Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my husband of 46 years 19 months ago. I married him when I was 19, so I went from my parents’ home to being married. I have never been alone. There is sexual abuse that happened to me, and I always knew that if I had not married my wonderful, kind sweet husband, I probably would have taken my own life. He was the ONLY one that ever truly loved me. He had never been sick a day in his life and then was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died five months later. It was a horrible five months as his personality really changed and he became increasingly angry at me. He told a cancer therapist he had no love, passion, or caring for his wife anymore. I thought I would die on the spot! We had a wonderful marriage and when he was in a coma-like state for five days, the only words he said were my name and “I love you.” He and God knew I needed to hear those words before he died. My question is: how do I go on? I have cried every single day for 19 months, and just recently had two days where I cried all day. I don’t have a lot of friends and I just moved a block from my daughter. I have two children on the East Coast that I don’t get to see but a couple times a year, I thought being close to my daughter would help, but she works and has a little girl, so she is busy. I do get to watch my granddaughter who is seven during the summer. My husband and I watched her every day from the time she was six weeks old until she started kindergarten. Our children were the most important thing to my husband and me, but they all have their own lives. I am devastated and can’t seem to move forward. I see two therapists, take a lot of medication and go to grief support groups. What else can I do?
When we have known early hurt and betrayal as you have described, trust and intimacy can feel dangerous, and for good reason. Given this, it is impressive that you opened your heart to your husband as you did, and enjoyed 46 years of loving connection to someone who seems clearly to have reciprocated this special bond. To lose it is no doubt grievous, and to have to contend with the painful memories of his seemingly retracting that love is complicating. So what now is needed to contend with these twin challenges?
One step is like the one you took when you nudged yourself to move beyond the fear and embrace him to begin with. That is, caring connection is the surest cure for loneliness, and active engagement is the remedy for ruminative grief. You sense this yourself as you reach out to care for your grandchild, although with the blossoming of her life to include other friendships and activities, more is needed than this. It seems clear from your letter that you need what most of us need–not merely someone to care for us, but also someone for whom we can care, or some purposeful activity about which we can care. Start by identifying your signature strengths, core passions, or key values, and ask yourself what person or cause, perhaps of a volunteer nature, could give them expression. As you engage these people and things you lessen your dependency on your family, and begin to put down stronger roots in new soil.
Working with your therapist on the hurtful memories of your husband denying his love for you–itself a probable side-effect of his brain tumor–could make sense, perhaps consolidated in an AfterTalk letter to him about the experience, combined with your writing a letter back from him about his true feelings. In this, you might reflect on what he would tell you is precious about you, and how you might now engage those special gifts beyond the family circle, and even beyond the support groups that can also have their role. It is not a matter of replacing him, but rather of reclaiming those parts of you that constituted the person he loved.