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How Long Does It Take?
How long does it take? Undoubtedly, that’s the question new widows ask most frequently. Every widow knows what it means. Will there ever be a day when I feel happy, when I no longer greet each morning with the fresh realization that he is dead, when I don’t automatically turn to tell him something, when I no longer hear the roar of hollow silence as I come home to an empty house? When will I stop crying when someone says a kind word of sympathy or feel like crying because they don’t? Will I ever stop feeling outside the world, an alien, alone?
The answer is “yes,” in your own time and in your own way: gradually going forward, faltering, falling back, going on again -- in any of the predicted or not-so-predicted sequences. In our society time circumscribes all events. There is a specified time allotted for getting born, beginning school, paying off the mortgage, healing a broken bone; at least you know it will happen. Here there is no time and no sure thing.
Some religious customs used to require the wearing of black for a full year -- it’s still observed in some places -- not only to honor the dead but to signal the resumption of life when the year ended. The custom of wearing mourning clothes may be gone, but the time frame persists because we often hear people say, “It’s been a year; she’s not doing very well” or give good marks for “doing so well” in a shorter time. It would probably come as a surprise to those who knew me at the time, but my second year was worse than the first. The first year I was coping with a capital “C,” perhaps to my own admiration; the second year I realized coping was not a temporary measure. This was it.
I often wish we could drop the whole vocabulary that has come into recent usage on death and dying that so glibly forecasts how we shall respond to the death of a spouse. The so-called stages, described here earlier, were never intended to become a mandatory blueprint for dealing with grief. They were observations of responses to personal loss. Using the medical model for grief -- from shock to recovery -- is a deception. Because we live in a quick-fix time, every illness must have a cure, and for every cure there must be an illness. Implied is the promise that if you carefully go through the stages of grieving you will recover. The message is: You have the illness, we have the pill. If you have not fully recovered then you must have skipped a stage, become mired in a stage or denied a stage. It is your fault, you did something wrong. Guilty again! Widows have trouble enough with guilt; they do not need to be told they’re in a messed-up stage to add to the problem.
How long does it take? is a silly question, because widowhood is not a disease, sickness or mental illness. It is a fact of life and there is no recovering. You learn to live with it, cope with it and survive it. You will get pretty good at it as time goes by. The tears will abate, the anger soften and the future will be brighter than today. But you will not be cured, not even if you remarry.
So let us define the stages of grieving at the outset as feelings or emotions or a state of mind, and know that they come and go like the tide. With the possible exception of the initial shock and numbness that follows a deep loss, the so-called stages of grieving can and do return unpredictably with pristine sharpness any time, any day, any year -- and that is no sin.
When recovery is the touted outcome -- the expected outcome -- the widow feels inadequate and abnormal if she has not “gotten over it” in her allotted time. She can be heard to apologize, “There is something wrong with me.” It has been three months, six months, two years -- whatever -- she is still crying, and she can’t get over it. She has failed the time test. She is still full of tears and anger, she says. She still feels jealous and sad when she sees couples holding hands, still feels confused and rudderless, still cannot let a day go by without thinking of his dying and what she might have done, could have done, should have done. “I know I should be over it by now,” she sobs.
Worse, another widow may suffer what she believes is a setback after having steadily moved onward and accepted her reality: “I was doing so well, everyone was so proud of me, and for no good reason I’ve suddenly started going backward.” Tears at the drop of a hat, physical symptoms that prove to be groundless, a hand tremor that began with the first formidable document and grows more embarrassing each day, and finally, feeling hopeless and missing him more than ever. We call this the six-month syndrome because that seems to be when progress most often founders. It is also the time when family and friends worry and express concern. “It’s been six months and my mother is doing worse; she’s crying more now. What shall I do?” Mother is doing what her daughter did after taking her first step a long time ago: She fell down.
The six-month syndrome may occur at any time (I experienced mine after two years). Widowhood is dotted with sudden realizations -- some very scary -- that account for the many emotional highs and lows. As shock and numbness fade, the widow becomes more clear-headed. She begins to reconstruct her identity and becomes increasingly aware of how many changes she will have to accept and how many crises she will face single-handedly. With a sudden jolt, she thinks perhaps she will never become used to being alone at night, or maybe that pain under the left rib is the beginning of cancer. Or as one woman recalled, “I couldn’t pull the damn zipper up the back of my dress and that triggered one of my lowest periods. I cried for two days. It really hit me that I was alone and I’d have to lose 50 pounds or wear a Hawaiian muumuu for the rest of my life.” Later, more mundane reminders rise to bait the new widow -- little things, like having no escort for the annual Heart Fund Ball, and hundreds of other first-time realizations that run the gamut from struggling to open the mayonnaise jar to traveling alone.
If she speaks with friends about the emptiness she is experiencing during these low periods, she will hear, “You’re feeling sorry for yourself.” Her family is the audience for bright thoughts, not black ones. The widow herself becomes the most distressed if she suspects she may indeed be feeling sorry for herself. For no convincing reason, self-pity is judged to be the worst of all possible sins.
On the other hand, self-pity is actually more desirable than other people’s pity and feels pretty good when you are just plain tired of coping. Feeling sorry for yourself is like putting your emotional feet up -- resting between coping bouts and catching a second wind. Overdone, of course, it can become a bore for everyone.
Once you stop equating good days and bad days with success and failure and grading yourself on performance, your energy is freed for better use than self-reproach. Reassure your family and friends -- and your doctor -- that sometimes neither you nor they can tell what stage you’re in. Today, it might be the stage called regression or be all of the stages simultaneously.
Anger is a troubling emotion for some people to admit into their consciousness. Depression comes in many disguises, and confusion may become so pervasive that it feels natural. You’ve heard people say, “She only hears what she wants to hear”. Well, it’s the same with emotions. The true value in taking a look at our emotional reactions to grief is not so we will identify and label ourselves, but that we give ourselves the right to feel the way we are feeling. “You mean it’s OK to feel sorry for myself? Angry? Useless? It’s been eight months, I thought I was supposed to be over that.” You’ll always have a little left over for another time.
Grieving is a process rather than a series of uphill steps, and gains are most often realized in retrospect. One day you will realize that a whole day has passed without thinking about him. You actually enjoyed yourself for an entire weekend, that this Christmas was better than the last, that the little knot of envy has worked its way free, and that the good days far outnumber the sad ones. How long did it take? Six months? A year? Two years and three months? Only you can say. But it does happen, in your own time and in your own way.
Copyright © 2001 Fisher Books. All rights reserved.