Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Time To Say Goodbye

If at first you don't succeed, you're running about average.

-- M. H. Alderson

How is it that some widow/ers seem to move on fairly quickly after their spouse dies, and others are still deep in grief after several years? I have been asking myself this question for the last few days. I consider myself to be in the first group, but I know people who are in the second group.

I suspect that a big part of my healing was saying goodbye to Deb. No, I don't mean while she was alive. She said goodbye to me 16 months before she died, but I could never bring myself to say goodbye to her until she was dead. The last thing I did before leaving the hospital was kiss her lifeless forehead and say "goodbye."

But that's not what I'm talking about tonight. It took me a number of months to understand that our relationship continued after she was already dead. We are creatures of habit, and I had 14 years worth of habits that involved Deb. Simple things, like what groceries to buy. Complicated things, like deep-seated differences in our personalities. Mentally, I was still involving her in my life months after she was dead.

To me, letting go of your dead spouse means no longer involving them in your life. I needed help in accomplishing this, and I relied heavily on the excellent book The Grief Recovery Handbook. I describe how this book helped me in an early post titled Grief Work.

The main focus of that book is writing and then reading a goodbye letter to your dead spouse. A definitive letter. You are going to say goodbye, and it means goodbye. No longer will he or she be part of your active living. You will not defer to them again, solicit their opinion again, rely on them again. Goodbye means goodbye.

Is this hard to do? Absolutely! It cut me in half to read that final letter out loud. But it was necessary. It put a floor under my grief, a line in the sand. Here, and no further.

But the mind is a creature of habit. And we are addicted to the endorphins our brain generates when we engage our spouse in our day to day life. Over time, these habits have become ruts — familiar grooves through which our thoughts run. We need to break out of those thought patterns if we ever want to heal.

Changing habits, especially mental habits, can be very difficult. And it's not like we have ideal conditions to start from either. Most likely, we're mired in anguish and pain. But change those patterns we must. It is hard, and we will fail. Often. But we need to continue until the thought patterns have changed and we no longer include our dead spouse in our day to day lives.

I'm reminded of the poem "Autobiography In Five Short Chapters" by Portia Nelson:


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place
but, it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

Walking down another street begins with saying goodbye. As you watch this video, ask yourself if now is the time for you to say goodbye as well.


Melissa said...

I see you wrote this post a long time ago, but I stumbled upon it and it really hit home! Wow. That poem is amazing. I DO keep going down the same street and falling into the same hole even though I know it's there.....
Thank you for sharing that Vic. You have just made a difference in my life.... how great is that! :)

Vic said...

Hi Melissa, thanks, glad you found it to be helpful :-)


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, I lost my partner unexpectedly on Jan 19 of this year. We always spoke of death since we had both lost loved ones before. We both felt that the survivor would need to move on and not hold onto the deceased. It doesn't mean you loved them any less. I feel I am doing better than I should be but realize everyone is different. I will be writting my letter very soon. Thanks again for creating this blog.

Vic said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm very sorry for your loss. I'm glad you are finding this blog helpful. And you are right -- we don't love them any less even though we change and continue on with the ebb and flow of life.

May you find peace,


Anonymous said...

My husband of 25 years died in May 2010 very suddenly-he was fine all day and night-then collapsed unconscious and died 4 hours later never to regain consciousness. so therefore did not get to say goodbye or I am sorry for being mad at him right before he died. I am still grieving and getting very worried that I will not get past this hard grief and stop crying daily. I know there is guilt and alot of it. good for you for doing so well. wish I could get there. Anne

Vic said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm very sorry for your loss. You'll soon be coming up on your first-year anniversary, and that can be a bit rough. Crying daily is pretty common -- I certainly did my share. Some days I felt like between me and peace was a big 'ol bucket of tears, and all I needed to do was fill it up to get to the other side.

Is there a local grief peer support group in your area? I can't recommend peer support enough. It helped me understand that guilt is common to every single widow and widower, and I learned some helpful ways to work through that. Peer support was a major part of helping me to get "here."

May you find peace,


nick said...

Hi my name is nick
My wife died 2 1/2 weeks ago from necrotising fasciitus. I cried buckets for week 1 but now the funeral is over I feel looking at it there is a lot of neglect, the pain and the disease got in via a flea bite she got at work. I am taking legal action. I am finding it hard to move on knowing that her death was unnecessary. I loved my wife with every fibre of my being, I know time heals but when there are so many reminders boy it doesn't feel that way. Thank you for listening


Vic said...

Hi Nick, I'm very sorry for your loss.

Time does heal, depending on what you do with that time. It probably won't be the kind of time you would like. I grieved for a good 2 years before I felt my grief journey was completed. Having spent a fair bit of time in the local grief support community, 2 years seems about average. Your mileage may vary.

And I wouldn't be in a huge rush to move on just yet. A major part of grief seems to be staying right where we are, taking stock of what pieces of our old life are left. In due time we can choose to keep those pieces or discard them.

May you find peace,


Anonymous said...

Hi Vic, I am sorry for your loss.
My beautiful wife passed away about 18 months ago. The first year was brutal. But attending a Griefshare group, journaling, and very supporting family and friends has helped in the process.

You offer very intelligent insight, direction, and coping skills. Great work, thanks so much.

"Time to say goodbye" is exactly what I needed to read at this point. My grief needed a "floor."
For lack of words, maybe I had a grief block, and now it just makes so much sense. Thanks again.

Vic said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm very sorry for your loss.

Thanks so much for sharing about your positive experience with Griefshare. I've also heard many people say how much they benefited from journaling.

And I'm glad you found this blog to be helpful :-) You are very welcome :-)

May you find peace,


Vic said...

Hi Anonymous / Susan (from 8 Jan 2012), I'm very sorry for your loss.

Having our loved one wrenched from us is devastating. We can't help but miss what we used to have. And yet life continues onward, seemingly uncaring about our loss. For me, I felt that I just had to endure grief, that somewhere there was a big ol' bucket, and if I just cried enough tears into that bucket, eventually that bucket would fill up and my grief would cease. Looking back, I wasn't far off.

Grief has often been likened to a journey, a long, dark, lonely, painful journey. Every journey has a beginning and an end. At the end of my grief journey, I found peace. I wish the same for you Susan.

May you find peace,


steve said...

my girlfriend died suddenly lying with her head on my chest in her sleep when i woke up I found her and she was on life support for4 days before the family cut it off because there was no brain activity and I just feel alone now been crying uncontrolably for the last week wont answer my phone for any friend or anybody and just feel like she was the only one for me and no one will ever understand or look past my flaws like she did and I feel like I shouldnt be here anymore if it wasnt for family i would mind just dying at the moment but I cant because I couldnt make anyone feel this way when do you feel better it been a week I still feel like its not real andall these bad feelings are turning into self blame like I could or should of done something differnt she was only 29 and leaves 3 small children from her previous marriage I dont know i just feel like there is no god and ill never get better or be the same email is if anyone has any advice ty

Anonymous said...

Hi, my fiance died four months ago of cancer, she was 36, leaving me with our 2 year old daughter. I am loss but trying to survive for my daughter. My guilt is overwhelming because even though the doctors told us her time was limited, she died of an infection which I believe I should have ensured never happened. We were warned about infections and bacteria and could have done more to keep her safe. She is gone now and I want to die, I don't know how I am going to go on.