Greetings Papa Bear!
You may not recall meeting me, but I was just one row away from you at The Good Furry Awards at BLFC 2022!
And the pansy who low-key sobbed at Mark's lifetime award. What a spectacular surprise that was!
In January of this year I unexpectedly lost my best friend and the love of my life, my husband. We've been together for all of my young adult and not-so-young adult life! Although most think it's the trauma of his passing that I struggle with most... I definitely find the hardest parts and times are the most innocuous ones. The time we used to spend eating dinner and talking about our day together, the absence in the bed, the lack of a passenger in the car, waking up with a dream to tell or thinking of something I'd like to share with him but I can't and all those other things we grow used to doing with company until suddenly it just isn't there anymore...
Or better yet, to quote the infamous Scout from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird “With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable.”
Although I know the recommendations that are often given as standard fanfare... Keeping busy, finding new hobbies to engaged in, try not to fixate, consider counseling and all that jazz... What recommendations &/or advice might you personally have, for someone struggling with this complex type of life change and all those really difficult struggles that it brings?
Thank you, and hope to see you again soon!
* * *
I grieve for your loss. As you might know, if you read my column much or have seen my FB posts, I lost my husband in 2015 quite unexpectedly to a pulmonary embolism. He was only 59. So, with nearly seven years gone since his death, I am the right person to ask when it comes to what happens years after a spouse's death.
I am going to give you some short-term and long-term advice here. First of all, it is important to note that there is no time limit on grief. People who tell you to "get over it" or "time to move on" either have not experienced what you have or, worse, they don't want to deal with your grief and are brushing you off. Don't listen to them. The absolutely WORST thing a (now former) friend ever told me while I was crying in his car: "Oh, stop your blubbering." That person is irrevocably stricken from my life now. Grieve in your own way and in your own time. Secondly, grief is not the same as depression. Depression is more generalized, while grief is more specific to a particular loss in your life. In a way, this makes grief a bit easier to manage because you know what caused it and can take steps to manage it. (Oh, and whoever told you "try not to fixate" is way wrong; that's just another way of saying "get over it.")
Okay, so, short-term. Cry. Scream. Sleep. Veg. Don't hold back your emotions and let them out. It is extremely painful to do this, but it is also cathartic. You need that release. Don't bury it inside you to try to "get back to normal." I did everything from literally collapsing and gushing tears to yelling at Jim's chair, "You promised me you wouldn't leave me!" I would do this for hours until I was utterly exhausted. You have to let all that stuff out.
I will forgo some advice you already know, though. But something you might have missed is trying to be kind to yourself. One of my friends back in Michigan said you should try to do something you like, even a little thing, each day. For example, buy yourself an ice cream cone. Go on a nice walk. Play with your pet (if you have one; if you don't, I recommend it; having my Ernie with me was one of the things that helped me through the worst years).
Next--very important! Maintain a healthy diet and do some exercise and try to get restful sleep. It is extremely important to try to stay healthy. Why? Well, for one thing, if you let your body slip into illness you'll feel worse, but for another thing, you need brain support and the function of healthy organs. Grief researchers (including neuroscientists) have learned that grief changes your brain chemically and physically. Grief can adversely affect your immune system and your heart. It is actually true that you can die of grief (though this is usually more of a risk for the elderly). Keeping up your immune system is important, especially in the Era of Covid and other nasty diseases. Speaking of the brain, though, some symptoms are similar to Long Covid: brain fog, memory impairment, word fluency, visuospatial function, and decision-making abilities.
According to an article on the American Brain Foundation website:
"In response to traumatic events, the brain creates connections between nerves and strengthens or weakens existing connections depending on the duration and degree of the emotional response. Neuroplasticity, or the ability to alter neural connections, allows the brain to compensate for injury, illness, loss, and other life-altering traumatic events by forming new neural connections based on these experiences. This helps an individual adapt to new situations or environments. Low to moderate stress increases nerve growth and improves memory while reducing fear. However, chronic stress causes a reduction in nerve growth and memory and increases fear to help an individual focus on survival. This stress response can have a negative effect and the more it happens, the more it becomes hardwired."
In other words, the changes to your brain can become permanent. The ABF article comments that the brain "can be healed" with such things as therapy, journaling, meditation, yoga, etc. In this bear's humble opinion, sure, those can help, but you will never be 100% the same again.
This leads me to my long-term advice: you must learn to accept that you will be forever changed by your loss. Don't try to go back to "the way things were" and "the way I was before my loss" because you will not be successful.
You will not be the person you once were. Like the accident victim who loses a limb, you can learn to function again and have a life, but that limb will always be gone. You can get a prosthetic limb, but it won't be the same. You can be an athlete in the Paralympic Games and achieve wondrous things, but you will never be in the regular Olympics. The hole in your life that was once filled by your spouse will always be a hole in your heart.
When I write or say things like this, people sometimes think I am being insulting. I am not. Here's why.
First of all, your grief and my grief and the grief of others like us is an affirmation that Love is eternal. I will ALWAYS love Jim, and even Death cannot kill that love. That is extraordinary. Embrace it. Love conquers Death in a very real sense. That's powerful. That's beautiful.
Secondly, I have found that my loss has made me a more complex, more empathetic, and more appreciative person. I don't take things or people for granted (I didn't really before, but now even less so). I led a rather blessed life before Jim died in which things always seemed to work out for me. Now I can really understand as never before what it is like to have a setback. Oh, I did go through a divorce before this, which was very hard, but enduring the death of a loved one is much much worse.
In summary, in the short term, focus on taking care of your health. In the long term, learn to accept that you are a different person now. Not necessarily worse or better, but different. Get to know that new person. You are entering a new stage in your life. You will face new challenges, and experience success and failure. You will lose more people, but you will also meet new people. Leave yourself open to possibilities.
You are only a few months into the grieving process. You should know that the average period of intense grief is 18 months to 2 years. That's the period where you really need to focus on your health. Now, it can last longer than that, of course, so, again, no rules on time. An analogy that was told to me that I find to be true is this: Suffering through the loss of a spouse or partner is like being a ship in a storm. During the storm, you will be battered by wave after wave of grief and it will be an extremely rough ride, but even after the storm has passed, the sea will still have waves. They become fewer and farther apart and usually much more moderate, but you may still get hit with a big wave of grief, even a rogue wave. Over six years after Jim's death, and there are still days I grieve hard, especially on his birthday or anniversary. But they occur less often.
I like that you still call yourself Lucky Fox and that you are still going to furcons (thanks for your comments about the GFA). Sounds like you're doing all the right things. Just remember that you can keep living without setting the past aside. The love you have in your heart will always be a part of you.
A note on comments: Comments on letters to Papabear are welcome, especially those that offer extra helpful advice and add something to the conversation that is of use to the letter writer and those reading this column. Also welcome are constructive criticisms and opposing views. What is NOT welcome are hateful, hurtful comments, flaming, and trolling. Such comments will be deleted from this site. Thank you.