When grief consumes you, it is virtually impossible to see beyond the waves of emotions which wash over you. In other words, when you are in it, you are in it. There are lots of old sayings which speak to that feeling of being utterly stuck and unable to see beyond a situation. To name a few: “you cannot see the wood for the trees”, “you can’t see further than the end of your nose”, “I am stuck between a rock and a hard place”.
It is a very lonely and isolating place to be because in my own experience and those of my clients, there appears to be no future. Things can look very bleak. It is hard to imagine that things could get better, that there will be a life without the one who has died, that you might be able to cope again with the vagaries of life, or even the simple routines of domesticity that keep the show on the road. As a counsellor it is my job to metaphorically hold the hope until my clients are ready to come and take it back for themselves. Sometimes this happens quite quickly, other times, not so fast, but in the end hope can be a shining beacon of comfort, even within the hopelessness of bereavement.
There is a simple exercise which I find very useful in explaining what evolves during the time of grief. You could try it now if you want to? Firstly, get a large sheet of paper and draw a circle which represents your whole life right now. Use as much of the page as you want. Then, inside the circle, using another colour, draw a second circle to represent how much space your grief takes up in your life at the moment. Don’t rush, really think about it. This first circle drawing is the here and now. Going back to my first paragraph, this is when you are feeling really stuck in the grief. I expect you might have drawn something akin to this?
Now turn the page over and re-draw another circle for your life and how much space you think your grief will take up in two years’ time. Your second drawing overleaf, would be a version of this?
People generally feel that their grief will have diminished and tend to draw the inner circle as a smaller percentage of their life circle, whilst still leaving a large amount of grief in the circle. What actually happens is that the grief stays the same but your life expands around the grief. It is a hard concept because it is so difficult to imagine. However, the sad truth is that though you feel stuck now, life does go on around you, inextricably moving forward, even when you don’t want it to.
Do you know the beautiful poem, Stop All The Clocks by W. H. Auden? The last stanza speaks about feeling everything has come to an end after a loved one's death.
“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Nothing ever stays the same. It is the way of the world, the way of life, the force of nature and nurture. There will be a life, but it will be a different life, maybe not the one you wanted but never the less, a life. It is in the space between the the grief circle and the life circle, that the growth of a new life happens. You don’t know what directions things will take you in yet. There will be unexpected happenings, unexplained joys, new love in all it's forms, new life, new jobs, new interests. Anything can happen. It is completely unknown and that is frightening and probably too big an idea to contemplate in early grief, but in time your life will grow around your grief.
The reason I say the grief stays the same, is that no one can ever take away your memories of that person, or this period of time, or your pain at the loss, because this is engraved like a fingerprint upon you. It is true that triggers can take you back there, and people often like to feel they can access their grief when they want to, this is the gossamer thread of connection to the one who died. We want to feel them in our bones for ever, and we can and do, so no, the grief does not go. What does happen though, is it becomes less raw, less painful and you cope with it better till in the end it sits quietly within you not causing too much disturbance and allows you to start embracing your different life.
One last point, I mentioned two years, but there is no set time for this to happen. It might be a month or two, it might be ten years or more. Don’t ever try to compare time spans in grief, it is meaningless and generally quite unhelpful. These things are as individual as you are.
When the love of your life has died, the future looks painfully bleak, lonely and empty. The last thing on anyone’s mind at that point is falling in love again. As a therapist, I have heard many different responses to the death of a loved one, but it is never, “who’s next then”. Very often it is the opposite of that, “I will never fall in love again”, and sometimes, “I will never marry again”. Both are understandable responses to a deeply sad situation. I think what people are trying to express is that grief is too overwhelming to see any future, and also that it feels too risky because the pain one suffers, is too excruciating when you are the one left behind.
It used to be the culturally accepted idea that one was supposed to be moving towards ‘getting over’ a death, ‘moving past’ the sadness and grief or ‘letting go’ of the person who died, so somehow one could renew interest in life and magically be normal again. Nowadays thankfully the thinking has changed. The way I describe it to people is that you never forget the beloved, you carry them with you, perhaps metaphorically in your heart, or in your thoughts and memories, but whereas at the beginning of your grief, those places feel very raw and painful, in time the deceased rests peacefully there, causing less distress and disturbance. Everything quietens down but the love is not gone.
So what happens when you fall in love again?
Some people actively go out seeking love and others wait for love to come knocking at their door and occasionally love finds people unexpectedly like on a train, or dog walking (two real examples, honestly I am not making it up). Even if you have vowed never to love again, the thrilling energy that love brings into your life can oust any thoughts of ‘not going there again’ out of your head. It does not matter how old we are, we are all the same when it comes to love. Being wanted, needed, adored, loved and the focus of another’s attention are all heady feelings indeed. They are core human conditions and they make us feel alive, energetic and happy. I have noticed that people (especially men) who have been in a loving marriage do start to yearn for that stability and companionship again), so when it comes calling it is a potent mix of emotions.
So now you are in love and everything is right in your world. You feel part of something again, perhaps protected and nurtured, or that you have a purpose in life, and your focus is quite rightly on the immediacy of the relationship. The problem usually comes when something your new partner does, or doesn’t do for that matter, evokes a wave of grief which comes tumbling in and knocks you for six. Everything that was right in the new relationship now feels somehow wrong. You doubt yourself, you doubt them, your decision making, what you are doing, what you should be doing and anything else you can imagine which could get in the way of a new and loving relationship. There are often tears and angst as to whether you should be in a new relationship at all, because somewhere deep inside of yourself it feels like cheating? The guilt can be crushing. I have heard it said that being in a new marriage after becoming a widow or widower, can feel like you are a bigamist.
Those sorts of feelings are entirely natural and normal. If you return to the idea in the second paragraph that you hold the one you have lost close to you for ever, then you can see that it is entirely possible to love two people at once. Society tells us that when it comes to lovers, it’s not right, so it is quite ingrained in our psyche that you shouldn’t do that. However, you do love two people, it just happens that one of them has sadly died, and the love does not stop, nor should it. In fact how could it? You cannot just turn love off. It is one of life’s great joys to fall in love and if that gift should come calling a second time, embrace it fully, knowing that you still love your first partner and they are along for the ride too!
What really helps is if your new partner understands that it is not either/or, it is both. Hopefully they encourage you to bring up their name, talk about memories of past times, say if you are missing them in particular on a given day, if they encourage photographs of that person to stay up in the house and children are still allowed to love the parent who has died. Hopefully they can support your grief and be a place where you can ‘land’ when you feel overwhelmed, all the time knowing that those feelings will pass by like clouds.
At the same time, it is easy to slip into excluding your new partner a bit too much by not telling them how you are feeling, by comparing them to the former partner out loud (or silently to yourself) too often. Perhaps you keep the ashes in a prominent position, and your new partner feels there are three of you in the new marriage? I sometimes wonder what it is like for the new partner to come into the former marital home? Can it ever feel as if it is their home now? Do some physical things have to be let go of to nurture the new relationship. These things balance delicately in the relationship, but given a warm and loving environment, they are things you can work out together to minimise or ban any feelings of guilt you may carry.
I finish with the simple words of Thomas Hardy, in Far From The Madding Crowd,
Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness.
If you have had experience of finding love again after a bereavement and have something to share, please do below, it might help others.
When someone we love dies, they leave a great big empty space where they should be. We can feel that space and know the shape of it in a thousand different ways. The half of your bed which now remains un-creased, the empty chair in the sitting room, the desk with no occupier in the office, the bare cupboards because you don’t buy certain foods any more, or the decreased washing load which daily shouts at you that they are gone now. Each of these and many more reminders lurk in the everyday. Every one is a potential trigger to renewed sadness, or an outburst of grief at the deep and unfathomable loss.
Whilst you may be able to avoid some triggers to grief quite easily, such as shunning a certain restaurant where you loved to eat together, or deciding not to watch a film that he loved, or listening to a piece of music you chose for the funeral, some are not so easy to avoid. Before someone dies, we never think about these things and we don’t realise how hard the mundane can be in grief. If you think about how much you did together at home, and how many things you did for her at home, you can see where the problems potentially lie.
Cooking is something most newly bereaved people find difficult. With the low energy of early grief it is hard to get up the enthusiasm to cook for one. It reminds you of shared meals, happy conversation and a feeling of togetherness. Some of you might choose not to cook at all and snack only, or some of you might continue as you have but end up cooking too much out of habit. People often say the kitchen feels purposeless and uninviting after a loved one has died. It is a very understandable feeling.
One place people feel this space the most is in the bedroom. It may be that your partner was in hospital for a while, and you may have had a few weeks on your own, or perhaps there was a hospital bed downstairs. Even so, there has probably been years of bed sharing and not having someone there in bed with you now, is very difficult and upsetting. I have known people who have chosen to sleep downstairs instead of going up to bed rather than face that lonely place at night. Others will wait till they are dropping with tiredness before going up, to ensure they fall asleep right away and not have to think about it. Others may lie in bed in the wee hours, yearning for their loved one, maybe wearing their pyjamas or wearing an old sweater which smells of the one they love (all completely normal by the way).
The question is, can any of this be avoided or should it be avoided? The answer is no. It is part of your journey through grief. It is natural and normal to feel the space acutely, and to mourn for your beloved. The saying goes, ‘you cannot go over grief, you cannot go under it, you cannot go around it, you have to go through it’. Grief is a way of honouring the person we love and it keeps them close to us while we need them to be close in our hearts. So each space which triggers our grief, is serving a purpose, it allows us to express our grief and thinking about all the ways we miss that person.
There are a few things that might mitigate the empty space:
Keep the radio or TV on for company. It can be particularly helpful to put them on when you leave the house, so when you come back there is some noise in the background.
Ask friends to make you meals for the freezer for the early days.
Buy some ready-made meals for days when you cannot face cooking.
Accept invitations from people you feel comfortable to be 100% you with. It is company.
Think about changing the furniture around a bit, so it isn’t the same (if that appeals, it absolutely does not for some).
Display photos of your beloved; they can fill the space and be a comfort.
Don’t worry about talking to your loved one; it is perfectly natural to do that.
Sleep in a different room if you want, it might help.
Be gentle with yourself, look after yourself and try and get out into nature one way or another, it is very grounding and restorative.
Take your grief one day at a time. That is enough to cope with, try not to project into the future.
If grief has touched your life and you would like to share any thoughts and ideas as to what helped you cope with the space your loved one left behind, please share here for others.
Photo attribution: Photo credit: THX0477 via Foter.com / CC BY