I have long felt connected to the ancient stoic philosophers and in particularly to their attitude towards death. There isn’t anything one can do about death, so there is no point in worrying about it, or wishing it wouldn’t or didn’t happen.
This didn’t change when my wife suddenly died last year. I have never, not even for a moment, wished her back, or felt angry about what happened. That just seemed pointless. It simply felt like her death at 37 was something that was always going to happen, except that we never knew about it.
It often seemed that other people were more affected by what happened than I was. As I was speaking to my mother-in-law earlier today, she mentioned that she didn’t remember much of what happened during those days. It feels like I remember every single moment.
There exists a great amount of literature, and other kinds of media, on grief, but I carefully avoided these, for I felt so little connection to them. It seemed that everyone else who lost a partner also lost part of the will to live, at least temporarily. I went out to buy a new bag three days after my wife’s death and felt happy and very much alive.
It is well known that everyone experiences grief differently and I just seemed to experience it very well.
“Did you really?” the psychologist sitting in a big armchair asks me. And I proudly and a little too quickly answer that “yes I did”. And then slowly realise that this pride was at least part of the problem.
“Doing well” was something I had become proud of, something that I almost defined myself through: I was that guy whose wife died and who was doing so well.
As with many things I write down here, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. Especially because after a while I wasn’t doing that well any more.
Sure, I was dealing well with the narrow definition of grief. I was never upset or angry about her death. But grief is so much broader than that.
It includes feeling lonely. Feeling unsettled. Being anxious about the future. Worrying whether you will ever find someone who will know you that well. Missing the things we did together. Missing looking after someone. Missing those things that were really ‘us’. Struggling with the questions that will forever remain unanswered.
In my wish to be doing well ─ and to appear to be doing well ─ I ignored all these aspects of grief, sometimes right until they hit me in the face. And then I tried to reason these worries away.
“You know it doesn’t work like that, don’t you?” the psychologist, still sitting in the big armchair, points out. And I don’t answer because of course I do. But patience isn’t something I am particularly good at.
A few months after my wife’s death, someone said I seemed to be embracing grief. And at the time, I did indeed. And then I stopped doing that.
Apart from the fact that I was feeling somewhat proud of my way of dealing with grief, I also felt that focusing on it got in my way of moving on. Which it did, but only because I was trying to move on too fast.
In recent months, I have started to embrace grief again. No, I still don’t feel upset or angry about my wife’s early death: that aspect of my dealing with grief was genuine. But I have suddenly become the kind of widower who uses his wife’s picture at the background image of his phone. And that is more okay than I thought it would be half a year ago.
Saying that we are again dealing with my fears and anxieties together sounds cheesy and isn’t really true either: I am very aware of the fact that I am really on my own and that she isn’t there to give me advice. But as long as I feel connected to her, I can gather the strength and patience I need to move forward. At whatever speed is appropriate.