Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I’ve been reading your column for some time now, and trying to follow your advice about confronting rather than avoiding my grief through writing to my dear wife, Dorothy, who meant the world to me before her death two months ago. We did just about everything together for decades, and even the things I did on my own were better because I could tell her about them when I got home. Now everything just feels so empty, and the pain of missing her has been so intense that at times I just have to wail in my home when I’m alone.
But I’ve always been tenacious, and have been trying to take your advice by writing those letters to her. And let me tell you something: the first ones were just awful! I told it like it was, because I would never lie to her, and told her how very much I missed her, and that I didn’t know how I could go on without her. I cried. I even wailed through the first couple. But I stuck with it. I also reassured her that even when I was a mess emotionally, I was still making myself do what I needed to do, taking care of myself physically, pushing myself to work, and sometimes even to go out with a friend. And gradually, it’s been getting better. Today I wrote her, and even though I told her how much I missed her beautiful smile and always seeing her when I came home, I didn’t wail. I didn’t even cry. In fact, I found myself laughing later with friends–real laughs, not having to force it. So I’m telling you, I think it’s working.
Here’s a story I think you’ll appreciate. Once when I was cooking a nice Asian meal for Dorothy, I burned my stomach badly with some hot oil, and had to go to the hospital. The doctor prescribed a special kind of burn ointment that I had to apply every day after showering and washing the wounded area. And let me tell you, every time I did that treatment, for a long time it hurt like the devil–just to have to expose the wound, clean it, and reapply the medicine. But I made myself do it, and soon it began to heal. Today I’m fine, I don’t even have any scars. I think your grief therapy is like that.
So here’s my question: Do you think that I’m on the right track? And if so, what should I do next?
You’re not only one tenacious guy, but you are also a great storyteller! Your analogy of grief therapy to the burn treatment you received is the perfect metaphor for what you are doing: fearlessly exposing the wound, cleaning it, and applying the treatment. And pretty clearly, you are healing a bit more each time, as wailing softens to crying, crying mellows to equanimity, and equanimity makes room even for laughter. Grief can be a roller coaster with its daily ups and downs, but when faced with courage, the climbs are steadier, the valleys less steep, until you can finally step off onto firm ground.
And so you ask what to do next. My answer is, “the next hard thing.” Ask yourself, “What do I need now, and what now am I ready to tackle?” One possibility, now that you are facing your grief–and recovering a sense of connection to Dorothy without the pain being the only bridge–is to try writing back from her to you. What would she say about your current efforts, and successes, in managing your grief as you are? What counsel would she have for you? A variation on this is to push back out into the world a little harder. Go someplace you’ve been avoiding because it was a place you shared with her, but make it someplace that feels manageably uncomfortable, not overwhelming. Then come home, and write Dorothy about it. Naturally, across time, you’ll find other audiences for your stories too, as you have in sharing them with me. But Dorothy can remain a part of that audience, as long as you want her to.