no idea w hat to do

  3. Hi Margaret,

    I also just lost my husband suddenly on April 9th.and I am in terrible pain.(44 years together.)
    I just found this site……

    I am going to go on Monday to a therapist who has done a lot of work with bereavement
    I go to 12 Steps
    I have two grown children .
    I go to my room and read early.
    I eat well and take vitamins for health and sleep.

    1. I lost my Babe May 18,2019..We went to sleep on Friday Night Snuggled all up…Woke up to him passed in our bed,,,He had just turned 65,,,Not sick

      Six months today…I feel for our four children and two grandkids…They lost their father and Papa

      Cemetery today…Nights are horrific…Trying to get through this holiday season.. 41 year marriage..

      I am just trying to go forward…Miss him always forever and a day

  4. My darling husband, died 391 days ago of Lewy Body Dementia. We were married 40 years and our life revolved around each other. For the last 4 years of his precious life, I cared for him with that terrible and terrifying illness. I am totally bereft without him, I am just waiting to die. I am physically and mentally scarred by that dreadful illness and find it so difficult to remember him as he was before he was ill.
    I live day to day, drifting aimlessly, from place to place, thinking of him constantly.
    My family live abroad and I have no support from friends, who soon disappeared when the dementia started. It has been over a year since he died, yet it feels like yesterday. I lost my whole purpose for living, the day he died and have no interest in anything. I cannot accept his death, so I still ‘look’ for him everywhere we used to go together, hoping I will see him somewhere and bring him home.
    I have anger at why he got dementia as he was a clever man and got a university degree at 60yrs old.
    I hate well meaning people constantly telling me to ‘move on’ or find a new interest, as if caring for my husband was just a little hobby and I’ll soon find a new one.
    My greatest comfort is talking to my husband as if he were still here and I do believe he’s with me wherever I go.

    1. Patricia,
      Your words could be mine. That is how I feel.
      All people expect you to do is ” move on” etc.

      If you truly love and lose someone how can you move on and accept their death ?

      1. Jackie

        Thank you for understanding. We share the same endless grief. It is now coming up to 2 years since my husband died and I think the intensity of his loss is even worse now than ever. I have given up trying to explain this to people and I think they have given up on me.

        Take care.
        Patricia

  5. My husband of 43 years died 13 months ago, unexpectedly, of a stroke. 4 months later our little dog died, also unexpectedly. I have now sold the house we built and spent 30 years planning, renovating, talking about. Sitting on our deck looking at the sunsets over the river. How much I had and I don’t know if I really appreciated how much.
    I have chronic pain so am unable to busy myself which would help. In April I move to a retirement village. I just want to sleep and never wake up.
    I did see my husband 3 weeks after his death, I had fallen asleep on our bed and woke up to see a vision of him standing at the foot of the bed. I blinked and he was gone. For a week the television turned off and on itself and kitchen lights flickered. I have to believe it was him.
    May we all find some peace in the life we are left with.

    1. My husband of 44 years died unexpectedly of a heart attack in our living room while we were watching tv. He was a young 64 and looking forward to retirement. One nite shortly after his death l saw him at the side of our bed with 3 shrouded beings in a pink yellow orange light. He was telling me things and he saw how distraught I was and said to me” Here let’s do this” he took one of my hands and placed it on my chest and picked up my other hand and placed it on top of my hand on my chest and said “keep me in your heart” . l felt such love and comfort and peace… it was wonderful to feel that in a time of such pain, fear and grief. That feeling lasted that whole morning which I was so grateful for.

  6. I lost my darling Andrew 5th March 2019, after three weeks in ICU following a devastatingly catastrophic brain bleed the morning of 13th February. He was just 59 years old and we had his funeral ten days before my birthday and his memorial the day before my birthday. We were together for 36 years and I’d also known of him since I was a little girl because our mums had been at the same school and they introduced us.
    After three phone calls today with our eldest daughter, and soooo much pressure from her to take his ashes from where he currently is to where I have a plot for us both, I’ve spent nearly all day in tears. We have 5 adult children, all successful in their own ways and leading their own lives. Only our eldest son seems to understand the pain I’m in. And I just don’t know how to go on. I did bring Andrew home last year, and the pressure from the younger four kids was so intense to not keep him with me that I returned him back to where I collected him from. It sucks to be by myself.
    So to all of us who have lost the love of our lives, how do we keep going?
    My brain is mush – I don’t remember from morning till night what I’ve done that day, nor the day before. If one more person tells me to exercise, I think I’ll jump of a bloody cliff. My biggest achievement each day is to just get up in the morning, albeit not till after 10am because I’m not sleeping very well.
    I have to send our daughter an email tonight telling her what I’m going to do regarding moving Andrew and also what I want to do for what will be my 60th birthday, who I want to celebrate it with, but I cannot invite our eldest son because if he’s there, then none of our other children will come. How’s that for emotional blackmail!!??! It’s also even more complicated because she’s coming home from America and our younger son is coming home from another state; I’ll have four of five children here to ensure I move Andrew and supposedly celebrate my birthday.
    I’ve been watching programmes of other cultures to learn how they deal with death and grief, but it doesn’t help at the moment. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll be able to accept other ways, but not now. I’ve had nearly ten months of our eldest daughter telling me to adapt and move on; I know she’s trying to understand, but really she has no idea. It’s all about the kids (except our eldest) losing their dad and not me losing my husband, my partner, best friend and love of my life.
    As much as we are not alone, we all are because our grief is all different, yet it is the same. Here’s love to each of you and a very long hug because that’s one of the most important things we’ve lost.

    1. I would keep your husband’s ashes with you as long as you want. Even till you pass and let your children bury you both together. As for your birthday invite who you want and let come who may. These are grow children to put limits on your birthday and you, who should come and not is very unfair, knowing life is so short as shown by there sudden passing of there dad. Yes keep as busy as you can, physically and mentally. Please make your own choices that are good for you, there old enough to make there own and stop pressuring you. Time don’t heal wounds it helps us cope with the loss. But we keep the memories in our hearts always. Follow your heart ❤️but do what healthy and right for you. My sympathy.

  7. I lost my husband of nearly 32 years suddenly to an abdominal aortic aneurysm. It happened so quickly that I didn’t get to say goodbye. What helped me get through the initial shock was that the hospital staff at Swedish (Seattle-Edmonds) gave us a private room (for me and our grown daughters) The chaplain called the rabbi for me and we said the Hebrew parting prayer. Then we sat with him for awhile and said our goodbyes. So many people have come forth to help me as I rebuild a life which includes a new apartment and (next) employment. Tomorrow it will be 2 months. I have just started crying about it- the pain seemed too deep before. I still feel like I am living in an alternate universe. But the outpourings of love and hope from everywhere is amazing. I just try to ignore the nosy people who ask controlling and graphic questions about his death- well, actually I walk away fast. Life Center (organ donor program) has been incredible with letters, books and phone support.

    1. I to just lost my husband of 32 years from the same! I am just so sad and angry some days! I just keep asking for strength to make it another day! I am just so sad we didn’t say goodbye ! I feel so all alone, even with my adult children around. It seems like such a bad dream that I want to wake up from…

  8. My dear husband died after 30 years of being very happily married . That was now over two years ago . At first I was in shock . Many are feeling this way after their husband dies , as though you are in a state of shock . I found out that it’s normal to feel that way . Many feelings are normal such as , feeling helpless, hopeless , angry , deserted , confused , and others . One thing that helped me was thinking , how would he want me to be ? He would definitely not want me to be miserable because I know that he loved me . I also thought , what if I died before he did ? How would I want him to feel ? The thought of him being in deep despair made me feel almost sick inside . I know that my husband would want me to be happy and live the best life that I could . I still miss him every single day but I did have a life before I met him ( although my life was much better with him ! ) and I’m still living ! I guess what I’m trying to say is somehow make peace with your loss and try everyday to do something nice for yourself . Get your hair done , get your nails done , buy something new to wear , buy yourself a bottle of perfume . Be very , very good to yourself ! Try to be happy ! You deserve it ! I hope this helps another widow .

  9. I lost my husband of over three decades on Feb 20, 2020. Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary and his birthday. I can’t go on without him. And I don’t want to. I feel like a zombie. Also, lost my job of 18 years. Laid off. Everyone was in my department. I need him here. He is my heart and soul. My rock. No children but we have a little dog. I still feel so alone. I always will. I just want him home. I beg God that I can be with him soon can’t sleep without meds. Personal hygiene is gone. I just don’t care anymore. I just want my Mike home

  10. I lost my husband 18/08/2020 to liver failure and when I tell people that I get mixed reactions. He was only 53 and we loved each other so much, he was a good man who looked after his family and the people he cared about really well. He, obviously, did have have a drink problem but it never interfered with his work or anything else. We had a lovely home and our children never wanted for anything. He was my everything, my world, and I miss him so much. I stayed at the hospital with him the last few days before he died and it was traumatic to say the least, but I’m glad I did.
    Some people seem to try to make me feel ashamed of how he died but I won’t be because I know what a good person he was, I will always love him and be proud of him x

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