grief work is a job

Since my husband died nine months ago, I’ve been attempting to find my new normal. Like all widows, I’m still getting used to living alone and adjusting to life without my partner, trying to balance taking care of my usual duties while I now take on Rick’s, too.

I continue to work full time as a technical writer/editor at the the same place I’ve worked for 22 years. In my spare time, I’m also attempting to maintain the web design company my husband and I started more than 15 years ago, and which was mostly Rick’s responsibility. I’ve reduced the client load to sites that only use our hosting services and require few updates, and I’m not taking on any new business, but the work is still time consuming.

Because I no longer have a man around the house, I’m taking on many of Rick’s other “regular duties.” After 34 years working for the airline industry, Rick took advantage of an early buyout in 2011 to focus on our business. Design was his joy and his passion, and I’m forever grateful that he spent the last 6 years of his life pursuing what he loved and enjoying his freedom, since he never made it to retirement age. His new schedule meant that he did most of the home maintenance, chores, and errands during the hours I spent at work. He also did all the shopping and cooked nearly every meal, and, wow, I miss coming home to his delicious dinners: grilled chicken, beef stew, Tex-Mex goulash, meatloaf, homemade guacamole and salsa, brats, and cheeseburgers.

Most of our responsibilities were split pretty evenly. I took care of the web business technical duties, budget, and invoicing. Rick ran the rest of the business (the designing, printing, and client needs). I took care of the inside of the house and laundry. He took care of the yard work, gutter cleaning, and car maintenance. I maintained the pool with the chemicals and supplies he toted home from the hardware store. He was also the go-to guy for the household emergencies (like the dead bunny my cat brought into the house and hid last week. I really missed having Rick here to handle that fiasco!).

So, now I’m forced to find time to take on his workload or devise ways to parcel out some of the responsibilities. I’m cooking and running errands that he normally performed. Plus, I made the difficult, decadent decision to use a grocery home delivery service despite the extra cost, since (1) I HATE grocery shopping (Rick loved it!); (2) my time is worth the money; and (3) did I mention I HATE grocery shopping?

My nephew starting doing our yard work when Rick got sick, and he’s still taking care of that, so that’s a huge relief. He’s also helped with several small home repairs. However, I’m beginning to plug away at some of the projects that need finishing around the house: tiling, painting, door molding, finishing the half-done basement, and more.

So, needless to say, each evening and weekend, I have my work cut out for me.

Except I don’t seem to be making much progress.

I need to cut and affix about 10 tiles and then do some grouting to finish the kitchen backsplash. The tile, tile cutter, grout, and tools have been sitting on the counter for a month (maybe two). Every weekend, I say this is the one! And instead I spend hours writing blog entries and poems about my grief and how much I miss Rick. I need to paint the walls in the hallway before I finish installing the rest of the door molding. The paint can and rollers are waiting for me on the floor in the hall. The first coat of primer is done, but I never seem to be motivated enough to do the final coat. Instead, evenings often find me curled up in a recliner under Rick’s favorite blanket, reminiscing about times we shared and crying quietly to myself.

When I wake up on a typical weekend morning, although there’s a list of chores I compiled throughout the week waiting on my desk, I don’t get out of bed. Instead, I burrow under the covers, desperately trying to remember the vestiges of a dream about Rick I had the night before, or looking at old photos in the Timehop app on my phone, or reading motivational grief essays on my Kindle. Often, when I get hunger pangs, I realize that it’s been several hours since I awoke, and I’ve been so lost in my thoughts of Rick that I never noticed the time passing.

It’s spring and it’s time to do the yard clean up. Instead, when I go outside prepared to start on a Sunday afternoon, or in the evening after work, and I end up sitting under the gazebo wearing Rick’s hoodie and listening to the wind chime that holds some of his ashes. I talk to him and tell him about my day, just like I used to. The only response is the tinkling of the chimes in the wind.

Then there are the times when I go to the store and sit in the car in the parking lot for a half hour, because a song on the radio reminded me of Rick, and I need to compose myself before I can mingle with others again. On sunny weekend afternoons, instead of accomplishing anything at home, I often drive to our local park – right where Rick and I used to go – just to sit and think about the past and to avoid going back to the empty house. Many weekday mornings, I plan my evening’s dinner and whatever I need to do on the latest project, but I scrap the plans and go meet friends for an impromptu dinner instead, then stay out until bedtime, because I don’t want to sit home another evening mired in sadness. I’m often late for work or appointments because I find myself lost in thought and discover that a half hour has passed since I remembered something Rick had once said or done, and I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of memories and grief once again.

All of this adds up to lost time and little accomplishment. Plans and goals mean nothing to me anymore, unless it’s something that brings him back to me: writing in my journal, composing poems, looking through old photos, digitizing our old videos, or just sitting and thinking, and remembering, and crying.

Those are the types of activities that fill my time now. And you know what? I’ve come to realize that it’s okay.

At my last session with my grief counselor, I expressed my frustration at not accomplishing much. I told her that I waste too much time. I can’t seem to get things done. My projects, my goals, my plans, all seem to be in limbo. And she told me something that made sense…she said grieving is work. It takes time and it takes energy, and the process can’t be rushed.

She said coping with grief is as much work as having another job.

And I remember now that when we began our sessions shortly after Rick died, she had cautioned me against making any major decisions in this fugue state of early grief, and told me I should also hold off on taking on any new responsibilities or duties.

And now I get it.

I knew “grief work” was a real term, but I hadn’t really thought about it as a job. Now that I’ve experienced the first nine months of the time and effort grief work entails, I can more easily accept that – like it or not – I have added another part-time job to my schedule. The person I shared my life with is gone and my entire life has been turned upside down. Grieving this horrendous loss is time-consuming work that’s more vital than all the other plans and projects that will now have to wait. I need to dedicate all the time I can to grieving, to adapting, and to working through the onslaught of memories, new duties, and sense of incredible loss that overwhelms me since I lost my husband.

So I’m stopping with the guilt, and I’m accepting that I can’t do it all. I need to focus on my new (and very necessary) job: grieving. This job requires quite a bit of time, and it definitely uses up lots of energy. Grieving is a harrowing job that destroys my schedule, saps my strength, and plays havoc with my emotions.

I would never have taken on this job voluntarily, but it’s work that MUST be accomplished. Unfortunately, I can’t avoid it, and I have to allow plenty of time to get the job done correctly.

The backsplash will be done someday. The walls will be painted. The molding will be installed. But it may not be any time soon, and I have to accept that. I have another important job that takes precedence in my life, and I need to devote time and energy to processing the thoughts and emotions that consume me. I need to save my energy for the arduous task of grieving.

So, from now on, I’m going to focus on doing the really important things:

I’m going to continue to take time to process my feelings and emotions through writing. I’m going to record my memories of Rick, what we shared, and what I’ve lost. I’m going to spend evenings sorting through pictures of Rick and letting the memories they trigger wash over me. I’m going to write poetry about my love and loss and dedicate it to him. I’m going to sit outside at night and talk to a wind chime, or look at the moon and remember dancing with Rick outside under the stars. I’m going to sit in my car and daydreaming about the good times, or curl up in my recliner and cry about my loss. I’m going to try to face listening to all the millions of songs that stir up millions of memories and I’m going to sing them softly to myself, or simply sob until the pain is vanquished.

Some evenings, I’m going to schedule time with my loved ones and friends to just hang out and talk. And other times, I’ll just sit quietly and feel his presence, and long for the day that I’ll see him again.

Yes, I’m no longer going to feel guilt at what I’m not accomplishing, because I’m going to focus on what really needs to be done. These are my important new tasks. This is what my new job entails. And everything else will have to take a backseat, because grieving my husband is the work that matters.

About 

On August 13, 2017, I lost the love of my life. Rick Palmer and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary one month before he died at age 63 of complications from treatments for small cell lung cancer. He was my partner and soulmate, the love I had been looking for and finally found at age 40.

Rick was a talented writer and web designer and, in 2002, we began our own web and print design business. We worked together building the business and enjoyed traveling, writing, and playing together. Our dream was to spend our golden years together doing more of the same, but in the ten months from diagnosis to death, that dream shattered.

After Rick’s death, I quickly realized that the enormity of his loss was too much for me to handle on my own, so I began grief therapy. I also began writing through my grief in a journal of feelings, thoughts, memories, and poetry. As I navigate my new life alone, I share my journey and my efforts towards creating my “new normal” on my personal blog: The Writing Widow. I’m also on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.