You don’t spend almost thirty-one years of your life with someone; then, when they are gone, simply move on. Your world is in upheaval. You must figure out what is up and what is down now. The vacuum left by your person dying will suck everything you enjoy out of existence, and the world will be stark, colorless, and uncompelling. The familiar things will be grief-causing reminders that your person is no longer with you and everything else is alien.
That’s the first two weeks after Lynn died of cancer.
After two weeks, people stopped checking on me except for a couple of friends. The new normal stopped being so shocking, and I figured out the physics of this world without the gravity of my wife present, and I loathed it. I hated waking up, reaching over in the bed for her, and then realizing she was not there. She never would be again. This would set the tone for my day. By this point, I was self-medicating with vodka every night… drinking myself to sleep in front of the TV.
That’s the next six weeks after Lynn died.
At the two-month mark, I could see I wasn’t getting better, and just maybe, my coping skills were getting worse. I was drinking even more in the evenings. I sought out a grief therapist, and it was just dumb luck that I found one that was compatible on the first try. After that, I met weekly for one hour with the therapist virtually.
The next four months were the worst of my life. I had now acknowledged my new reality, and I was angry. I despised it. I was in so much emotional pain; I would die to make it stop. No, really, I wanted to die. Well, I didn’t want to die, but if it made the pain stop, I would do it.
Here’s the thing about someone who really is considering killing themselves – they won’t tell you that. They don’t want anyone to stop them, so they won’t let you know what they are planning. If a person tells you, “I want to kill myself,” well, that’s a person who needs compassion. They are in pain and it’s a plea for help, but they are not yet seriously considering suicide. Don’t dismiss this plea, though. They absolutely need help.
Me, I told no one. I promised myself that I would give it six months and if it wasn’t any better by then, I could kill myself, but I didn’t believe it would be better, so I planned it out – how I would kill myself. I had to do it so that my son wasn’t the first to find my body, so I planned on driving out to the field I knew of, and I would get out my car, walk twenty feet or so, and shoot myself in the head. I would leave a note for my 21-year-old son to find the next morning, telling him exactly what to do, and to call the police and ask them to visit the address where I would be found. In fact, I wrote the letter.
Being able to look forward to getting out of pain by killing myself became the fantasy – the thing I looked forward to doing, like someone might look forward to an upcoming vacation. It got me through the day. I continued meeting with the therapist, and I sometimes felt better, spilling my guts to him every week for an hour. Of course, I couldn’t tell the therapist my plans to kill myself. I think the real value of the therapist was that I could dump all my pain and grief on him, and that spared my two friends who certainly cared about me but were not equipped to let me dump all that I was feeling on them, repeatedly. In retrospect, the therapist probably saved my friendships.
Then, in the fifth month after Lynn died, I had an epiphany. Suddenly, it was so clear what I had to do. It’s hard. If you are still grieving the loss of your spouse, you probably won’t like this answer, but very likely, it is true for you, too. Here’s what I realized:
No one was making me feel this way. All the pain, grief, and tears were being caused by me. I was doing this to myself. If I wanted it to stop, I had to stop it. I was the only one who could stop it. Yes, it’s horrible and unfair that my wife died so young and that I’m left alone, but nothing is going to change that – it’s done. I must accept it and not be angry about it, let it go – it gets me nothing to carry my anger forward, because there is no changing what has happened. In fact, the anger was holding me back. It took some time to get to this place, but with practice and reinforcement, I let go of my anger over losing my wife.
As for the horrible grief attacks that would incapacitate me and reduce me to trembling tears daily, I had to stop doing that. How? When I started to think of something that would trigger me, like how much I missed my wife, or I wish she was here so I could share something with her, I had to force my mind to think of something benign or happy. As simple as that sounds, it was hard. It was really hard. Sometimes, I couldn’t do it, but the times I did, I felt better. I felt better because I was taking control of my grief rather than letting my grief control me.
I did this and after about three weeks, it wasn’t so difficult anymore. Sometimes, I couldn’t do it, but most of the time, I was able to heads off my grief and control it. This was empowering, and it was here, right here, where my perspective started to change.
That’s the first six months, and it was hell.
So, after months of looking forward to getting to the six-month mark and ending it all to get out of pain, I no longer felt like giving in to the grief. Oh, it was still there, but I had reigned it in. I think I need to emphasize the difference between denial of grief, and not letting grief own me, and I can see that one might look like the other, but they are very different. I’m not denying that I have grief. I know I’m grieving, and still am and maybe always will, but I don’t let it wreck me the way it used to. I simply carry my grief with me rather than let it crush me every time.
Then came the seventh month after losing my wife.
I had stopped seeing my grief therapist, mostly because my insurance wouldn’t cover any more sessions that year, but also because I felt pretty good about life. I was starting to look at my future and didn’t despair. I felt hopeful, and I felt something else – I felt lonely. Of course, I wanted my wife to be with me more than anything, but that could not be. Life is the richest when it is shared with someone special, but who? And how?
Before I could do anything, I had to come to terms with three truths:
One, I needed to recognize that I am forever changed by losing Lynn. Grief is like a chronic back injury that doesn’t get better. At first, it hurts so bad and you can’t stand it, you think you can’t go on, but over time, you get to where you learn to live with it. It doesn’t hurt any less, but your tolerance for it has built up and you manage to function, and that changes who you are and how you do things.
Two, Lynn wanted me to be happy and continuing to grieve and be alone neither benefited nor honored Lynn in any way. This took some doing. Many people judge based on how long you stay alone after your spouse dies. They view getting into a new relationship as replacing the deceased spouse. Even though I did not personally feel that way, I know there are others who do, and I must be alright with that. And I was. How could I replace Lynn when she was no longer here? Judge away, little judgy McJudges.
Three, I also had to be clear in my own head – I’ll never find another Lynn, and I should not be looking for that. If I do, I’ll be disappointed every time. I must go into this open-minded and be ready for new experiences.
Once I had peace with that, at the seasoned age of 56 and after 31 years of marriage, I entered the surreal world that is the online dating scene. One day, I’ll write about that experience, but that’s for another time.
Online dating was terrifying, but after a couple of false starts, I met Kathy. We had so much in common, and in a short time, we fell in love, and I married her. We’ve now been married over two years, and I love Kathy more and more each day. I’m so grateful for her and sharing my life with her is rich and fulfilling. She completes me.
So that was what I did. Will your story unfold the same? Probably not, but I hope there is something from my experiences that helps or gives you some comfort or solace. I know many people who are still alone and openly grieving the loss of their spouse, one, two, three or more years later. They are more resilient than I am. I was ready to end it at six months if I didn’t get better, but that drove me to find a way to control it… to not let my grief overpower me and make me it’s puppet. And when I did, I realized I had much love to yet to give, and that motivated me further to seek out someone to share my life with. But everyone’s experience is different, and you must find your own way. Whatever you do, be kind to yourself, and always, KFG.