How to Grieve

She looked down toward her feet at the end of her visit.  \”I\’ve got one more question, doctor\” she said, hesitating.
I turned toward her and waited for her, letting her ask on her own time.  Clearly this was something difficult for her to ask.

\”When will I get over the death of my husband?  It\’s been ten years, and I still wake up each morning thinking he\’s there.  I still come home wanting him to be there.  Am I crazy?\”

Her face showed the shame that was so clear in her words.  I had been along with her during the death of her husband, and she handled that period with much grace and strength.  Now the silence at home is deafening.  People around her, on the other hand, are far too quick to tell her how to grieve.

\”If you lost an arm or if your legs were paralyzed, when would you get over that?\” I asked.  \”You wouldn\’t.  You never live without the reality of your arms or legs being missing.  You just adjust to their absence.\”

\”But people are telling me I should find a \’special friend,\’ and I have no desire to.  I just miss my husband.\”  Her already moist eyes now let go of their tears.  \”Sometimes I want to be with people, but other times I just want to be alone.\”

I handed her a tissue and laid a hand on her shoulder.  \”Nobody can tell you how to grieve.  No one knows what your loss feels like, and there shouldn\’t be a penalty for loving your husband so much.  Everyone handles things differently.  If I as a doctor lost the use of my legs, I\’d probably adjust much quicker than a professional athlete.  Some people are married for fifty years, and yet have an independent relationship with their spouse.  Others are so invested in them that the loss is so much greater.\”

She thanked me for my words and gave me a hug as she left.  As she walked away I wished I could talk with the people around her.  She has not shut herself off from the world.  She has continued to go to church, spend time with family, and go out with friends.  She just can\’t get rid of the feeling of loss, which is not a wrong way to be.

There is no rule book on grief.  Is it better to move on quickly, or does it show the person is self-centered enough that they don\’t feel it as much?  Is it better to grieve for a long time and deeply, or is a sign of pathological dependency?  People want to make rules for which there can never be rules.  People don\’t like the messiness of life, and don\’t want to be made uncomfortable when others remind them of that messiness.  But pain and loss are as much a part of life as joy and love (in fact, you could argue they are more a part of life for many people).  This woman\’s grief shows the depth of love she had.  It is a memorial to that love.

She will never get over her husband, and I think that\’s OK.

26 thoughts on “How to Grieve”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that there’s no rule book for grief, and that it’s okay for your patient never to get over her husband. When it comes to losing someone we love, I’ve always thought we never get over it, we just get used to it.

  2. My son died in June after living 2 days. I’ll never get over it…and I’m glad that it’s okay not to. Thanks for the inspiring post.

  3. But it’s terrible sad to get “stuck” and not “adapt” to the loss. She can miss or grieve her loss and still I hope appreciate and enjoy life and friends (old and new).

  4. Thank you. I miss my baby so much, even though he only had less than an hour with us. My husband is okay with things now, but I still… I think of him sometimes. He’d be 6, he’d play in the sand pit at the school, he’d be quiet like my son and daughter and yet have a lightning-quick streak of mischief – but it wasn’t how it worked out. I miss him.

  5. Thank you for validating my own feelings on how to deal with loss. I too sometimes wonder if I’m dealing with it in a healthy manner-or if I talk about it too much & will I make people feel uncomfortable–but I can’t bear not to speak his name. This post helped me to feel that I’m right where I should be. My biggest desire still remains that God will somehow let me use my loss to help others deal with theirs–& He is offering me some opportunities to do just that so its not wasted pain.

  6. You will probably always miss him_& the fact that he was a baby makes the loss no less painful than if he had grown & you’d had a chance to know his personality more. Forgive me for “butting in” here but I had to acknowledge your loss-I’m glad you shared.

  7. I second Dr Rob’s response-& I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you shared. Never feel that its wrong to talk about him because it will help you alot.

  8. I just lost my husband 4 weeks ago.I am openly grieving and giving my sadness the respect and honor it deserves.
    I know I will never “get over” him. I will emerge from this deep, deep sadness, a different person.
    I will always miss him and mourn what the rest of our life was supposed to look like. I learned within the first few days that there are no rules for mourners. It is what it is.
    We just have to move through it and honor it as best we can and hopefully some new reality, some new life begins to develop. Different from what we imagined, emptier, but still life.
    As our 16 year old said at his funeral, to honor his life, we have to smile for what was. Our hearts can be empty because he is gone, or our hearts can be full of the love we shared.

    It’s hard. It’s the hardest thing I have ever had to work through. But slowly, slowly, I am hoping this raw pain will mellow into an ache that I can will live with, not with agony, but with a gentle understanding and grace; but always missing him.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I think you understand it well. We do need to be willing to grieve. I honestly worry more about people who put on a good front and act like it’s no big deal when it seems it should be. Grief passes, loss does not.

  10. Thank you for this. I lost my daughter June 10, 2009. She was only 34 years old. I have no words to describe my pain but when people tell me to “move on” something in me rages…

  11. Thank you for sharing your personal experience. I just heard on NPR this week a very moving story about dealing with the loss of a child. The story introduced me to the Compassionate Friends. Cheesy name, but important group that is organized around people who focus on grief support after a child dies. Just thought I would pass on the info to ‘a mommy’ and any passers by. Maybe it might help someone.

  12. What a lovely, empathic exchange. I don’t know how the word “closure” ever became affiliated with the concept of loss. It is a word that simply doesn’t apply to love.

  13. I’m now within 3 people of being the oldest generation of my family. Considering that my parents had 19 siblings between them… that’s a lot of deaths I’ve experienced. I’ve also buried a husband, my mother, two step-mothers, and several nieces and nephews… some of them very very young.
    It is always hard. Always. There’s no way around it. BUT, I think that maybe we are culturally forgetting that grieving is a healing process and that we are forgetting how to treat the wounds. It is good to stitch them up and apply emotional antibiotics to keep them from festering, but it is silly to think that the scar will disappear or that it won’t itch or ache sometime… sometimes seemingly unbearably so.

    The younger the person is, the harder their death is to take. When an elderly person dies, we can rejoice in the life they lived. When a young person dies… especially an infant, we grieve for the life they could have lived. And we are left to imagine that life as possibly (mostly?) much more grand than it likely would have been. OTOH, it might have been grander than we could ever imagine.

    It is not knowing that is hard to accept.

  14. Dear Dr. Rob,
    Losing a loved one leaves a hole in life. Some people try to get rid of the hole or fill in the hole. Not me. I try to continue building my life around the hole, so that it becomes an integral element of a beautiful life.

    Imagine a single black brush stroke on a canvas that looks ugly or, at best, like nothing special. Now imagine painting a beautiful picture, with the brushstroke now an essential feature of what is pictured on the canvas, a line or circle that helps make the image beautiful.

    Put another way, my goal is to move from the memories of the lost loved one bringing nothing but tears to my eyes and pain to my chest to this feeling: The missing my loved one still aches a bit — it always will, but now the pain is outweighed by the joy of remembering my loved one. Memories of my loved one’s strength stir my fortitude, of my loved one’s wisdom bring me guidance, and of my loved one’s humor bring me joy.

    I wrote about grieving the loss of someone young in “Patent Pending: The Measure of a Life.” You can read it here:

    With hope, Wendy

  15. A similar situation came when a respiratory therapist friend of mine lost his daughter (age 7). People tried to tell him that it would be okay. One person even tried to compare his grieving to her experience when she lost her dog. Just incredible what people will say when they don’t know what to say. Everybody is trying to help, but most of the time it just makes those who lost someone, angrier. I remember he told me that nobody could understand his loss, even someone who lost a child like he did…because his relationship with his daughter was his relationship, not theirs.
    I learned long ago, to just be quiet and let them talk to me. When my dad passed away I realized that is exactly the right path to take. Just be quiet and let the grieving person talk, if they want to. Otherwise, just try to be available for them when they need you.

    Great post, thanks for bringing it out in the open. – Tim

  16. I’m a psychologist who facilitates a grief and loss support group at a retirement community. We read through this article today in the group, and the participants found it very helpful. Thanks so much.

  17. […] Musings of a Distractible Mind, a blog by a primary physician with a nice way with words, considers the case of a woman who lost her husband 10 years ago and is being pushed by those around her to move on and stop grieving. Blogger Dr. Rob writes: “There is no rule book on grief. Is it better to move on quickly, or does it show the person is self-centered enough that they don’t feel it as much? Is it better to grieve for a long time and deeply, or is it a sign of pathological dependency? People want to make rules for which there can never be rules. People don’t like the messiness of life, and don’t want to be made uncomfortable when others remind them of that messiness. But pain and loss are as much a part of life as joy and love (in fact, you could argue they are more a part of life for many people).” […]

  18. Thank you. I relate to what this woman is going through. My brother committed suicide in July 2010 and I feel ashamed for still crying about it.

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