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How Can I Cope With What Seems Unbearable Pain Of Loss Upon Death Of My Husband

Question:

I was married for over 40 years and for those 40 years, he was someone I loved and liked….we had a relationship of sharing, of support, of friendship…he was my best friend and he died. We had no children and I think because of that we devoted more time to each other. I enjoyed him and he enjoyed me….I know that sounds selfish and egotistical….but we truly loved each other and being with each other. I cared for him during the last 3 years of his battle with cancer, but he died in my arms just 2 months ago. He wanted to die because he was suffering and yet told others he didn’t want to leave me alone. I am alone now and each day seems to be getting worse because each day brings the "real"? reality that he is not coming back to me. It comes to me like a punch in the stomach and I feel nothing but complete hopelessness and black despair…nothing helps. I try to do things, but it’s all superficial…like painting a house over old peeling paint… it’s all temporary…I’ve lost part of my soul and I can’t imagine wanting to live without him….people say that time heals…but I can’t imagine wanting to live without him…I wish I would die in my sleep…I have tried to search ways to end my life, but I’m afraid I’ll just botch it and end up alive but disabled or dysfunctional….I have never, though, felt such complete despair….there’s just nowhere to go and he’s not coming back to me….I just want to scream.

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Answer:

Your desire to scream is quite okay. Scream loudly if it will help, jump up and down, punch pillows, run until you are exhausted (if your knees can handle it). Physically exhaust yourself if you feel the need to do so (and if health conditions don’t prevent you from doing so). The tension of acute grief (which is what you’re experiencing) is so great, that it can feel like too much for the body to contain if you don’t actively let it vent that tension out. Screaming doesn’t hurt anyone and it can be a good release.

You are in the middle of acute grief right now. You’ve had time to prepare for this, but preparations cannot really prepare anyone for something as big as what you’re experiencing. It’s a huge storm of unavoidable despair and you’re going to have to feel it for a while. Waves of agony will come and go. There will be periods of agony, followed by periods of relative calm. You can expect to just cry at the drop of a hat (at the onset of a painful treasured memory) for some time into the future. Don’t try to fight the waves too much. Just expect them to happen, and do what you can to surf on them rather than getting crushed by them. Right now is a time of pain, and you just have to endure that pain. It won’t kill you. It just is going to hurt.

I recommend that you read our full set of articles on grief and bereavement. They outline the landscape of grief and can provide you with a road map for what to expect in the coming months. In a nutshell, grief is a slow process of accepting inevitable change that we don’t want to accept and are not build to accept quickly. People come to understand losses rather quickly in intellectual terms. Our emotional and behavioral understanding takes far longer to accomplish. The typical grieving person goes through waves of agony punctuated by periods of relative quiet and calm. It is normal to feel somewhat suicidal during the agony parts of grief (the 3 am wakening to a tragically empty bed). This is because the feeling of what has been lost is sharply in mind and contrasted with the reality of what is missing. People cut themselves on that edge, so to speak. The intensity of early grief’s agony is unsustainable, which is why people fall into periods of time where they are feeling calmer. Grief bounces like a falling rubber ball, however, and the agony tends to come back, repetitively.

As grief’s bouncing slows, people start to face another form of agony which has to do with the difficulty they have in letting go of the lost relationship. As they start to feel better more frequently, people tend to feel that they are becoming disloyal to the lost relationship and beat themselves up over this so-called disloyalty. What is really happening is that the emotional parts of people are beginning to process and accept the loss. The love is not less, but it ceases to be something active in the present, and it starts to move into the past. This emotional processing is both necessary and inevitable. It exists to enable your survival; it is adaptive and overall a good thing. When it comes for you, please do what you can to be open to it. Don’t throw out the baby (the emotional processing of the loss) with the bathwater (the actual loss itself).

The you who you are today cannot imagine living without your husband. That is as it should be. The you you will become in the future will likely feel differently. Time does not so much heal the wounds, as put them into the past so that they are simply not what you think about from moment to moment. You can’t simply jump to become that person who you will likely be in the future, and very likely you would not want to be that person yet. That person would perhaps feel disloyal to you right now. Right now you are being the person who you need to be; the loyal hurting partner. There is a current here and it will carry you along. You don’t need to worry too much about whether or not you should do something other than just try to take care of yourself.

Grief counseling can be helpful, but you need to think about it more as a midwife than a cure. A counselor can help you to recognize the normalness of your pain, can help steer you away from suicidal thoughts and perhaps teach you how to cope better, and can be a transitional trusted figure you can confide in who can support your emotional weight when your friends cannot. A counselor cannot take away the pain, however.

Sometimes doctors will prescribe sleeping aids and anti-anxiety pills to grieving people. These medicines can fulfill a supportive role and are useful on that account. However, it is not necessarily a good thing to blunt the pain of grief too much. There is a connection between feeling the loss and ultimately accepting that it has occurred. If you avoid processing the feeling, your ultimate resolution of that feeling may become delayed. It is also my experience that going through the pain of grief helps discharge the loyalty feelings that people have, and enable them to let go more gracefully when the time comes to do that. When it becomes time for you to let go of your own loyalty feelings (not entirely, but in terms of not needing to feel obliged to be in agony from moment to moment), knowing that you have suffered will help you to feel comfortable that you’ve "earned" your relative freedom from agony, that you’ve done everything you could have done. Medications can, of course, also be addicting and end up causing more problems than they solve. Don’t avoid supportive medications if they are offered and you want them, but don’t think they are without risk either.

In short, hang in there and trust that over time, you will feel better. Expect that feeling better will take months and possibly years, and that this is okay. Seek out help in the form of peer support, counseling and/or supportive medications if you want that help. Be with people and allow them to support you. Distract yourself. Paint that metaphorical fresh coat of paint over the peeling siding. You’re quite right that it won’t permanently solve anything, but that is not the point. Distraction allows you a very temporary respite from agony right now and you need that respite. It’s something you can do for now that will occupy your mind however temporarily.  

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