Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood--#3

By the time Ralph’s Memorial Service occurred, I had gone through the most painful 5½ weeks of my life.  My journal records some of the pain I experienced during those weeks after my beloved husband’s death:

          “Tonight I feel despair at how much I’m missing and grieving Ralph. I don’t know how I’ll ever get over it. It seems intolerable that I won’t ever see him again. I  really, really want him back!!!!!!!!!!!!”

          “I cried so loudly tonight that at one point I hurt my ears. Also my throat hurts.” 

          “I’ve now wailed loudly so many times that the cats no longer come out to see what’s going on.” 

I did a tremendous amount of crying. I cried alone… I cried when I read Facebook posts about him... when I got sympathy cards and phone calls... when driving... when walking on the beach... when writing in my journal. Crying seemed to accompany most of my activities as a new widow, and I quickly made peace with being a crier. More than that, I embraced it because my goal was to experience my feelings, whatever they were to be. If in experiencing them, I also cried, so be it.

My commitment to experiencing my feelings began many years ago when training as a psychologist. I learned that what you resist persists, and that repressed or suppressed feelings have damaging impact on your health and well-being and this often drives people into counseling or therapy, or they simply fester in unresolved, unhappy, health- and relationship-damaging ways. My training resulted in believing strongly in the importance of processing your feelings.

What does “processing your feelings” mean? It means experiencing them, bringing them into conscious awareness so you can feel them, look at them, explore them, think them over, realize insights about them, release them… any or all of the above, wherever the process takes you.  When people experience their feelings in these kinds of ways, they lose their punch. Feelings are transitory by nature. They come… and they go… IF you allow yourself to experience them.  But, if you tell yourself any kind of message that blocks your feelings or causes them to get pushed away, they will keep popping up one way or another to grab your attention, sometimes at inopportune times or in inopportune ways. Telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that way”, or, “I’m carrying on too much about this”, or “I’m being too sensitive’, or even, “Not now” seriously impedes your ability to experience your feelings and may ultimately, make it difficult to access those feelings. 

And, there’s even more to this: if you deny or push aside Feeling A, it is likely to have a negative impact on Feeling B. This is because Denial is a primitive coping mechanism, which means that it doesn’t simply target the one feeling you want to block off, or lessen, it causes collateral damage to others. So, if you want to have access to happiness and joy and other “good stuff”—which I certainly wanted—I knew that I needed to open the door to feeling the tough stuff like loss, sadness, hurt, fear, loneliness, pain, despair.

So, how do you open the door to experiencing your feelings?  The key to giving yourself full access to them is to forgo labeling them as “good” or “bad”, or otherwise pushing them around in anyway: Let them simply be. The author Tina Gilbertson in her book Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them writes that the way you let feelings go is by feeling them fully: “Once they’re felt, they can leave.” She also has a clever take on the word “wallowing”, which she illustrates with a parenthesis around the “w”: (w)allowing. Yes, wallowing does allow your feelings to be experienced, and that’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish, so that the tremendous pain I was experiencing would pass on through: so the transitory nature of feelings would enable me, someday, to go from a heavily grieving widow to someone who once again knew happiness as part of her daily life.

As a result, the central task of my grieving was experiencing whatever it was that I felt about losing Ralph, whether that was pain, sadness, anger, relief, confusion, joy, resentment, rage, frustration, hurt… whatever was there.

What I experienced turned out to be somewhat different than I’d expected.  I reviewed Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s well-known Five Stages of the Grief Cycle: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and regularly checked where I thought I might be in that process and was surprised to discover that didn’t find those five phases particularly relevant. I experienced some denial and some depression, but bargaining seemed irrelevant as Ralph had already died. The big shock for me, though, was that I never felt anger at his death. I tried to be open to experiencing anger, as I thought it was inevitable, but it has never come up for me, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that Ralph and I had a wonderful relationship in which he gave me a great deal of love and emotional support for 41 years, and he lived until age 94, even with dealing with many health issues for many years. His conscientious in being a loving and long-living husband left me feeling grateful for receiving so much from him.

But, I’ve certainly experienced anger’s cousin, resentment—especially when I’ve had to sort out problems with getting online access to our financial records, with preparing all the information needed at income tax time, with tech problems on the computer, with calling repair services for anything that needs fixing with the house, car, yard. I hate those kinds of problems and had always relied on Ralph to handle them. With his death, I’ve resented having to handle all of these things myself and have cried many resentful tears of self-pity over those.

It’s evident that I’m a crier. And perhaps you are not. I don’t believe it’s necessary to cry as much as I have in order to process your feelings successfully: however you can experience your feelings, sit with them, feel them, be “with” them, will work. Certainly, I have to acknowledge that experiencing your feelings may cause you to feel worse at first, which is why some people don’t want to feel their feelings, because “it only makes it worse”. Temporarily, this may be so. But, ironically, feeling your feelings is the shortest distance between the bad feelings you’ve got at present and the “better” feelings you want to get to.

Yet, there were times when I thought during the first year after Ralph’s death that I’d never get to some easier, happy feelings. The pain seemed endless, the process seemed endless. Why, after going through so much grief, processing so much pain and loss, was I still feeling so much pain so often? I seriously considered why this was and after pondering the question came to believe that the physiological purpose of grief might be that when you’ve lost someone who was extremely important to your life, such as your spouse, that grief might just be what’s necessary in order to embed this person in your neural network so fully that you never forget his or her importance to you: That it’s your brain’s way of having integrity about the value of this person in your life.

I have no way of knowing whether this theory makes any sense on a scientific basis. But, somehow, it helped me understand the why of my tremendous grief: That Ralph had been so profoundly important to me that I wanted to make sure that he got permanently embedded in the deepest parts of my memory and would always be there. He’s definitely there, of that I am sure!

I promised to tell you whether my estimate of needing to cry 1000 times turned out to be accurate or not. Shocking to me, that estimate was way under: I hit 1000 in the first three months. My rough calculation was that I’d cried 10-20 times a day during the first 10 weeks after his death, and there’s your 1000 cries. Pretty incredible, isn’t it! When I hit the 2000 mark a few months later, I decided to quit doing the calculations. Yes, I’m a heavy-duty crier. That’s me. And, it doesn’t have to be you.  But, however you do your grieving, you want it to be within the context of Self-Acceptance for whatever it is that you are feeling. 


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Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught Relationship Skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. A prolific author and developer of Psychosocial Education programs, she co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have her late husband, Ralph Jones. Together they have trained in 15 countries around the world. His death in October 2017 brought tremendous grief as well as an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons that she shares with her readers.