DEAR DOCTOR K:
My spouse passed away last year, and I am still grieving. Is this normal?
By coincidence, I’m writing this reply to your question on the 51st anniversary of my father’s death. He died very young. This is a sad day — at least for me, this grief never fully ends.
Grief is not a mountain to be climbed and then descended with a map in hand. It differs greatly from one person to another, and from one culture to the next. In America, there can be pressure, often from well-meaning family and friends, to attain “closure” by the time a year has passed. The truth, though, is that grief doesn’t neatly conclude at the one-year mark.
The more important someone was to your life, the more opportunities there are for happy and sad reminders that underscore your loss. The other evening, for example, my wife had placed a glass of wine near the edge of the dinner table. When I saw it, I instinctively moved it away from the edge.
Then I realized that my father was very compulsive about this. When my sister and I were young, whenever we had placed a glass of liquid near the edge of the table, he’d move it. He explained that it could easily have been knocked to the floor, and the consequences of that. I realized that I was still figuratively hearing my father’s voice — 51 years later.
Feelings of sadness, abandonment, loss and even anger are especially likely around birthdays, weddings, the anniversary of the death, and holidays or other occasions you might have shared. A familiar scent, song or likeness can also trigger feelings of grief. All of this is entirely normal.
So, depending on the strength of the bond that was broken, grief can be lifelong. Usually, though, grief softens and changes over time.
The raw, all-consuming shock of early grief will eventually begin to lessen. Gradually, at your own pace, you will find yourself adjusting to your loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.
The following tips may help you to get through this difficult time:
- Establish a simple, daily schedule. A familiar routine can help restore a sense of normalcy and make grief more manageable. It lends structure to the day at a time when life seems unfamiliar and out of control.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. When you’re grieving, sleep can be particularly important at helping maintain emotional balance. Grief is exhausting, and sleep can represent a relief from the emotional pain of loss.
- Keep up with your exercise. A simple walk, a bike ride, yoga or a harder workout can ease agitation, anger and depression. Exercise can serve as a distraction when you need a break from grief. Exercise can also help lift spirits by releasing mood-elevating hormones, relieving stress and promoting a sense of well-being.
- Finally, give yourself permission to grieve. Healing won’t happen on a schedule. Be patient with yourself. And if you need a break from grieving, that’s OK, too.