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
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.