Responding to How Do I Cope After the Death of My Husband?, Annalise wrote: “When does the pain ease off?? Two months today and getting worse.”
Beverly Chantalle McManus, Grief Companion, responds: Annalise, first of all, please accept my deepest compassion for your loss. The death of a spouse is one of the hardest things anyone will have to go through, and only those who have experienced it can really understand the depth of pain and loss you are experiencing. We’re glad you reached out, and hope that knowing you’re not alone will help ease the pain and loneliness.
I wish I could give you a clever formula that would accurately determine when the pain will ease off. It would be so nice to have something that figured it all out for us, perhaps by multiplying the length of the relationship by the intensity of love felt, and of course taking into account the type of death – whether a long, drawn-out illness that at least provided a bit of time for preparation, or a sudden, unexpected death like a car accident or heart attack. Of course, such an equation would also need to consider the survivor’s mental state, financial situation, spiritual background, and physical strength. In addition, to be accurate it should also include the presence or absence of a support network, and whether they were actually helping or hindering the grieving.
Yes, such a formula and its solution would be useful when we are feeling such intense pain. Unfortunately, it would be impossible because of all the variables involved. And the fact that even after the death of our spouse, things continue to change.
Each grief journey has its own timeline and follows its own path. There are a few stepping stones along that path that you and nearly all grievers will encounter, but each of these stepping stones will be approached and accomplished in its own way, according to your background, beliefs, and resources.
Grief requires time and energy. It doesn’t just “happen.” Right now you are feeling intense pain, and I can promise you that at times in the future, you will feel even worse. But I can also promise you that if you do your grief work, you will gradually feel better. You will become stronger. And you will incrementally begin to find joy in your life again.
How do we do our “grief work?”
Grief work means feeling all the feelings we are experiencing, as painful and unfamiliar as they may be. By leaning into the pain, and even wallowing in it at times, we are giving our broken heart its due respect. The only reason it hurts so much is because we loved so much — there is a direct correlation between the amount of pain experienced in grief and the depth of the love we felt for the person who died.
It is a true paradox: the more we cry and allow ourselves to feel the pain, the faster and more completely we will heal. Those who say, “You’ve cried enough already,” are mistakenly trying to short-circuit a very necessary healing process. And only we who are on our grief journey can determine how long we need to cry. (We know when it’s time to stop because we no longer feel like crying.) The tears accompany a cascade of healing hormones that affect every cell in our bodies, and after a good cry, it is amazing how much better we feel.
Tears are but one of nature’s many remedies to help those with broken hearts. As I have done my grief work, something that has really helped is spending time outdoors, and allowing nature’s remedy to embrace me, giving me the strength I need to keep moving forward.
What I’ve discovered:
- Finding solace under a tree, at the beach, by the lake, in my garden, on a mountain, in a park, or even at my dining room table with a single flower – all of these really helped me reconnect with myself and pull my shattered self back together.
- At times, I felt compelled to simply lie on the grass, and let the earth absorb my pain and at the same time, give me a dose of mother earth’s abundant energy that is there for each of us.
- Walking, whether on a sandy beach or a trail carpeted with pine-needles or even an air-conditioned shopping mall, really helped. The physical act of walking, of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, was very healing at times. I would use these walks to reconnect with memories of my life with Steve, and to envision a future where he wasn’t there. The longer I walked, the more I was filled with the assurance that I could go forward without him at my side.
- Pets can be incredibly helpful in providing comfort and love during our dark times. If you don’t have one (and your living situation allows you to), consider getting a dog or cat to be your companion. Since you may not have the energy to train a lively puppy or kitten, consider adopting a more mature animal, who is already trained, and who can provide you with many hours of comfort and friendship.
The most important aspect of your grief journey is to be compassionate with yourself. Give yourself the time and space you need to really grieve, and you will be giving a gift to your future self — the gift of healing. Even though you are struggling with what feels like overwhelming pain right now, please believe me when I say you can get through this. You have within yourself the strength to take it one day (or even one hour or one minute) at a time. As you do your grief work, you will slowly notice yourself feeling a bit better each day. Oh, there will always be days that are just downright sad, and nothing anyone says will change that. But as you move forward, you’ll have a lot more “up” days than “down” days, and you’ll know you are experiencing the gift of healing.
How have you harnessed nature’s remedies to get through the pain and loneliness after your spouse died? Your experiences help others trying to figure out what to do next. We invite you to share your ideas and stories here.
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.