A lifeline of hope for the newly grieving: It gets better

As someone who has now survived nine months of widowhood, I decided to extend a lifeline of hope for anyone who’s in the first few month of grieving. It’s a surprising realization and something that occurred to me only this morning:

It gets better.

I never would have believed it in the early days – the days, weeks, and months after Rick died. The one word I can use to describe what I felt is overwhelmed: I was completely overwhelmed by sadness, stress, anxiety, grief, loneliness, dread, and hopelessness. I was emotionally devastated and was constantly plagued by an awful, indescribable, sick sensation. Every single thing around me reminded me:

He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.

Getting out of bed every morning was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my 61 years of life. Knowing that the act of waking in an empty bed would trigger pain that would be followed by millions of thoughts that caused more pain all day long, every day. Thoughts that ranged from fear that I would never be the same, fear that I could not continue my life without him, to anxiety at the desperate ALONENESS of it all. Anxiety because the house was too quiet, too strange. It was an eerie, empty existence in a house that had only a few short days earlier been our home.

How could I rise in the morning knowing that I would face fear, loneliness, and pain every hour of every day? How could I pretend to function around others when my thoughts were consumed by Rick? Memories of him alive, awareness that I had been in denial about how sick he was, focusing over and over on his last breath.

Then there was the constant regret, regret that I didn’t do enough to save him. There must have been something I could have done. SOMETHING! I failed him. I didn’t suggest a new doctor or a trial drug, or – most of all – I had caused his death because it was my idea that morning for him to bring in the garbage. He fell, he broke his hip, he died. Yes, I know logically that I didn’t kill him. The cancer killed him. But there was no convincing me of that in the “early days” of overwhelming all-consuming grief.

And then, I had to try to continue to function in this empty empty pain-filled world. I had to revisit everything we had ever done together by myself. I had to sleep in our bed, eat at our table, sit in our living room in the evenings…the quiet quiet living room. Rick was a 6’5” 300-pound larger-than-life presence and his absence was a tangible entity in our home. His “non-presence” loomed everywhere.

I know every other widow and widower gets it. The utter confusion and pain at being one half of a couple that is no longer. Half of my soul had been ripped from my being. It may be trite, but those sad songs described it perfectly: my heart was broken in two. It literally ached. My spirit was shattered. I was overwhelmed that life was continuing on around me without Rick. Overwhelmed by the idea of living the rest of my life without him, when we had so many plans. We had our world. We had US.

It was as if the wind had been knocked out of me and I was left gasping for breath.

And so I existed for months, overwhelmed by grief and life and the idea of a future without Rick. My days were all the same. I awoke, I remembered, I cried. I forced myself to rise and go to work and activities, and all the while, I faked being a “normal” person. I chatted with others while trying to ignore the constant throbbing emotional pain. I lived through memory after all-consuming memory and continued to move forward, although I really had no urge to go on. My life was one big effort at distraction. Trying with little success to find something that interested me. Trying to keep busy and to find reason to continue with the life I had ahead of me, when I longed to curl up into a ball and lie in our bed under his favorite blanket, just replaying our life together over and over in my head. Trying to find hope, but overwhelmed by sadness.

Besides trying to cope with the idea of a solo future and the sudden change in my world, I was also overwhelmed by the constant pain of the good memories, the memories that made me miss him more each day. I heard “our” songs and remembered us dancing together on the deck in the moonlight. As I watched my Timehop and Facebook memories unfold each day and revisited what we had been doing on this same day in our history last year, and the year before that, and the one before that, I longed to return to those days and relive it all again. I passed places where we had shopped and streets we had driven together daily and the tears flowed as I drove. In the evenings, I returned home to an empty house, and sat for minutes, sometimes an hour in the car, trying to get the nerve to enter the silent house, knowing I wouldn’t hear him bellow out a greeting when I opened the door.

At home, I expected him around every corner and was disappointed once again when I realized my loss. I remembered his jokes, his voice, his smell, his touch, his facial expressions, his sayings, his habits, his likes, and his dislikes, and I all I longed for was to see him and touch him again.

And every day was the same – oh sure, some were better than others, and some things that were difficult to cope with began to get a little better. The wailing with grief became mostly just sobbing. And then I could revisit places that used to make me sob but now only caused me to shed a few tears, but, in general, there was still that feeling of overwhelming sadness and none of my waking mornings brought much to look forward to.

In the spring, nearly eight months after his death, I did the unthinkable. I drove from Michigan to Florida – our yearly spring trek – without him. I revisited the gulf where we shared each sunset. I sat alone, still not quite believing that he wasn’t in his usual spot next to me on the beach. I revisited the motels where we stayed, the places where we ate, all our favorite views and vistas. Alone.

It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. And, again, only one word could describe it: it was quite simply, overwhelming. On the first evening I arrived, with my plan in place to visit that first sunset without him, I literally collapsed on the bed sobbing, frozen with fear and grief, unable to walk to the door. This was OUR PLACE, this was the last happy place we shared before the cancer stole him away. This was our favorite place on earth. I can’t do it!

I tried to think of someone to call, but I knew I couldn’t reach out to family or friends, because no one could “save” me. No one could bring him back, and that was the only thing that could make my world right again. I was on my own, and I had to continue this journey completely and utterly alone. So I went, and I cried, but then I felt him there! I knew he was encouraging me to go on. I knew he wanted me to have a life. And, suddenly, I knew that it would be painful, but it would all be okay.

I survived.

And now, two months later, and nine and a half months after his death, the thought hit me just this morning: I am no longer overwhelmed.

It didn’t happen all at once, or overnight. I look back on the feelings and thoughts I’ve recorded in my blog, and I realize that month by month it’s been getting a little easier. Little by little, the pain has been becoming more manageable. And it hasn’t happened through my own efforts. I’ve been seeing a grief counselor weekly since about a month after Rick died. I also have family and friends that have supplied me with lots and lots of love and support. But, all the help in the world couldn’t have relieved my suffering. Only time could heal this awful wound.

I still love him. I still miss him. I still feel married to him, and I still wear my ring. I still think about him daily (and on some days, hourly). But the pain is no longer constant, and when it hits hard, it’s not AS hard as it once was. It’s more often than not a “manageable” pain. And often, when I’m alone, I’m just alone and okay with it now. I’m not so much “half a person,” as I am just simply a person on my own. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to someone who hasn’t lost a spouse, but I think you’ll get what I mean.

And I guess that’s what I want to tell you. You who are in the early days or months after losing your spouse, although you probably won’t believe me. You won’t be able to picture ever not feeling the way you do now, but it will happen. One day, you’ll realize that you awoke and just felt a mild sadness at being alone, not an all-out screaming, throbbing pain. And you’ll no longer linger in your bed every morning, afraid to rise and feel the pain (although, it still will happen some days). You’ll arise and go about your day feeling sad, and probably lonely, even when surrounded by others, but you won’t feel that heart-rending pain, the kind that makes you want to stop whatever you’re doing and wrap yourself in a blanket and wail.

You’ll feel a little more like a person, and a little less like a half-empty soul. And you won’t feel so overwhelmed. You’ll be able to breathe.

Maybe you’ll still not be “yourself,” because face it, half of you is gone and you’re still coping with that and probably will be for a long time. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll know you’ve survived this far, and you’ll be able to picture continuing on with your life.

You’ll have a glimmer of hope. And even a glimmer is something.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

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