Building a new future

Hi Dr. Neimeyer,

My husband died unexpectedly five years ago at the age of 54. We were together for 33 years. He dropped dead in front of me with no warning. They said that he was gone before he hit the floor. We had a very good marriage and I am thankful for the time that we had. We ran a business together for 30 years and have two grown children. I keep very busy, and that has been the most help, along with the fact that I do have a lot of close family nearby. My problem is that I don’t see a future for myself. I work, do errands and household chores, and that’s about it. I just don’t know what to do next or how to move on. I will be 59 in three months. I miss what I had,but I know I can’t get it back. I also feel that I don’t have closure because I wasn’t able to say goodbye! My son says that I need to get out of my comfort zone,but I don’t know how to go about doing this. I know that in some ways five years is a long time, but for me it’s like it was yesterday.

Thanks for your time!
Dora


Dear Dora-

When we lose someone suddenly, as you have, we are denied so many things: a chance to adapt, to anticipate the looming loss and discuss it with our loved one, an opportunity to affirm love, say goodbye, and when relevant seek and extend forgiveness for wrongs or disappointments across years of relationship. Not only do we miss this special person, but we also miss the opportunity to address what needed to be addressed and say what needed to be said. AfterTalk letters can take a long step toward helping us do this even beyond death, restoring a sense of connection that lets us convey what is in our hearts, and even seek the loved one’s counsel on our changed lives.

And this latter point introduces a key feature of your own grief experience: in losing your husband as a physical presence in your life, you also lost all of the future roles and goals that were tied to his being there. This is partly what people mean when they say that it feels as if a part of them had died with their partner, leaving them with a sense of merely going through the motions. Keeping busy helps, no doubt–it provides a buffer against the sort of rumination that can reinforce depression and helplessness. But it is not a long-term substitute for purposeful activity organized around new goals and roles, or that addresses the questions, “Who am I now?” and ” What now matters to me?”

These are big questions, but not impossible ones to ask and answer. One place to start is by looking at previous sources of pleasure and meaning. Across the course of your life, when did you feel most alive? Was it when you were spending time with close friends? Learning new things? Creating something beautiful? Helping others? When did you feel most like you were growing as a person, and what direction of growth might be suitable for you now? In one sense your son is probably right: change of any kind moves us out of our comfort zone, or we risk stagnation. The secret is to find the right balance of challenge and support as you explore new options. Start small–at least twice a week, shop in a different grocery store, ask a friend to join you for lunch in a new restaurant, wear different clothes. And then try adding activities that link to the long term interests referred to above–perhaps an art class, or volunteer work, or an out of town trip. With each small step the way will become clearer, and you will discover or rediscover the person you are now meant to be.

-Dr. Neimeyer

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