Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife, Lisbeth, died just one month ago, and I am deep in grief. For more than 40 years, we did everything together, and she was my best friend. Even when I did things with other people or on my own, I came home and told her about it, and enjoyed it again and more in the telling. Now, life just seems hollow and empty. Please tell me I can again find some joy.
I’m a professional actor, so I am used to working hard to develop a new role. But the two grief therapists I consulted so far, though sympathetic, said that I basically just needed to wait to feel better. But as a “doer,” it just doesn’t feel right to me to do nothing, and wait for time to heal the wound of this loss. So I started doing some research on the internet, and found Aftertalk, and you. Just as you suggest, I started writing to Lisbeth, and have poured out my guts to her in four letters so far. It feels better to give voice to my feelings, and I did have one kind of mystical experience when I was laying in bed one night where I felt a sense of her presence, even though I’m not completely sure what to make of it. But I just thought I’d write to see if there is anything else I can do that would help me get on the right track. I just feel so sad and alone.
First, I take the depth of your grief at this early point to reflect the depth of your love; it’s hardly surprising that just four weeks after the death of the partner who meant everything to you that you feel the deep mourning and loneliness you describe. But this doesn’t mean you are powerless in the face of this bereavement, as I join you in believing that there are constructive steps you can take that can gradually help return you to a place where joy and hope are again possible. Like a role on stage or film that you work long and hard to perfect, the new role in life you are being cast into now will take time and practice to feel natural, but with effort and courage, it can be realized, one step at a time.
One such step is suggested by the writing that you’ve already begun. Understandably, it sounds like your first correspondence with Lisbeth has been to voice your deepest feelings of grief, and perhaps even despair–an emotionally honest description of the magnitude of your loss. But here is my recommendation and challenge: Just as you would share with Lisbeth in life the events of your day, whether accidental encounters that brought a smile or difficult achievements experienced with pride, try sharing now with Lisbeth not only your pain, but also the flickers of pleasure or purpose you might invite through your daily choices. Strike out in new directions: visit a new cafe, take in a show, try something difficult. Connect with people: strike up a conversation with a friendly stranger, do something for someone who needs it, catch up with an old friend. Each of these things will probably require you to give yourself a push, as grief tends to be an energy sapping, self-isolating emotion. But as you say, you are a doer, and are used to working hard to take on a new character. As you do that now, in a sense relearning yourself and the world in the wake of Lisbeth’s death, tell her about it in your daily or periodic letters. Take her not only into your grief, but also into the changing life that you are working hard to make real. And as you do, take time to savor how she would feel about your small joys and accomplishments, and with this, realize that her love for you is with you still.