Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my wife after 43 years–she fell over dead one day a year and a half ago. I can’t get over it. What’s going on, and what can I do about it?
The sudden loss of such a longstanding and central relationship can have a heavy impact in virtually every area of our lives, from challenging those basic rhythms of daily living associated with regular breakfast, lunch and dinner times, through costing us companionship in home and leisure, to depriving us of a conversation partner with whom to share our most intimate concerns and hopes, as well as the events of ordinary life. These impacts can be especially heavy for men who are widowed, as our wives are often the ones who ensure that our homes are functional and welcoming, and that our social connections to others in the family and beyond remain in good repair. Without this caring and organizing presence, we can feel even more radically alone, and bereft of much that is familiar and comforting. As a result, our lives as well as our emotions can feel out of control, and we may respond with rumination and self-isolation, which only makes matters worse.
In view of this, it may be too much to expect that you will just “get over it.” What you can learn to do is to live with the loss, and make good decisions in light of it. Start with the question, “What have I lost?” And then stick with it until you can give at least 10 brief answers: a regular bedtime, healthy meals, social contact with friends, visits from the kids, someone to share the hard things, a reason to live… you get the idea. Rank these in terms of which are most urgent, and which are most important. Then start thinking creatively on your own, with someone who cares about you, or with a counselor, about how you can take steps to meet these needs. You’ll likely find that some things are simpler than others–go shopping with a friend or family member for some healthy, easy to prepare food; establish a regular time to wake up and turn in; join a “meet up” group that shares your interests. Other things will be harder, especially if you are retired and lack the clarity and purpose of meaningful work–establishing significant goals, finding a role that connects you to community, learning ways to move from rumination to action. Sometimes a counselor can help with the latter, as can support groups of other widowed people.
Above all, avoid the trap of sitting back and waiting to feel better. Very likely, action will precede motivation, not the other way around. Defining what you have lost, what you need, and what you can do about it can begin to renew your sense of pleasure and purpose, leading to a life that is different than the one you and your wife shared for many years, but one that has meaning nonetheless.