Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I’m pretty sure this question is a common one, but how do I know if I am moving through grief the way I should? I lost my husband last winter. In some ways it feels like yesterday and in others a lifetime ago. I still miss him so much. He was only in his mid-forties. I miss the life we had and I miss the future we planned. I function and I go to work, but life seems dull and empty. I look for joy, but it’s hard to find. A laugh here and there, but an underlying sadness is there.
I don’t know if I can ever love someone else again and I don’t know if I want to be alone the rest of my life. So, how do I move forward without my best friend? It’s been a year and a half and I am still so lost. He was my world. We couldn’t have any children as I was a little older when I married. Anyhow, it’s just me and my Mom lives with me, who I take care of. I am thankful for her, but all I have been doing is spending every weekend with her, doing nothing but watching TV on the weekends. How in the world does a 51 year old woman start her life over? I was so happy being married, so happy being with him. Now I feel so vulnerable. How do I take any steps to find my new path? I know this is a lot of questions! I just plain miss him and I still cry and long for him.
Much as is true for you, many bereaved people start to reflect on their progress through grief as they negotiate the difficult second year following their loved one’s death. In some ways basic life functioning might be restored, but life often seems to have lost its luster, and especially for those who don’t have the necessary structure imposed by child care, life can feel like a purposeless drift, as we feel that we have lost our mooring in the safe harbor that our relationship to the deceased once provided. The fact that your husband died in what should have been the prime of life can worsen this problem, as you might feel out of synch with the rest of the social world, filled as it seems to be with other married couples, whereas you, as you say, have lost the partner who was “your world.”
Of the many questions that percolate up from this difficult transition, the very first you ask is how you can know whether you are moving forward in the way you should. Ironically, perhaps, the specific qualities of the grief you feel might give the truest answers to this question. That is, when you pause to really sort through your feelings in the aftermath of this loss, some are likely to clearly announce themselves, while others might whisper their presence. Sitting quietly, in a place you will not be disturbed, and with some Kleenex handy, try closing your eyes and going to a quiet, meditative place in your mind. Slow your breathing, and invite yourself to turn your attention inward, to your body, to the place you feel your grief. Then, after a few minutes of quieting and centering your mind in this way, just ask yourself, “What have I lost?” Wait for the answer to come; it might come quickly at first: “My husband…, my marriage… my best friend.” Whatever comes, welcome it with a simple, “Thank you.” Then ask yourself again: “What have I lost?” Very likely more will come. Repeat this procedure, waiting quietly for the less obvious answers to arrive. After 5 or 10 minutes, you should have a fuller inventory of what your husband’s death means to you.
Then, in a second step, repeat this procedure, substituting the question, “How would I like to change?” Whatever comes (“I want to embrace joy.” “I want to have another best friend.” “I want to be braver.”), welcome it with a simple “Thank you,” and repeat the question. Again, in 5 to 10 minutes, you will have the outlines of a plan that addresses your deep needs.
The final step is to begin to implement the plan in action. For example, you might have identified at Step 1 losing “your best friend,” the one you counted on as a companion in joy and sorrow. In Step 2 you might have sharpened this by realizing that you want to change “to feel more active, more engaged,” rather than accepting a weekend of TV as a passive default option for killing time. Recognizing this, you are in a better position to recognize that you need to restore a vital sense of connection to others beyond your mother, in a way that invites you back into a world from which you retreated. Perhaps a meet-up group in your area for weekend exercise, eating out, discussing a book, visiting a museum, working on a political campaign, etc. then could be a relevant way to begin to foster this change and move forward differently.
In short, your feelings (of aimlessness? boredom? frustration?) have functions: they could tell you much about what you need to once again find a life of meaning. Listen to what they have to tell you and teach you, and then seek practical steps to move in that direction, in essence by reinventing the next stage in your life. Pursued wisely and with courage, there is every chance that this path will lead to meaningful relationships and reopening to a world that will welcome all you still have to give.