Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Grief Recovery Formula

One would think that after all I have gone through the past six years that I would possess some sort of special knowledge or golden key in regard to surviving grief. But I am finding the opposite is true. The more I experience, the less I seem to understand about grief/loss and the more complex it is to me.

So in six years I have dealt with the following life changing events and losses:

1. Cancer of spouse over three year period. Includes one bone marrow transplant.
2. Two failed attempts at IVF (started when we were told my spouse had beaten the cancer - I went through the last implantation on my own while my husband was in the hospital and was told the pregnancy had not taken two weeks before my husband died - I never told him and soon after, he was in a coma).
3. Death of spouse.
4. Youngest son's diagnosis with a potentially fatal heart condition just one year after spouse's death. (Diagnosis was revoked after seven months of medical investigation, including genetic testing).
5. Financial hardships.
6. Illness and caretaking of parents. (Includes taking parents to doctor visits, eye surgeries and helping them move into two assisted living facilities).
7. Being an "only" parent.
8. Courtship and remarriage.
9. My Mom's illness and death to colon cancer.
10. My father's continued health issues (near death numerous times).
11. The cleaning out and sale of my childhood home.
12. Discord in my second marriage mostly dealing from the fact that he was a 50-year-old-never-married guy who lacked the patience and tolerance to take on a ready-made family.
13. The miserable period of my divorce when my second husband refused to speak with me or make any attempt at reconciling.
14. Financial ruin from the divorce.
15. Difficulties in finding a job when the Recession hit.
16. Foreclosure.
17. Selling five bedroom home of 19 years.
18. Packing and moving into two-bedroom apartment less than half the size of my home.
19. Dating issues from being back in a relationship while carrying tremendous baggage.
20. Weird family dynamics that were stirred up with the illnesses of the parents, including strained relations and lack of contact with siblings.

This list is tipped and greatly out of balance. After my spouse's death, I was bombarded with circumstances that were challenging to handle on my own as a widowed, middle-aged mom (secondary grief losses). No doubt, all the care-taking responsibilities that occurred with my parents were the hard luck of being a middle-aged adult. The fact that I was a new widow was unfortunate. I was having a hard enough time trying to get back on my feet after my spouse's death and here I was undertaking care-taking duties at a time when I should have been focused on myself and my boys. Just a sad twist of fate. In my case, I would have to say that all the stuff that came after my spouse's death was far more painful and challenging to me than his actual death.

I have two shelves full of grief books and have worked in the field as a mental health counselor. But all I know for certain at this point about grief is that there is no guide book we can follow - there are no magical steps we can take to get us through it. It is an individual and unique process. I think it is not about getting over the grief but about incorporating a new identity with the person you have become since your losses. And the only way to get to that point is to keep living and bravely facing the days ahead of you.

There need to be periods of self-reflection, processing and solitude. At least, that is my take on this whole thing. Right now, I just want to be by myself to reflect on my failed marriage and the loss of our home. I need to sit with those losses and let the sadness consume me. I want to have the time and to take the time to feel the pain of what is now gone from my life.

Even though I know there is not really any kind of guide or formula to follow, the following is just what I think happens to people surviving grief/loss in terms of steps and growth:

Widow in the Middle's formula for grief recovery =

Time + Feeling the Pain + Self-Reflection/Processing + Self-Awareness + Willingness to See Oneself as a New/Different Person + Growth = Person who has become a Survivor with an Expanded Identity

I am beginning to understand all those analogies to butterflies. Perhaps it is not so much how we get through the period of intense grief/loss, but how we emerge into the people we become after facing tragedy.

Today I am grateful:

1. For migraine medicine (I know I've put this down before but I am really grateful it exists because I have severe headaches often and regular aspirin doesn't cut it).
2. For my boys' willingness to accept the situation we are in with courage and dignity.
3. For all that I have materially, even when it is less than what I used to have - it is still enough for us to get by.
4. For the reality that bad times don't last (there is change and flux in all things).


  1. your listing your troubles nails down the pain you have been feeling and maybe haven't had time to address, as you said, taken the time to face, address, and get through. of all the grief books i've read, and you surely have read more, the common thread is time. how long? no one knows. i am glad you got your migraine medicine. i am very glad your sons are doing well despite what life has thrown at them. and i am happy you have enough materially to get by. sometimes it's true, "enough is as good as a feast."

  2. You don't know me but I felt compelled to let you know that I am thinking about you and really hope that good things start coming your way, you certainly deserve it. You truly have been through hell and have every right to feel as you do. Their is no timeline on grief, and people who think you should be "over it" or should "move on" while I'm sure mean well have no idea..... Do what you need to do for YOU to get through. Wishing you and your boys all the best!

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Time to grieve and "heal" is what we need but it frustrates me to live in a society where we're criticized for "taking too long." For me, I never had a chance to grieve the right way at the right time and am trying to do so now six long years later. Then to add to the fun, I get to grieve about all the stuff that happened besides my husband dying! And in a way those losses are worse.