That happened to me eight years ago when my partner, Ruth, died of metastatic breast cancer. Even though I knew she was going to die, even though we had talked about it and prepared for it the best we could, even though we had learned invaluable lessons during her illness, my spirit and heart were completely crushed when she took her last breath.
We all have ways that we view our worlds that are ensconced in our minds and based on our experiences. We view the world as safe or unsafe, fair or unfair, hopeful or hopeless, and so on. My world was always safe, predictable, orderly, and full of richness.
Until Ruth died.
I had never lost anyone before so the experience was completely new to me. Suddenly, my long-held worldview was shaken up.
If people you loved died, it meant the world wasn’t as safe as I thought it would be. Without Ruth, the richness was gone and certainly life wasn’t predictable if death could interrupt it.
Ruth and I were blessed to learn so many life-changing lessons as we walked the path together with her cancer. We learned the art of non-resistance, the magic of being in the moment, and the truth that the things we used to stress about really were small stuff.
Early on in my journey with grief, I tried to access these lessons but it was as if I had emotional amnesia. I couldn’t remember them and, on the rare occasions that I did, it was as if I couldn’t access them or take comfort in them.
I was numb and those important lessons were out there, they just couldn’t get in.
Not knowing yourself
Without Ruth, without my usual world, and without the impactful lessons I had learned about life, I felt disconnected from myself.
Who was I now?
I thought I’d had a firm self-identity but suddenly it was scrambled. I felt like the snow in one of those snow globes after someone has turned it upside down and shaken it. My sense of self was scattered everywhere.
The good news
Aren’t you glad we’re finally getting to the good news?
I have a favorite clinical term that I use for grief: It sucks. And although it took me a few years, I eventually came out of the worst throes of it.
Here’s what helped:
1. Have patience and faith
One time, near the end of Ruth’s life, we’d just received some bad news about her prognosis. After thinking about it for awhile, I approached Ruth and asked her what she thought we were meant to learn from this newest information.
Ruth was quiet for a minute. Then she said. “Patience.” Pause. “And faith.”
And that’s what got me through my tumultuous grief. The patience of time passing in its usual way helped immensely.
As did my dim, but persistent, faith that I would come out through the other side of my grief. I kept telling myself that other people had, so I would, too, even if I couldn’t see how that could happen.
When your world shatters, allow the passage of time to heal you and be your guide. Even if it’s a tiny amount, let your faith in the process of recovery inspire you.
2. Allow others to remind you of the gifts and lessons.
Because your world is upside down and you may not remember the lessons and gifts that once guided you, let those closest to you remind you.
I treasured every card I received, every phone call from a friend who told me how much Ruth had meant to them and how our journey with cancer had taught them to lead a richer life.
Slowly, the loving reminders from people of the wonderful lessons I had learned with Ruth thawed my numbness and I was able to remember and embody them once more.
Use your friends. Tell them how lost you feel and allow them to be your anchor in your inner storm.
3. Welcome your new self.
You really can’t go back to who you were before your tragedy happened. You are different now because of the trauma.
I was not the same person without Ruth and with my new knowledge of a world where you can lose someone you love dearly.
I was different and you will be, too, as you heal from your trauma. And different isn’t always bad.
Like the snowflakes in the snow globe, my sense of self eventually settled, but the pattern that was formed was new and beautiful in its own way.
My sense of empathy was greatly increased, my path of helping people bounce back from loss and adversity was more clear, and the lessons I learned from Ruth’s life, death, and the ensuing grief are treasures that I continue to take forward with me into a different and meaningful new world.
4. Release the pressure valve.
One of the keys to bouncing back from grief or other trauma is to not pressure yourself. I had a hard time with this because I kept thinking I had lost all of the lessons Ruth and I had learned. I thought this was disrespectful to her memory.
Now I know that my reactions and feelings were just normal aspects of grief. It’s very easy to feel isolated in your experience and this can add to your own internal pressure to just “get over it.”
Don’t pressure yourself. Release the pressure by talking to others who have been through the same experience. Or read books by people who have.
There are no rules, no perfect timing about when you are supposed to be healed from your trauma. It happens when it happens and it’s usually an ongoing process.
Have mercy on yourself.