The Phantom Limb

A widow sister of mine, Kimberly H, did a video post on Facebook that many widows can relate to. In the post, she said how she wanted to hurry home and tell her love, Rasheed, something special that happened that day. But then she realized: he’s not here to tell. In this video, she was close to tears behind a pair of huge sunglasses.

Watching this video, I was just as close to tears. I knew exactly what she meant.

She called it a “Phantom Limb” moment-reaching for who you expect to be there but isn’t. Hearing her put that moment, that feeling into those terms truly affected me. It made perfect sense.

In medical layman’s terms, a “phantom limb” refers to how amputees still feel their missing limb, even years after its removal. It can happen at any time. The sensation often ranges from tingling and itching to burning and severe pain. The amputee sometimes even tries to use this limb, the sensation of it being there is so strong. There is no real way to relieve this feeling. Recent research points to the cause of this pain to changes in the brain itself-much in the same way we are told grief changes how our brains work.

Makes total sense now, doesn’t it? Kimberly was on to something.

Here is how I see this: We have lost something we didn’t expect to lose. We still feel it, even though we can clearly see its gone. And this feeling of painful loss never really, truly goes away. You’re still reaching out to touch this missing piece, over and over. But over and over you realize it’s just not there. That realization, as well as the basic physicality of not having the missing piece, reignites the pain of the loss over and over again.

Let’s consider this from the beginning.

I took my husband to the hospital so that they could heal him…so they could make our body- our family- strong and whole again. Instead, he became too sick to stay a part of our physical family, and he was removed, abruptly and painfully from us.

This left an open wound on us, physically and mentally.

The words and kind gestures of others who recognized our pain at the loss served to help heal the open wound itself. The wound began to scar over and the pain seemingly dulled over time. But no matter what is said and done to reduce or erase the magnitude of what happened, the scar from the separation still exists.

Once all of the kind and sympathetic people who helped with the start of the healing went back to their own lives, I was left alone to figure out how to live with my missing piece. The wound heals, but the missing piece is still gone. I still needed that piece. I still wanted that piece back. No one seemed to understand. So here I am.

How do I keep living without that missing limb, that missing person?

Using artificial means to lessen the pain, like shopping too much, eating too much, drinking or doing drugs – doesn’t solve the problem. Much the same as having an artificial limb doesn’t cure the phantom limb pain. An artificial limb gives the illusion that everything is whole, but any amputee, no matter how accepting they are of their loss, will tell you it’s just not the same.

As time goes on, you learn slowly but surely learn to cope with life without the missing piece. But then the phantom limb moment hits you…when you finally get the promotion you’ve been working toward and you want to tell the person you know would cheer the loudest. When your child brings home a straight A report card. When you need to help your son tie a tie for the prom. Your instant reaction is to look for or even call the name of the missing piece. There’s no answer. It should be there because you still feel it there. But it isn’t.

First the tingle, then the pain.

Next, the sinking feeling of “why”?

Why do I keep feeling these things even though he’s gone?

Why am  I still smelling him? Looking for him? Why can’t I call him? Why do I keep forgettting that no one is going to eat that because he was the only one who did and he’s gone? Why did I even buy that?

Why is he not here for all of these important things? Our oldest has so many questions I cannot answer. I don’t know how to teach him how to be a man? I expected him to be here when I needed him…which is almost all the time.

Such is the phantom limb pain you get in those moments.

What do I do?

I’ve learned the best way to cope with phantom limb moments is to just feel them. Just ride the moment. Be angry if I need it. Cry if I want. Or just sit there and wonder. Just like actual phantom limb pain, you have flow with it. Just be aware of it. Most of all, find someone who understands these moments to help you through it.

The moments of pain never going to go completely away, but they will lessen with time. I’ll say it again…the stings of those moments WILL lessen with time.

In the meantime, just remember, that phantom limb moment is a not-always-gentle reminder of something beautiful and magnificent reminding you its presence in your life…and think about how you’d feel if you never had the piece you are now missing so painfully in the first place.


Cheryl Barnes was born in Atlanta, Georgia and after several moves with her family, settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended college at Indiana University Bloomington, majoring in Public and Environmental Affairs Management. While she attended college, she laid eyes on Martin “Tony” Barnes and was completely lost. They became inseparable and were married on December 24th, 1991. After five years of marriage, their first son, Malcolm, was born on New Year’s Eve, 1991. After Tony obtained his Master’s Degree in Social Work, the family moved to Orlando, Florida. Tony worked as a counselor, while Cheryl got her dream job working at Walt Disney World. Two years later, their second son, Miles, was born in July 2004. Cheryl left Disney and took a job in accounting at a property management company. Everything seemed to be going well for the family and Cheryl made plans to attend nursing school. However, in July 2011, Tony was diagnosed with end stage renal failure caused by lupus. For the next three years, Cheryl cared for her husband while taking care of the boys and working. Tony’s health deteriorated as a result of several complications until he passed away on August 29, 2014. Thus began her new journey as a widow and solo parent.
Cheryl was devastated at the loss of her beloved Tony, but continued to work and care for their sons as she had before. As a way to work through her grief, she started writing, at first, only for herself. But, being encouraged by others, she began publishing her blog, “Widowness and Light.” Along with writing and being involved with several widows groups on Facebook while raising her boys, she works as a training bookkeeper at an association management company.
She plans to go back to school and obtain a Master’s in Social Work so that she can help other widowed persons cope with their losses. She is also working on a book about her grief journey.
Her hobbies are reading, attending Orlando Magic games, yoga, going to the beach, and just chilling with her boys.
Additionally, she is also the founder of Black and Widowed: A Unique Journey, a Private Facebook group and a contributing author of the book, Widowed But Not Wounded: The Hustle and Flow of 13 Resilient Black Widowed Women.
You can also reach Cheryl through her public Facebook page, Widowness and Light, which is based on her widowed journey.