How to Handle Your Fears After the Death of a Spouse
We have the opportunity to face what is there – ourselves… We will find that we’re less than we wish, as imperfect as we feared. But having faced that …we free ourselves. New energies will be released within the creative part of us, the part that wants to grow, and the part that is ready to reach beyond… We begin to feel less anguish and more comfort, less threat and more promise. The promise is that by living fully our aloneness, we can become more whole. We can become more who we were meant to be.
-James Miller -“A Pilgrimage through Grief”
“For so long I experienced life as John and Amy, as Mr. and Mrs. Now I am just Amy. Amy alone. No John by my side. And I am terrified.” I wrote this journal entry about two weeks after another car slammed broadside into my husband’s and he died instantly. In that moment, death slammed broadside into my life, and I had to learn to let go of the one person I thought I could never live without. I felt many things – anxiety, sadness, gratitude, loneliness, anger, and more. As I looked ahead, though, there was one over-riding emotion – fear. I didn’t know where to turn, or who to count on. I felt unable to make decisions, incapable of even the simplest tasks.
I have since learned that fear, like grief, need not dominate your life or last forever. When fears are expressed and dealt with honestly they eventually resolve, leaving hope for peace, healing, and even joy.
Face The Emotions
C.S. Lewis wrote “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Because it is scary to confront grief, many widowed people avoid solitude like the plague. They obey the “standard wisdom” that says you should keep busy and not think about it.
Granted, a certain amount of busyness is a good thing. It is healthy to grieve in spurts, allowing yourself time to relax, to breathe, and even to laugh. Yet we need balance, because grief doesn’t go away until you deal with your emotions.
Take time to name and express your feelings. I wrote in a journal every night. Sometimes I sat on the “pity pot” temporarily, feeling sorry for myself, whining, or throwing an old-fashioned temper tantrum on the floor. Perhaps you prefer to pound nails into wood. You can sketch or scribble or use finger-paints. Some people make something out of clay or play-dough, and then decide whether to smash it or keep it. None of this has to be “good” and no one ever has to see it. It just has to get the emotions out.
Go ahead and cry. It is common to fear that once you start crying, you won’t be able to stop. But that has never happened in the history of humankind. You’ll be OK. In fact, you’ll be more OK than before. There is a physiological chemical in tears that relieves stress.
Finally, when your emotions are spent for now, do something comforting. Take comfort in a cup of tea, a walk or swim, or simply standing outside and breathing deeply of the fresh air. It feels good, and helps restore some of the energy that grief siphons off.
So much of your identity and routine was intertwined with your spouse that it’s hard to know who you are by yourself. You can feel vulnerable and exposed.
If you are open, though, you may begin to discover the freedom and adventure of being on your own. One woman’s husband would only eat butter pecan ice cream so that’s all she ever bought. After he died, she wanted to find the ice cream she liked best. She discovered two favorites - mint chocolate chip and rocky road. She still occasionally has butter pecan in memory of her husband, but now she knows something about herself she didn’t know before. It was one small step in discovering her new identity.
It is amazing to find out how many things you can actually do. I learned how to mow the lawn and do simple plumbing repairs. I got a device to help open tight jar lids. I painted the bedroom a different color. For areas where I didn’t feel competent, I got help. For instance, I asked friends until I found a good handyman and a trustworthy financial advisor.
As I learned and grew, I became stronger and more confident in myself. Of course I still missed John, wished he was there, and sometimes resented being alone. But I also came to know I could survive without him, and perhaps one day even enjoy life again.
Healing takes far longer than you imagine. Sometimes you take three steps forward and two steps back. For many people, the second year is actually harder than the first. But gradually, the memories bring smiles instead of tears, and you take the past with you into a new tomorrow. You never forget; you carry your beloved with you forever as a cherished part of who you are, yet you grow and become a more compassionate, appreciative, and tolerant person. A s you keep facing your fears, you will learn to embrace life again, connecting, laughing, and loving with a full heart.
© 2011, Amy Florian. Used by permission.