I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never had a serious illness or major operation, or any other traumatic physical malady. I’ve never suffered any physical affliction that required months to heal or physical therapy to get back on my feet, nothing that required patience and hard work to regain my strength or mobility in order to return to normal. So being consumed by grief and having to work through it for more than a year is something foreign to me. Working with a therapist to help me slowly make my way back to normal is something I’m unaccustomed to. I’m not a patient person, and I’ve rarely had to be; as a result, I’ve been impatient with the whole grieving process. I found myself wondering month after month, how long will it be until I feel normal again? How long will it be until I get used to living here alone? How long will it be until he doesn’t consume most of my waking thoughts, until the memories of absolutely everything we’ve done together start to dissipate?
Then, today, when I woke up, I realized I did not look over at the empty spot in my bed and start to feel the sadness overcome me. My first thoughts this morning weren’t of Rick. When I went to bed last night, I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I longed to hear him softly snoring next to me again. I didn’t hug my pillow pretending it’s him. And that indicates that I’m far, far ahead of where I was last year – or even a few months ago – on this long grief journey. The memories still come and I imagine they will for the rest of my life. Some bring sadness, some make me smile. But the gut-wrenching pain they bring is mostly in the past. This morning was very different from the mornings of the past year and a half. This morning I woke up realizing that I’m mostly done being consumed by grief.
“Consumed” describes it perfectly, because for the better part of the time since Rick died, the grief was all-consuming. But I also realized today that the measure of how much I was consumed by grief over his death correlated perfectly with the measure of how much I was consumed by love for him.
When I think back on our marriage, putting it into words will probably make me sound like I was some kind of obsessed nut, but in reality, I was just a woman very much in love with her husband. I loved being Rick’s wife. And, yes, I was consumed by thoughts of him and with love for him. He was the first person I saw when I woke up in the morning and the last person I saw when I went to bed at night. And that was by choice.
Rick was the one I wanted to do everything and nothing with. And I did. Most of my waking thoughts were about him – from when I arose, then throughout the day, and into the evening. I thought about him if I wasn’t with him and arranged my life to be with him as often as I could. If I wasn’t with him, I wondered where he was. Is he in his office or outside in the yard, or off riding his bicycle? What is he doing? Is he okay?
Usually on the weekends, when I woke up, he’d already been up for awhile because I always went to bed a couple hours later than he did, and I liked to sleep in. So I would wake up and listen for sounds from his office. I’d think, I bet he’s pretty hungry. I’d better get dressed quickly so we can go eat. Or I’d see a good weather forecast and think, oh that’s nice – he’ll be able to ride his bicycle today. He loves that. In the afternoon, I might think, he looks a little tired. Wonder if he wants to take a nap. Or maybe I’d think about something he told me he wanted to do and wonder if he’d like to go do it now. Or if there was something he needed, like socks, so I’d ask if he wanted to go shopping.
And that’s how my days went by, and then my weeks, and then my years – always thinking about him and his needs and his desires and his wants, and trying to fulfill them if I could. It wasn’t me being obsessed, or being some type of dominated wife who just wanted to please my man, with no concern for my own welfare. The feeling was mutual. He was always doing sweet little things to please me or worrying about me, and he usually just wanted to be home with me – again, doing nothing or anything as long as we were together. We spent hours and hours and hours talking about life and love and hopes and dreams and family and authors and politics. He was my sounding board and I was his. He was my favorite person to be with and the feeling was mutual. Basically, by his daily actions and the way he showed his desire to spend time with me, he proved that he was consumed with the same kind of love for me.
And now that he’s gone, I see how it’s similar to the Empty Nest Syndrome that parents feel when their children grow up and get lives of their own. I was as consumed with love for my son Brandon when he was little. Is he hungry? Is he warm enough? Does he need a nap? Is he coming down with a fever? I need to buy him new clothes. I need to buy him nutritious food. I need to make sure he gets to school. I strove to be sure he was safe and happy and socializing well and learning all he needed to grown into a good man. I was consumed with my child and his needs because I was consumed with love for him. Of course, the love part didn’t end, but when he left the nest, I couldn’t hover anymore. Although I’ll always worry about him and his needs, when he became an adult, he didn’t need – or want – the same amount of care from me. My all-consuming thoughts and love are no longer required as much by my grown son and it took some getting used to the emptiness that came over having an adult son who didn’t need me anymore. It took a long time getting used to that empty nest.
And suddenly, with Rick’s death, my nest was empty again, my home was empty, my bed was empty, and my life was empty because Rick is gone. As with my son, the love didn’t end, but all that caring and loving and needing to be with him was cut from my life in an instant. And in this case, he isn’t just living in another home, but gone completely from my life.
If the Empty Nest Syndrome is the term we use for the challenge of accepting when our children grow and leave us – what do we call it when a spouse dies? The Empty Life Syndrome?
And taken in that light, now I see how long the process of grieving would have to be. All that love and all that caring and all those thoughts are left with nowhere to go. When the half of your life that’s totally focused on another person and his happiness and his desires and his health is over, what do you do with all that time and love? Where does all that brain power go? It takes a long time to stop yourself from the habit of expending all that energy towards a mate who’s no longer there. It takes a long time to become accustomed to being alone. And it takes lots of work and therapy and energy to find a new outlet for all that love and for all the pain of missing the person you’d rather be with more than anyone else.
It’s takes effort to fill the void that was once consumed by love.
So I guess if Rick’s death has taught me anything, it’s that grief takes patience. Just as healing from a physical trauma doesn’t happen overnight, healing from Empty Life Syndrome takes lots of time and work — and sometimes even therapy. But, thankfully, it gets a little easier every day, and one morning you may wake up surprised to find that so much healing has taken place, you’re able to function, once again.