Grieving a wife’s death from cancer

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My wife passed away on last month from cancer. We knew it was going to happen someday but we were utterly floored by the speed with which she went downhill. I know she is in a beautiful place with the Lord. I am trying very hard to deal with the emotions from that day. I am retired and trying to go thru the grief process while keeping myself in one piece. People that used to visit don’t anymore and I guess that’s normal. Is there any particular way to know how long I will be doing this or do I just let nature take it course?

Samuel

Dear Samuel,

It is surely understandable that you are awash in hard feelings of all kinds in the aftermath of such a recent loss, even if you have the consolation of believing that your wife is in a better place following her devastating illness. But the question of how long your strong pangs of grief will last is a difficult one to answer, as bereavement follows no simple timetable. Contrary to the old adage that “time heals all wounds,” research actually suggests that time itself accounts for very little of our movement through grief; instead, it seems to be what we as bereaved people do with the time that counts.

And so what might you do to walk this path toward a more livable future? Here are two general suggestions.

First, allow yourself time to grieve. This implies not simply waiting and hoping that the feelings will pass, but instead actually approaching your grief rather than avoiding it. Allow yourself to remember your wife during the good times. Say her name. Share her stories with others. Return to the places you once enjoyed. Spend time with cherished mementos. Write an AfterTalk letter to her. Pray for support. In other words, allow yourself to connect with her in ways that feel natural, rather than constricting your world to ward off painful reminders. Only the emotions felt can be understood, and ultimately mastered adaptively.

Second, allow yourself to live. Reach out to family and friends. Go places. Find activities and projects that matter. Seek beauty, even if it is alloyed with bittersweet longing. Find joy. In other words, embrace living, just as your wife would want you to do. In fact, you might update her via further AfterTalk letters on your progress, sharing with her meaningful episodes or vignettes about your day or week. Pray for new direction. Most of all, take orientation from the life you have shared, and seek ways of continuing it that honor her gifts to you. As the months move forward, islands of contentment and new purpose should appear in the sea of grief, and grow larger until they provide a new land on which to stand.

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