The experience of grief is like going into space. Yes really, just hear me out. My point is, only those who have been out in space really know what it’s like. How the G-force feels, the eeriness of going beyond earth and venturing into a starry black world.
Grief is similar in that if you’ve not been in that situation yourself, it’s difficult to even imagine what it would be like. And even when you do try and picture it, the reality is way beyond what you pictured.
I think one of the most frustrating things about dealing with grief is the reactions you get from those around you, at least that’s what I’ve found anyway. You see, grief should be spoken about, explored and supported, but this doesn’t always happen. Grief makes people act strange. Have you noticed that some people would rather avoid you than talk with you about your grief?
I know it’s very annoying, and it makes you feel like these people don’t care. They probably do care, they just don’t know how to show it. And because they can’t possibly contemplate what your grief feels like, they panic.
If you find some people drift away, give them time, and a few years down the line they may reappear in your life. There’s no need to hold a grudge because they weren’t there for you. At least hear them out and see how things were from their perspective.
I thought it might be useful to write down how it feels from a grieving person when those around you distance themselves, and what we’d really like people to do.
If I was to write an open letter to those who don’t understand grief, this is what I would say.
To whom it may concern…
I’ve lost someone who was dear to me, and now it feels like I can’t live without them, and I’ve fallen apart. I don’t quite know how I’m going to put myself back together. I know you can’t understand what grief feels like, but if I were to try and describe it, it feels as though someone is reaching inside your heart and squeezing it tight.
Except the squeezing never stops. Every time that person pops into my head, or I am reminded of what I’ve lost, the squeezing starts again, and if it gets too tight, my heart is going to disappear altogether. There are times when I’m getting on with my day like everybody else, and then out of nowhere my grief attacks me, and I’m paralysed.
When I voice my grief some people find it awkward. They don’t know what to say and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Well, the truth is, sometimes I just want someone there as a sounding board, someone who can listen. And there’s really nothing you can say that’s wrong.
OK maybe there’s one thing, ‘it will get easier’. Please don’t say this. At the moment it feels like it will never get easier, and saying that it will suggests there will be a time when the person I’ve lost will become less important, and that thought terrifies me.
I know you might want to go and hide under a rock when I get upset or start talking about my loss, but I’d really love it if you try and be around some of the time. I don’t need you to show me endless sympathy or be there every single day, I’d just really like to just go for coffee or do things together that might help distract me.
I get that this is hard for you too, and that death and loss is a tough topic for anyone. It probably scares the crap out of you because you are terrified in case you lose someone. You might be drawing a blank when it comes to thinking of something to say to me, but I can help you out. I can steer the conversation and help you to avoid those quiet silences.
One important thing you need to know is that I’m not just going to snap out of it in a year or so. People with grief don’t just ‘move on’ when a certain amount of time passes. Instead of ceasing to exist, grief tends to evolve and change, and adapt to each person as their grief takes on new forms. A bit like a shape shifter that can morph into new animals.
Today my grief might feel like a tiger clawing at my skin, and next month it could feel like a dolphin diving through the waves, it just depends. I’d really like you to come on this journey with me. I can teach you a lot about grief and overcoming life’s challenges and our relationship will grow in new and beautiful ways. There really is nothing to be afraid of, I still very much want you in my life.
In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Jessica Marcellus takes on the tricky issue of when to start dating after the death of a partner.
Two years ago, at Christmas time, I sat on the couch beside my husband Dan, the room aglow with the soft reds and greens of twinkling lights woven around a freshly cut balsam fir. Notes of Christmas carols drifted into the room from a staticky old radio in the kitchen, the volume dialed low; the room was otherwise quiet.
Using the firm, protruding surface of my nine months pregnant belly, I folded a tiny mountain of freshly laundered infant clothing. I held each cotton onesie, each fuzzy sleeper over my abdomen, marvelling that the kicking, squirming little stranger inside me would be wearing these clothes in just a few short weeks.
After a while, Dan spoke, breaking what had been a sustained, evening-long silence between us.
“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.
Dan had brain cancer. He had been diagnosed with the horrific, inoperable tumor just two months earlier. And now, here we were, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that he likely wouldn’t live to celebrate our child’s first birthday. All this at a time when most parents-to-be were worrying over whether to paint the nursery Chambray Blue or Cape Cod Gray.
“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.
I bowed my head, glancing down at the diamond ring on my left hand, its princess-cut stone glinting prettily in the multicolored glow cast by the tree lights. I studied the platinum setting, then each tiny inlaid stone of the matching wedding band, the prolonged scrutiny an attempt to hide the heat that had sprung to my cheeks, the water in my eyes.
Aware that several minutes had gone by, I finally looked up to meet his gaze. There were tears in his eyes, too.
“I couldn’t imagine taking them off,” I admitted, truthfully. He nodded. Paused.
“Well, I’d hope you would get married again someday.” He said it matter-of-factly, but the magnitude of his words hung in the air between us, palpable.
“Me, too, honey.”
To this day, I consider myself lucky, in a sense, that Dan vocalised his wish for me to find someone else after he was gone. Some people, especially those who lose their partners suddenly or unexpectedly, aren’t granted the luxury of this formal approval. Others still never have a conversation such as ours due to the discomfort it could induce.
But regardless, I suppose, of a deceased partner’s thoughts or wishes on the subject, the topic of finding love again will inevitably cross the minds of most, if not all surviving halves at some point. The question, then, becomes: how soon after loss is it appropriate to begin dating?
The simple answer is, of course, that there isn’t one. Or, what every information-seeker wants to hear: it depends. But really, it does. So many factors are at play in deciding when to reenter what can be a simultaneously ominous and exciting dating scene.
Was your partner’s death sudden, or expected? Did it happen as a result of a long illness? Did you have children together? Would you like to have more someday? Do you feel well supported in your grief? Are you ready to risk more heartbreak, after already experiencing an unimaginable one?
In my case, the first six months after Dan died were spent focusing solely on raising my infant son and figuring out how the hell to survive on my own. I had no energy, no space in my soul, for anything other than those two tasks.
I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.
So, I spent a month visiting my sister in Florida. I studied books on grieving, read novels, memoirs. I learned to use the zero-turn lawnmower — bumped along the uneven ground of our 2.5 acres on late-summer evenings with a baby monitor balanced between my knees.
I adjusted, mostly, to the quiet of the house at night after putting Sawyer to bed; to the absence of Dan’s State Police cruiser from its usual spot in the driveway; to the empty space in our bedroom closet and in our king-sized bed. Little by little, I learned to live with each of these unfamiliar, undesired vacancies, facing them anew each day until, gradually, they became less glaring.
Beneath the thickest fog of grief, though — even in those first few months — existed an embryonic desire to fill in those hollow spaces created by Dan’s absence. I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.
Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with.
I’d also already experienced a good deal of what is so neatly termed “anticipatory grief” — that which occurs before an impending loss. In the nine months between Dan’s diagnosis and his death, I’d done my absolute best to prepare for a future without him. I’d forced myself to visualize the inevitable decline in health, the physical act of dying, the utter heartbreak and loneliness I would feel once he was actually gone. I’d also imagined — painfully, reluctantly, hopefully — the possibility of happiness with someone else.
Anticipatory grief, admittedly, only gets you so far. The reality is a thousand times worse than anything you could have imagined. Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with. And so I’d needed those first six months desperately, to debrief, decompress, pull myself together.
But I do believe that the “preparation” I’d done — forcing myself to feel the emotions of losing Dan in advance, to sit with them, to accept them — contributed to my resilience, and ultimately, to an acknowledgement of my wish to move forward.
Have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?
And so, around that six month mark, a few things happened. First, I resumed the practice of going to the gym, a hobby I’d foregone throughout the course of Dan’s illness. Working out helped me feel strong again, physically and emotionally. And working out alongside an occasional fit, attractive stranger — well, there’s not much explanation needed there.
Second — and for this, I’ll forever be grateful — a few friends brought up the subject of me dating again, and in doing so, made my desire to date feel acceptable.
I can attribute one conversation, in particular, to giving me that nod of approval I’d unknowingly sought after. I was chatting one morning at the gym with a casual friend, who also happened to be the wife of one of Dan’s former coworkers. Known for her directness (a quality of hers which I had always admired), she wasted no time in getting to the point.
“So, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she broached. “I think other people have been wondering this too, but have been afraid to bring up the subject — have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?”
“Uhh,” I stumbled over my response, caught off guard by the question. “I haven’t really thought about it much, no,” I answered hesitantly, the fear of judgment apparent even from this woman who clearly had no intention of judging me. She nodded, didn’t probe further.
“If I were in your position,” she offered instead, matter-of-factly, “I think I would wait six months to a year. After that, I feel like I’d want to move on with my life, like I’d be missing out otherwise.”
I didn’t say so then, but those few words were exactly what I needed to hear. Both validating and approving, her sentiment made my desire to love again feel reasonable, practical even. I’d just needed someone to tell me that it was okay.
Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.
A few weeks later, after a rare second glass of wine one evening, I created a Tinder profile. I told no one. I spent a few days swiping through strangers before finally deciding I would meet one of them for coffee. It was only then that I sheepishly confided in a good friend that I would be going on a date. Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.
But in the end, my desire for partnership, for companionship, for laughter, for intimacy — for another chance at the future I’d once envisioned with Dan — was simply greater than my fear of reproval from those around me.
So I went on that coffee date, and I continued dating, for the first time in my adult life. At first, only those closest to me knew of these adventures. I didn’t mention my dating life in casual conversation. I didn’t post about it on social media. It would take more time, and ultimately meeting a man worth mentioning, before I felt ready for the world to know I had “moved on.” But when I did feel ready, I was surprised to find I encountered very little judgement at all.
As I now approach the two-year mark of widowhood, I have no regrets about the way in which I went about dating after Dan, or the timeline I followed. But I’ve also learned that if one certainty about widowhood exists, it’s that everyone’s grief is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling it. It is not linear; follows no timeline; has no end. My journey is my own.
Others facing similar circumstances may need more time — or less — before wanting to move forward. To that end, the “right” amount of time, I think, to wait before seeking out new love is however long it takes to begin feeling ready to stop surviving and start living again.
And for those, like me, who need someone to give them the go-ahead? I’ll gladly be that person.
Jessica Marcellus is a NICU nurse and writer living in Fairfax, Vermont. You can find out more about how Jessica and two-year-old Sawyer are getting on by following her Instagram account, @Jess.Marcellus.
In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork.
My husband Brad and I used to joke about who would die first. It was a strange thing to joke about when we were in our 20s and had our entire lives ahead of us, but that’s how far from reality death was. It was laughable. Something that happened to other people. Something that, when it did inevitably happen, would happen much later in life.
We finally compromised and decided that if we couldn’t simultaneously die in our sleep when we were in our 90s as planned, then I could go first. We both knew Brad was much better equipped to handle the aftermath of losing me.
But I didn’t die first. Brad beat me to it. After an unexpected and grueling 100-day battle with kidney cancer, I became a 33-year-old widow.
No one can prepare you for becoming a widow or widower. It is one of the most difficult losses you can endure. However, here are five things I wish I had been better prepared for:
1. The paperwork
I never realized that with death came a mountain of paperwork. Paperwork that in some cases would linger for years. Medical bills, creditor notices, estate documentation – I was completely naive to the logistics of death that go beyond the memorial service.
At a time when all I wanted to do was grieve my loss, I had to go to court to validate Brad’s will. I had to cancel credit cards and bank accounts. I had to transfer real estate and phone bills and Netflix accounts into my name. I had to argue with the IRS over student loan bills. The contents of my mailbox shifted from travel magazines to daily reminders of my loss. It’s been over two years and I am still dealing with the paperwork and logistics surrounding Brad’s death.
2. The shift in your relationships
This will happen both immediately and slowly, over time. In my experience, people are uncomfortable with grief. They don’t know what to say or how to handle it. Most are unable to sit with you in the pain. It brings up their own grief and they are unable to handle both their grief and yours. So, they avoid the pain and discomfort, and ultimately, you.
You are living most people’s nightmare. You are a reminder that this could happen to them too. That reminder is difficult to handle. Usually, it’s not intentional – often people aren’t even aware they are feeling this way. But it’s real. Especially if you are the first in their life to go through such a loss. Oftentimes, friends and family you expected to show up end up avoiding you in order to continue living in the comfort of blissful ignorance.
But it’s not always the fault of others. When Brad died, I couldn’t handle living in the same home, in the same city, with the same friends, without him. It felt like my world had stopped and everything around me continued as usual. Every person and social situation was another reminder that Brad was dead. So, I ran away. I spent months driving around the country, avoiding the life left behind. And when I came back, people understandably had moved on.
Losing your partner will test not just you, but all the relationships in your life. Your social circle will shrink. And the ones who stick around – who continue to support well after the memorial service – will be share a bond with you for life.
3. The secondary losses
Losing your partner doesn’t mean just losing your spouse. With it comes the loss of the future you planned together. The loss of intimacy. The loss of income. The loss of security. The loss of health. The loss of your social circle. The loss of your breakfast companion. The loss of the recipient of your jokes. The loss of your jar opener. The loss of your dance partner. The loss of your road trip companion. The loss of your best friend.
There isn’t a single part of your life that is untouched by the loss of your spouse.
4. The grief ambush
Grief is not linear. It doesn’t happen in a neat forward motion. It’s messy and unexpected. You will be triggered without notice, at the most inconvenient times. When you look in your fridge and realize the A1 sauce – and all the other condiments that only he used – will sit there, untouched forever. When a certain song comes on in the grocery store and you break down in the middle of the cereal aisle. When the dentist asks how your husband is doing and tears start streaming down your face with his hands still inside your mouth.
You will think you are doing better, and you will be ambushed again. Eventually the triggers become less frequent and less hysterical. Eventually you will learn to manage them better. But there is no timeline or finish line to cross where the ambushes stop.
5. You will learn to balance joy and grief
It’s hard to see that in the beginning, when the loss feels so dark and heavy. And the initial joy will probably be accompanied by guilt – guilt for laughing or being happy when your person is no longer able to laugh or be happy.
But the joy will come. And that doesn’t mean the grief has disappeared: it just means you’ve learned to balance both. You’ve learned to expand and feel more than you thought possible before. You’ve learned how fragile life is and that creates a sense of urgency to live.
Carrying grief gives you a perspective on life that others who have yet to experience such a loss won’t fully understand. Grief is hard and it constantly tests you, but you will find your strength – and joy – again.
Dana Frost is a writer and the founder of the Forced Joy Project (http://www.forcedjoyproject.com). She is a big believer in sharing our stories of both grief and joy and an even bigger believer of kitchen dance parties. You can find her on Instagram @ForcedJoyProject.