It’s interesting and frustrating how we overcomplicate things. We accept the reality of some things without question. Do you want to get wet? You’ll have to get in the water. If you want to get warm, stand near the fire. Are you hungry? Eat. Problem – solution. We accept these things, but when it comes to happiness, joy, or peace… oh, these things are so elusive. I’m not happy and don’t know how to fix it. I’m grieving, and it hurts so much, and I can’t make it stop!
Perhaps, this is never truer than with someone mourning the loss of a loved one. It was certainly true of me when my wife of 31 years died from cancer in March of 2020. I was inconsolable and in so much emotional pain that I could not see anything but that. My wife had been taken from me, and I would never see her again. It was so unfair, and I’m in pain and anger: repeat, ad nauseum.
Two months after Lynn died, I started seeing a grief therapist. The visits were virtual, once a week. As the time grew nearer, I dreaded it more and more and would have canceled every time were it not because I would still be charged for the visit.
My grief therapist was a young guy in his 30’s, very clean-cut. We’ll call him Good Guy. He lived in San Franciso, and I was pretty sure he was gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I thought that his and my life experiences had to be so different; I was a 56-year-old man grieving the loss of his wife. There was no way he would be able to empathize or understand what I was going through, but he did. He just let me talk and sluff off my emotional baggage, and yes, cry. Something about how he didn’t judge or rush to offer solutions brought me comfort. He just listened and acknowledged what I said. I liked him.
We continued the therapy visits. On the first visit, he asked me what my goal of doing therapy was.
“To get out of pain,” I said. “As soon as possible, because if I am still feeling this way two years from now, I’ll kill myself.” Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t last even one year, but I said two.
Now, there was a period of PTSD after Lynn died, where my life was centered around caring for her. Once she was gone, I was a moon with nothing to orbit. So going to bed without her there was too heartbreaking to attempt. Waking up and reaching over to touch her, and she wasn’t there, put me in tears and set the tone for my miserable day. It was over four months before I felt I had adapted to the New Normal, as they say, and I hated it, but therapy helped.
The weekly sessions continued, and I dreaded them, even though I felt better afterward. Sometimes it was just a little, and sometimes it was a lot. My first six or seven visits were me opening up and bleeding all over the place. Then an epiphany came. At least, it seemed like an epiphany to me at the time.
All the grief and pain – I was doing this to myself.
No one was causing me to feel this way. It was me and my unwillingness to accept my reality that was causing me so much turmoil and pain. Yes, it was unfair that my wife was only 58 years old and died, but that happened. I was so caught up in the loss I couldn’t see anything else, and until I found peace with accepting it, I never would. I was the only one who could fix it. That, however, was easier said than done. As G.I. Joe will tell you, knowing is half the battle. But only half.
Something I discovered about grief, which may only be true for me, is that it becomes familiar over a long enough time. Not comfortable, but like any chronic pain, you get used to it. I could see this becoming a habit, one that might go on for years unless I intervened. I had to stop it, but how?
Good Guy suggested that when I start to have a “grief attack,” I change my line of thought and try to think of something else; something happy. Don’t push away the sorrow or try to bury it, but think of something else. I didn’t think that would work, but I agreed to try. So when the next grief attack hit, and I was thinking about how much I miss my wife, I forced my mind to think about my two dogs playing together. This was much more difficult than I expected. I had been down this path of grief so many times; it was, as I feared, a habit. A habit I had to break.
It was consistently hard to force my mind to less distressing thoughts, but it made me feel better. I think the reason I felt better was that I was taking control. I wasn’t just letting this horrible thing happen to me, over and over. I was stopping it, and that felt good.
I also had to reconcile some things that weren’t clear in my head. I had to acknowledge that continuing to grieve neither benefited nor honored Lynn in any way whatsoever. It was okay to stop being destroyed by these feelings. I meditated on this many times over the next couple of months. And I continued to fight the grief attacks. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, but most times, I could change my thought process to something else.
Around the six-month mark, I was to the point that I no longer dreaded another day of living. I was doing some things that I would do before Lynn died. I was cooking again and not just heating things up in a microwave, cooking! I played board games again, too, though getting with friends was difficult due to the pandemic. These are things I enjoy and that I would do in The Before Time, yet I felt different. I was altered and changed and would be forever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and it’s just growth.
Shortly after this, I started dating and eventually met Kathy, and we had so much in common. I fell madly in love with her, and in January of 2021, we married. I have promised myself that I will never let her feel taken for granted or unappreciated. I remind her frequently, “I see you.” It’s my way of saying I love her the way she is, and I do, and I’m happy.
Grief attacks occur once in a while but are much less frequent and not so severe. I will always love Lynn, but she is gone, and I’ve accepted that. I don’t resent it. I’m no longer angry about it. It just is the reality.
So, recapping my experiences here, what were the things that really helped me?
- I got a grief counselor to talk about my feelings openly and without expectations. In retrospect, I think this probably saved a few relationships with my friends and family, to whom I would try to vent my grief and were simply not equipped to deal with it. That I found a compatible counselor on the first try was just dumb luck on my part.
- I acknowledged and owned that I was the only one who could stop the overpowering waves of grief. If I wanted it to end, I had to end it, and I actively took steps to do that.
- I reconciled that continuing to grieve for Lynn neither benefited her nor honored her, and it was okay for me to continue my life and feel happy about things. So I accept that she is gone and do not resent it, nor am I angry about it. It just is.
This is only what I did. Your path may be different. Your mileage may vary. I’m not a professional. But if any of this resonates with you or you found it helpful, I’d like to know.
Thanks for reading.