Why It’s Important To Face Grief With Strength, Not Repression
The following is adapted from A Journey Without a Map.
It’s been three years since I lost my wife Margaret to cancer. Some questions that still come to the forefront for me are: Why did this happen to my wife? Why has this happened to me? What am I going to do today to keep busy and keep my mind going? How can I be a good father to my kids? Am I making the right decisions for myself and for them?
I always try to be as mentally strong as I can, without giving in or playing a victim. Here’s an important designation, though: by strength, I don’t mean repression. It’s important to have room to acknowledge your grief. It’s not normal to avoid the full array of emotions. Everyone has their own way of coping with loss, but for me, it was important to face it head-on. I was only able to heal once I acknowledged the pain, accepted it, and pushed forward. Here’s why that was such a powerful tactic.
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Getting help is a form of strength
The first eight months after losing Margaret, I felt numb. I went through the motions and stayed busy, just to keep my mind going. At eight months, I started falling into a depression. I visited friends at their house out on the ocean by Boston, and I felt lonely and down. When I came home, I knew I needed the help of a therapist. I asked a few professionals for their advice and received the name of an expert in grief. She was wonderful and helped me through this difficult time. We met weekly until we could meet less frequently. Now, I only reach out to her as needed, which has only happened a couple of times this year.
If you feel paralyzed by loss, I recommend surrounding yourself with good people. If you’re a person who wants to share your experience, either do it in written form or verbally with people you trust. It’s helped me out tremendously to write this story down. I’m in such a better place because of the process — it’s incredible.
Facing grief will strengthen your connections
The toughest part of moving forward was reading Margaret’s journal. I knew she was keeping it throughout her journey. When she died, I put it in a bottom drawer and let it sit there, knowing someday I’d have to look at it. Margaret chronicled everything, from her diagnosis to her final days.
When I first tried to read her journal about a year after she passed, the experience was so emotional I don’t even know how to put words to it. I could only get through a couple of pages. I put it away and drove over to our friend Robin’s house and sat down with her and her husband, Dave, to talk. It was the first time I opened up to them after my wife’s death. They knew I didn’t share a lot naturally, but that night, we talked about Margaret and her journal, had some wine, and cried. They were there for me.
As emotional as it was, reading it also helped me move forward. Facing my grief head-on has been a cathartic process. Even though it’s taken me through some serious emotional ups and downs, it has also deepened Margaret’s memory and our connection. It has also given me a chance to strengthen my communication with other people. I’ve had the chance to share Margaret as a person and have deeper, more powerful, and more complete conversations with the people I love.
Staying too long at the pity party won’t help
I am better today, but I still experience intensified grief during special milestones, such as our anniversary, Margaret’s birthday, holidays, and get-togethers. The anniversary of her death is the most difficult time because it represents one more year of her not being here, which gives a sense of distance.
When a special celebration happens, such as a wedding, I feel empty. I look out at the married couple and realize that I don’t have that connection anymore. The knowledge overwhelms me and creates loneliness. I retreat and get away from the group. I’m ready to go, because the event evokes sadness for me. My friend Robin once told me, “It’s a couple’s world,” and she’s right. I have a saying: “You can have a pity party, but don’t let the pity party last too long.” If you’re not careful, you can get into a funk. For me, there are still days when I struggle, especially during milestones. The key for me is that the next day, I know I need to wake up continuing to move forward.
Feel the emotions and keep going
My personal journey went from confusion to wondering “why us” to then understanding death. In October of 2016, I realized Margaret would die sooner than later. In some ways, this realization was emotionally freeing. I could comprehend that death happens in life.
When mentally, you’re always challenging yourself to think positively, look on the bright side, and be strong for everybody else, you get to a point where you live what you believe. I was able to do that, but I also gained perspective when I broke it down: life means being born and then dying. Everyone’s journey in between is different. Margaret died at fifty-one. It could’ve been at eighty, but it wasn’t. Her time on Earth was fifty-one years. I didn’t have to like that fact — and I hate it, let me tell you — but I had to understand it.
Facing that fact head-on, feeling the pain, and then trying to move forward was the only way I was able to support Margaret and later, our children and myself. Now, I’m committed to developing as a person and always being stronger emotionally as I grow. Some people think being emotionally strong means not showing your emotions; I disagree. Feel them, show them if you’re comfortable, and keep going.
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