Most humans on this planet will one day be lucky enough to experience the loss of someone they love so much, it feels like they are torn in two. I say lucky because a coin always has two sides. You cannot love someone deeply and not feel their loss just as deeply. It is a gift to love someone, and the pain of losing that person can also remind you just how fortunate you are to have known them at all.
I can speak to that personally. On September 12, 2015, I lost my husband and partner of nine years to alcoholism. He was 36. Alcoholism is a disease that affects every aspect of your life, and the past two years of our marriage had been especially difficult. This is an extreme simplification, but living with alcoholism deserves its own essay.
I remember the first week after he died. I seemed to be floating through each day, in a strange, disconnected cloud that only I could see. I was fortunate to have sick time I could use for bereavement leave. I woke up late each day, having barely slept. The lack of sleep strangely helped by numbing me. I didn’t eat much at all. I walked my dog because dogs must be walked. I took calls from family and check-ins from friends. I went on a date only because the guy told me his dad had died a few years before, so I thought he might be comfortable around a grieving person. I noted that being with other people meant I wasn’t crying alone, and that seemed preferable. In retrospect, it was bizarre to have been out with him, but in truth, I wasn’t there on that date at all. I was deep inside myself, reeling and shocked and untouchable by the outside world.
As I continued about my life, I thought it must be so clear to other people that I was going through something. That I showed on my face my loss. I waited for people--grocery store clerks, waiters, the mailman--to ask, “My God, what happened to you?” Nobody did. I found myself telling people I met what had happened to me, even when they didn’t ask, because I didn’t feel I could carry on a conversation of more than a few sentences without them knowing. It just felt too divisive. I couldn’t be this shocked and devastated grieving person on the inside, and just normal on the outside. If they couldn’t see I was broken, I would have to tell them. This can make for an awkward pause in the conversation. That’s okay. You have bigger things to worry about when you’re wading through all the fallen thoughts and memories that bubble up when you’re freshly bereaved. As time passed, I noticed my filter growing back. I noticed I could carry on a conversation that didn’t always seem to involve my husband. It felt like growth. It is growth.
I’m not sure everyone knows that time will pass and they won’t always feel so in pain. I did. I knew I wouldn’t always feel the way I did. You can’t. Life really does go on. But this in itself is an additional pain. How could it be that the loss of this person I so loved would one day be small, that it wouldn’t be with me every second? I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to forget how it felt, though the pain seemed unbearable. If I didn’t feel that pain, it would be like he didn’t matter anymore. That the hole he left behind had filled in, and no one thought of what had been there. So while you can know in your heart that you won’t always feel like you do, also know that the love you have will always be there. Pain will be, too. But not all the time. And you’ll find other ways to carry on that allow space for the memories you have. I find myself taking on habits and traits he had--little ones, like keeping gum in the car, or liking certain dishes. It comforted me when I first noticed I was doing that, like he lives on in me just a little bit.
I can’t speak to what it feels to lose someone suddenly, because death was a possibility for the two years before William died after he first became ill. But for me, I noticed that I didn’t worry any longer. I had worried every day while he was alive, about various things, most of them to do with him. I worried I would come home to find him dead. I worried he would kill himself. I worried he would leave the burners on and start a fire, or let our dog out and not notice. These worries were completely lifted once he was gone. The worst had happened. What was there to worry about now?
But because a coin is always two-sided, the gift of no longer worrying was accompanied by the incapacity to experience joy. This is called anhedonia, as I later learned, and is very common in grieving. It too, doesn’t last forever. Joy crept slowly back into my life. Several months later I noticed I occasionally looked forward to things again: trips, events, even just lunch with a friend. Before, the impulse of excitement and joy was there, because these are activities I had previously enjoyed, but was quickly deflated by my go-to thought of “but, I don’t really care.” I didn’t care ultimately that I had lunch with a friend or went on a trip or any of those things, because William was dead. What did it matter?
I am still going through this “process” of grieving. And I will be for the rest of my life. As other people I love inevitably pass away, I know I will again feel the pain of losing William, triggered by the new loss. It just won’t always be so acute, and it shouldn’t be. It won’t mean it suddenly matters less that he’s gone. It means I’ve grown around the hole that he left behind, filled it with memories of him and gratitude that he lived at all, and that I was given the gift of loving him.
For whatever your grief may be, I believe there are some ways to help yourself through it. At least, here are some things it helped (and helps) me to remember:
-Do not let anyone make you feel you are not grieving correctly. There is no correct way to grieve, and loss affects everyone differently.
-Some people will feel deeply uncomfortable around you. It’s not you. They are not comfortable with death or sadness or the knowledge that they too will someday lose someone they love and even die themselves. They would rather not be confronted with this and you are a walking, talking reminder that life really sucks sometimes.
-Try not to take this last one personally. Try to accept what people can give you. Some can give you a pat on the back, or an email, or an awkward, “well, life goes on....” (my neighbor actually said this). They don’t know what to say to you. But they care. Know that, and then go spend time with people who are comfortable with you, and who can provide real support.
-Eat. Try to eat, try to exercise. Those two weeks I was home alone, surrounded by my husband’s things and just drifting, I could barely make myself eat. But I tried. I also exercised, which is always a good idea, especially if it gets you out of the house.
-Try to leave the house, but don’t force it. Remember it’s okay to leave at any time. You get a free pass. If the conversation you’re having or the movie you’re watching or even the grocery store suddenly makes you feel like you need to leave and be alone, then do that. Cancel plans if you need to. But do try to get out sometimes and see those people who support you.
-It will come in waves. You’ll get better at predicting when those waves come, but for a while, you won’t know where you even are. Try to accept that. Sometimes waiting it out is all you can do.
-Each “milestone” (your loved one’s birthday, holidays, anniversaries, etc.) will bring a different set of emotions. Be prepared for how you will feel as each one approaches (I warn friends that I turn into a bit of a basket-case a week or so before), and give yourself space to feel that. Know that what you feel on their birthday versus what you feel on a holiday you both loved to spend together may not be the same.
-Find a way to make space for the person in your life. Don’t immediately get rid of all their stuff or put any reminders of their existence in a cupboard so you don’t have to see it and feel that pain. The pain will be there anyway. Let the grief be a part of your life. Mourning is the public expression of grief, and it’s important. Let other people share your grief, too.
I hope this may help someone out there who has been or is going through the loss of a loved one. There are many more aspects to grieving and loss I didn’t touch on, and naturally, there are cultural and experiential differences that affect grieving. But for the most part, these reminders have either helped me, or would have helped me had I thought of them.