(Dr. Norquist is away on vacation. We are re-running a letter published earlier in this column.)
Dear Dr. Norquist:
I hope you can help me. I’m so unhappy. Every day feels empty and gray. I do not know how to get over my husband’s death three years ago. We were together 41 years. We raised three daughters together. We always enjoyed each other’s company. I’m younger than he was, so I always figured I’d be widowed at some point. We had such a good life together, I can’t seem to be happy now without him in my life. How can I get over the loss of my husband and find some enjoyment in my life again?
Dr. Norquist responds:
The cycles of life are inevitable. There is life. There is death. There is grieving and then there is rebirth. Margaret Mead, a well-known cultural anthropologist, used to make the point that our culture does not prepare us for death or grieving. In some cultures, exposure to death and the process of grieving is woven into the experience of living. There are rituals, and rites of passage where time and space are allowed for the expression of grief, and the process of mourning. In our culture, soon after the funeral, the widow is forgotten. It is assumed that she should soon be over the loss, and on with her life.
The loss of a life partner with whom you lovingly shared 40 years of your life is a major loss. Your experience of everyday life and even your sense of identity is torn apart. Your husband was part of your sense of self and the context of your everyday activities for virtually your entire adult life. How could you not feel incredibly empty and sad? In a sense, you are in a position where you have to re-create your life. This cannot happen immediately. It is the natural outgrowth of progressing through the various stages and cycles of mourning. It’s next to impossible to create something new when your inner well is dry.
What’s important right now is that you allow yourself to grieve. Such an immense loss is traumatic on all levels – mind, body, and spirit. When the psyche is overwhelmed, it’s easy for the grieving process to become paralyzed. This is especially true if you have a history of losses that have not been fully mourned. Shock and denial are common initial coping mechanisms. If the grief and loss feels overwhelming to the psyche, the mourning process stagnates at this stage. This can lead to a major depression, or various physical ailments. To get to the other side of the mourning process, where you are able to create a new life, you must walk yourself through the various cycles and stages of experiencing and expressing your grief. It is helpful to be able to share these feelings with a trusted and understanding other, such as a minister/priest/rabbi, a counselor, or a trusted friend. Family members are often too close to the loss to play this role for you.
Do your best to reach out, connect with others, get involved with people and activities that nourish your spirit, ask for assistance in prayer, and take extra special care of yourself. Remember, you are on a healing journey.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2016 Chaitanya Counseling Services