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Dear Therapist: Will I Ever Get Over My Wife's Death?

Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am a fairly successful international attorney. My wife of 47 years died last December. It has been the worst three months of my life, and my depression does not go away.

How long will this go on? I still expect her to come out of her room daily. Should I go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings again—although I have no desire to drink—just to talk? See a thanatologist? Is there anything to ease the solitude?

Anonymous
Mexico City and New York


Dear Anonymous,

I’m so sorry for your tremendous loss. I imagine that after nearly half a century, your lives were intricately woven together, and three months ago you lost not just the person you love, but all that went with your marriage—the feeling of being deeply known and accepted, the private jokes and references and language accrued over decades, the dailiness of your routines, the shared memories that now are yours alone to carry.

In other words, it makes sense that you’re reeling from the pain of this loss and that you want your depression to end. As for how long it lasts, it might be helpful to understand more about the nature of grief.

Grief resembles depression, and in fact, until a few years ago, according to my profession’s diagnostic manual, if a person experienced the symptoms of depression in the first two months after a loss, the diagnosis would be “bereavement.” But if those symptoms persisted past two months, the diagnosis would switch to “depression.” This “bereavement exclusion” no longer exists, partly because of the timeline: Are people really supposed to be “done” grieving after two months? Can’t grief last six months or a year—or, in some form or another, an entire lifetime?

Many people don’t know that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grieving—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—were conceived in the context of terminally ill patients coming to terms with their own deaths. It wasn’t until decades later that the model came to be used for the grieving process more generally. It’s one thing to “accept” the end of your own life. But for those who keep on living, the idea that they should reach “acceptance” might make them feel worse (“I should be past this by now”; “I don’t know why I still cry at random times, all these years later”). How can there be an endpoint to our love and loss? Do we even want there to be?

Naturally, most people say they want an end to the pain: Help me not to feel. But what they come to discover is that you can’t mute one emotion without muting the others. You want to mute the pain? You’ll also mute the joy.

The grief psychologist William Worden looks at grieving in this light, replacing “stages” with “tasks” of mourning. In the fourth of his tasks, the goal is to integrate the loss into our lives and create an ongoing connection with the person who died—while also finding a way to continue living.

That’s where your second question comes in: how to continue living. Sometimes in our pain, we’re convinced that the agony will last forever. But even with tremendous loss—like yours, like the Parkland families’—we all have a kind of “psychological immune system.” Just as our physiological immune system helps our bodies recover from physical attack, our brains help us to endure a psychological attack. A series of studies by the researcher Daniel Gilbert at Harvard found that in responding to challenging life events, from the devastating (becoming handicapped, losing a loved one) to the difficult (a divorce, an illness)—people do better than they anticipate. They believe that they’ll never laugh again, but they do. They think they’ll never love again, but they do. They go grocery shopping and see movies, they have sex and dance at weddings, they overeat on Thanksgiving and go on diets in the New Year—the day-to-day returns.

Of course, on your anniversary, or during the holidays, or simply running in the background, there will always be pain. Hearing a certain song in the car or having a fleeting memory might even plunge you into momentary despair. But another song, or another memory, might hours or days later bring intense joy. Some people feel confusion or guilt around this—how can they experience such pleasure when the person they love is gone? But feeling joy after your wife’s death doesn’t diminish your love for her. It does the opposite—it honors it.

It’s okay if you can’t imagine any of this yet. What will help in the meantime is doing something about your solitude. It sounds as if you have a history of drinking, so you probably know that people tend to use substances in response to an emotional void, an emptiness that calls out for something to fill it. Connection is a different—and far more effective—way to fill that emptiness. Your wife’s absence has left a crater-sized hole, and anything you can do to create moments of connection—whether by going to AA meetings, seeing a grief counselor, visiting with a neighbor, sharing a meal with a friend, joining a group related to an interest or hobby, calling on people in your community (religious, spiritual, professional) for company, focusing on doing things that feel personally fulfilling or meaningful—will begin to plug the hole. The point is to engage, little by little—toggling unsteadily between your past and your future. You will never, ever stop missing your wife, but somewhere inside you knew that reaching out to the living would help—that’s why you wrote to me, and I’m so glad you did. Perhaps without realizing it, you’ve already taken your first step forward.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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