The Emotional Overwhelm of Others’ Grief

One of the surprising gifts of being widowed is that I feel more connected to others who are grieving—and these days, it seems like that’s a really big group. When I learn of someone else’s loss, I immediately soften toward them and feel deep empathy.

Sometimes, though, that deep empathy becomes intense enough to trigger my own grief and I find myself suddenly distraught. This has happened a few times in the past couple of weeks:

  • I was talking to a close friend on the phone whose mother recently died. At one point, my friend mentioned the challenge of getting her father, who has limited mobility, to the graveside for the service. I was already thinking of my friend’s loss; that was compounded with the realization of her father’s loss. I found myself choked up and unable to speak. While she was talking, I went from open, listening friend to devastated widow, from patiently holding space for her grief to completely immersed in mine. It happened so quickly and dramatically that I was momentarily disoriented and had to remind myself where I was and who I was on the phone with.
  • I was catching up with a colleague over coffee. She mentioned that she had lost a sibling years ago and still finds the holidays difficult. My eyes were instantly filled with tears, thinking of the big photo of Tom I had taped to a chair at every holiday dinner I attended so he would not be forgotten. For a few moments, I was physically looking at my colleague, but what I was seeing was the photo of Tom—him holding a giant martini glass with a pitcher’s worth of martinis in it, a smug look on his face. I thought of my colleague facing a similarly monumental loss and perhaps not having the strong support I have had of loved ones welcoming my quirk of taping a picture of Tom to a chair.
  • I was scrolling through social media and saw a friend’s post about his dog’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I thought of the desperate grasping at every moment that’s left my friend would surely feel in his dog’s remaining months, like what I felt after Tom’s stroke. Thinking of the immense comfort I had gotten after Tom’s death from our two dogs, I thought of how my friend’s house would feel oddly empty after his dog’s imminent death. I had to put my phone down and walk away to collect myself.

My practice of leaning into my grief means that I notice these reactions in myself but don’t try to contain them unless, like in the first situation, I feel like it would do some harm for me to let my grief run its course in the moment. In that situation, I needed to be present for my friend, so I shook my head and pushed my own grief aside until our call was done.

In the other instances, I just let my grief express itself. My colleague knew about my husband’s death and didn’t seem to think it was odd at all that I reacted the way I did to her disclosure about her brother. My own tears didn’t derail our conversation and I suspect that just as I felt closer to her knowing of her loss, she probably felt closer to me seeing my vulnerability. In the third situation, I was home with my daughter, and she’s used to seeing me fall apart at random moments now. She and I both have random moments of tears and emotional overwhelm and that’s pretty normal at our house.

In each instance, the grief of another brought my own grief dramatically to the surface, and my own grief allowed me to resonate more deeply with the loss the other person was experiencing. I am grateful for that deeper connection with others.

Being open to the pain of loss again

After my husband died, I realized for the first time that nearly every couple that doesn’t break up is going to see one of them widowed. I knew it abstractedly, of course, before Tom died, but the idea of living through the death of my partner seemed so unlikely and distant that when it did happen, it felt almost unnatural. But there is nothing unnatural about one partner outliving the other. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does put into perspective that being widowed is something an awful lot of us will experience, some of us more than once.

After his stroke, when it became clear that he was going to have significant health challenges for the rest of his life, my husband wanted to talk about me surviving him. Even knowing the facts of his medical condition, it seemed like an outlandish possibility to me. He was only 60. We were in love. We laughed and enjoyed the hell out of every day. Even paralyzed, plagued by pain and cognitive issues, he lived fiercely. I couldn’t imagine him ever not living. I evaded the discussion for months but finally he said, “This is important to me. I need to have this conversation.”

He wanted me to find love and happiness with someone after he died. I promised him I would, mostly to end the conversation. Imagining a world without him in it seemed farcical to me. Many days, it still does. Even with the celebration of life done, most of the paperwork done, the estate settling nearly done. Even with most of his clothes given away, the knife-sharpening stuff moved out to the garage, the makeshift bedroom on the main floor dismantled. He is still so present in my thoughts and conversations that it seems absurd sometimes that he’s dead.

“Now that you know how much it hurts to lose your life partner, will you open yourself up to that potential again?”

This question comes up regularly in the widow support groups I’m in. There are always some who say no, they have no interest in ever being vulnerable to that pain again. Others say yes, that vulnerability to another loss is a reasonable risk for the rewards of love. Every widowed person has to answer that question for themselves and there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a very personal decision that can be contingent on the role trauma has played in a person’s life, the circumstances of their partner’s death, their tolerance for emotional pain, and more.

Despite how personal the decision is, many of the folks in my support groups have been told by others what their answer should be. Just as people think they can tell grieving people how long their grief should last, they also sometimes think they can tell us whether or not we should pursue another relationship. Someone suggested to me that falling in love again would “tarnish” the story of my relationship with my husband who died; I gave them a salty response. A couple others have told me what timeline they think would be acceptable for me to find another relationship—I politely informed them it was none of their business. (Well, maybe I wasn’t that polite to one of them.)

For me, the answer to the question is automatic and doesn’t involve a bit of hesitation: hell, yeah! I think the conversation with my husband about my life after his death plays some part in how easily I can answer the question. It is certainly a gift to know not just that he was ok with me finding someone else but that it was a thought that gave him peace near the end of his life. The very fact that he died also inspires me to be open to love again. The harsh demonstration of how suddenly a life can end motivates me every day to wring out every bit of joy I can.

I think I will probably love even bigger in the future than I did with Tom. Part of that is my natural streak for resistance. It’s my way of saying to the universe, “Oh, you thought that would slow me down? Ha!” It’s also a tribute to all I had with Tom—I know what it means to have someone who loves me unconditionally and accepts my love with grace, and damn it, I want it again, but this time with even more cowbell.  

I will go into my next relationship knowing that my partner may well die before me. I imagine that will make me a better partner in some ways than I was for Tom. I think of times I let a petty work situation or insecurity cast a shadow over a dinner or times I kept an argument going longer than was productive. I think my clearer understanding now that one of us is going to outlive the other will help me focus on what matters.

I talked last week about Gil Fronsdal’s idea of letting go into something. For me, letting go of the fear of being widowed again allows me to let go into the possibility of being in love again.

Not Ready for a “Late Husband” Today (but maybe tomorrow)

My first real experience with grief was when my mother died when I was 12. My family was already dysfunctional before that, plus I had undiagnosed depression. With no support network, a family tradition of brushing uncomfortable topics under the rug, and my depression, I expressed my grief through petty crime, passive aggressive behavior, and poor dating choices. When I felt sadness or tears coming on, I angrily pushed them aside. Over time, the sadness stopped coming up and I skipped straight to anger.

Thirty years after my mother died, I finally connected my random surges of anger to unprocessed grief for my mother. I got myself post haste to an excellent therapist who helped me process what I had buried for all those years.

When my husband died, I determined that I would do things differently. I’ve blogged about the two promises I made to myself about how I would handle grieving for him:

  • I will grieve mindfully, which means generously giving myself the time and space to be sad.   
  • Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace

These commitments mean that when I started trying to refer to Tom as my “late husband” last week and noticed how off it felt, I paid attention. I turned toward that feeling and realized I wasn’t ready for that. Saying “late husband” involved consciously editing my thoughts, every time. Every. Time. Not once did it feel organic or comfortable. As I explained in my post last week, I wanted to start referring to him as my “late husband” to avoid the confusion that sometimes comes up in conversation about him being dead, but I’ve decided that I’d rather deal with that confusion than the nagging sense that I’m being inauthentic when I call him my “late husband.” After two days of trying, I acknowledged I wasn’t ready to call Tom anything but my husband. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.

Oddly, I’m totally comfortable saying “my husband died last June”—but calling him my late husband, for whatever reason, is a step I’m not ready for. For me, part of  “turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace” means being ok with the contradictions and the part of my reactions that don’t follow logic.

After I decided to let go of the idea of calling him my “late husband,” I had two dreams in which Tom was present but never interacted with me. He just hung around on the periphery of my dream, never even making eye contact with me,  almost like an extra in a film scene who the camera lingers on a little longer than the other extras but never focuses on. It was comforting to feel his presence in that periphery way—it felt like he was letting me know that he knew he couldn’t be with me at the center of my life anymore but that he would still be part of it. And although it makes me very sad to write that sentence, in the dream, I didn’t feel any sadness at all, just savoring peace.

Later, I came across this article by Gil Fronsdal on letting go into something. The idea of letting go into something makes explicit that when we let go of something, we make space for something else. When I got counseling to help me belatedly process my mother’s death, letting go of my anger made space for me to feel 30 years of longing for a mother that had been building up. When I let go of calling Tom my “late husband” to avoid social awkwardness, I made space to accept social awkwardness as part of my grieving process. In the dream, letting go of Tom being at the center of my life makes space for someone or something else to be at the center.

Grieving at 7 1/2 Months

It’s now been 7 ½ months since my husband died. My late husband. I am trying to get used to referring to him as my late husband to avoid the confusion that has come up a few times when the person I’m talking to asks follow up questions and then I awkwardly announce that I am widowed. I’m not used to attaching the word “late” to any reference to him because he was perpetually early to most everything—in fact, there’s a long-running family joke about him showing up at the airport a day early for a flight.

I still have days where I get out of bed only to spend most of the day in a puddle on the couch crying, but those days are farther apart now. Last week I only had one day like that, but this week I’m making up for it. I got two pieces of news this week that my husband would have found amusing and the desire to share the news with him seems to have kicked off some intense longing for more time with him. The non-linear road into the future continues.

Because my thinking this week is scattered and punctuated by crying bouts, I’m offering a list of random observations about my experience of grief at 7 ½ months:

  • I am grateful to wear a mask on public transportation because it hides my crying. I’ve heard from many grieving folks that their commute home from work brings out their grief. Maybe it’s something about returning home to a house that is missing the person we used to come home to. I cry many days on the bus home from work. It often surprised me because I can now go a full workday without falling apart, so the crying-on-the-way-home can seem out of the blue.
  • Going to places I went to with my husband continues to be difficult. I went yesterday to the art museum and cried most of the time, flooded with memories of going there with him after his stroke, making sure the artwork was in his limited field of vision, reading the exhibit text to him, and making smart ass observations about the pieces. I had to sit down several times to collect myself.
  • I still can’t go to restaurants we went to together. I still haven’t been to our favorite neighborhood place and I avoid walking past it.
  • I avoid some of the foods he loved, which puts many delicious ingredients and dishes out of bounds—like eclairs, cherries, tomatoes, and tangerines (his first solid food request after his stroke was for tangerines)—although I have made his true love, bacon, twice, and for his birthday in January, I found some prime rib in the freezer that he actually cooked before his stroke and had that. So yes, my late husband managed to posthumously cook his own birthday dinner.

Last week, I made one of his favorite meals for the first time since he died: enchiladas. It felt momentous and I cried while eating them, but damn, they were good.

  • Many tasks that I don’t anticipate stirring up anything for me surprise me by sending me down memory lane. For example, earlier this week I started gathering receipts for my taxes. Many of them tell a story of Tom’s last days: how obsessive he was about knife sharpening, his ongoing quest to get my sister or me to buy him a ludicrous corkscrew device for his ear wax, his love of all things warm and soft, his generosity toward others.
  • Logic goes out the window. With the cold snap and snow this week, I was worried about Tom’s bench getting cold. Tom hated being cold and the idea of his bench being covered in snow bothered me. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. one morning and hurried to the bench in the dark to brush the snow off it, realized the ridiculousness of what I was doing, and sat down and laugh-cried for some time.

Simultaneous with all this, I am enjoying my job again, participating in writing workshops and retreats, and traveling a bit. Feeling connected to my work again has been very important to me. I have always been passionate about my career and very much have identified as a professor and writing center director; feeling disconnected from it was disorienting. For the first six months after Tom died, I didn’t care at all about my job and found almost everything about it tedious. My re-engagement didn’t sneak up slowly—it happened all at once with the new year. The fall semester closed with me not caring about it at all and then on January 3, I had ideas and energy around work.


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