Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband died two years ago. I also lost my home of more than a quarter century. and had to file for bankruptcy due to his passing. I have no idea how to get over this and live again. I cry every day. People are tired of my grief and stay away. Please help me.
Too often, when we think of grief we think of only the primary loss–the physical absence of a loved being from our daily lives, now and in the future. But we frequently fail to recognize the secondary losses that spin out from this one, such as the loss of your home and financial security as a result of the death. But as your letter makes clear, these secondary effects can be huge in their consequences, and pose practical and emotional obstacles to our adapting to our changed lives that are every bit as big–and sometimes bigger–than the primary loss of love and companionship.
There is no simple formula for how to restore a sense of wholeness to a life that now seems to have such big pieces missing. But here are a few principles that I hope will provide at least some orientation.
- Focus first on your inner sense of security. When you have lost a spouse on which you have relied for decades, a home that was your sanctuary, and the financial resources on which you depended, it would be understandable if you felt thrust into a world that feels alien and unsafe. This can engender anxiety of several kinds, perhaps in the form of a sense of fearful vulnerability, sleepless nights or nightmares, or corrosive worry about an uncertain future. Begin by seeking soothing and healing practices, perhaps in the form of mindfulness meditation and yoga poses that give compassionate attention to a sleep-deprived body; Heather Stang’s new book on Mindfulness and Grief can offer a good start. For other mourners, contemplative prayer, soothing music, or spending time in nature can begin to counter an anxious preoccupation with fearful anticipation, and restore a sense that a new equilibrium is possible.
- Allow the grief. Rather than reaching desperately for some way to “get over” the pain, find ways to honor it. Mindfulness–the practice of noticing feelings, whether bad or good, without attaching to them and amplifying them–can represent one step in this direction. A second step might be journaling about your feelings, perhaps in the form of an AfterTalk letter to your husband. Very likely the first such letter would pour out the pain, but as you turn to future letters, try telling him about your hopes, plans, and attempts to do something good for yourself and others. Gradually, almost as a form of accountability to him, you may find yourself making these a reality.
- Open to others. When we are immersed in pain after a massive loss, and especially when our suffering cannot easily be alleviated by a well intentioned gesture or remark, others in the social world may burn out, experience helplessness, or withdraw to a protective distance out of fear of drowning with us in our sorrow. This is an understandable human response, even if it is also one that deepens our loneliness. To counter this, make an inventory of your friends and family, organizing them in three categories suggested by my colleague Ken Doka: Doers, Respite Figures, and Listeners. Doers are those who like to help out in practical ways, perhaps running an errand, assisting with a routine chore, or giving us advice about finances or our computers. Respite Figures are those who can be counted on for healthy distraction or as activity companions–taking us to a book club, accompanying us to a movie, or playing some tennis. But neither may be especially good Listeners, those who can listen to our hurt or confusion without offering simplistic answers, and who may be better at having a meaningful conversation over lunch than in helping us fix the car or toilet. The important thing is (a) to realize that we need all of them, and that (b) we are most likely to reconnect well with the world if we ourselves actively reach out, and to the right people for the right things.
There is no simple path through life-altering loss. But as we gradually rebuild a sense of emotional and practical security, accept and process our grief without clinging to it, and reach out intelligently and compassionately to others with something specific to offer, we can begin to reconstruct a life that is livable on the other side of the darkness.