The first feeling I had when Tim died was numbness. His death came out of nowhere, and I went into shock. I felt like I separate, and was watching myself and the world around me from a great height. This is known as dissociation. I also shut down – I didn’t only not feel grief, I didn’t feel anything at all. Both of these are totally normal responses to trauma, particularly in the early days.
Later on, there were times where I worried that I was coping too well. I wasn’t sobbing all the time. I was working and coping. And feeling guilty because I was working and coping. Someone told me about the dual process model, where grieving people switch between modes of coping and grieving. I thought of it as my mind protecting me from grief some of the time.
The feeling of numbness can last, and this may leave grievers feeling that they aren’t grieving ‘properly’. It can just be a different way of grieving – not everyone grieves publicly, and all experiences of grief are different. However, if how you are feeling is affecting how you live your life, find someone to talk to – a friend, family member, support group, doctor, counsellor or psychotherapist.
Valentine’s Day is coming up. As a day focused on romantic love, it’s a tough one for many widows, and like all milestones, the first can be the hardest. Also, like other milestones, the run up to it may be harder than the day itself
What to do on the day
Some online marketing companies offer the opportunity to opt out from Valentine’s Day messaging (this can also be an opportunity to unsubscribe from all the marketing emails that are cluttering your inbox).
And if it helps – Valentine’s Day has a pretty dark origin story.
Alternatives to Valentine’s Day
There’s no timetable or no ‘normal’ for grief – I believe that grief lasts a lifetime, that it’s different for everyone, that it changes over the days, months and years, and that we grow around it. People who are grieving can describe themselves as feeling ‘stuck’ in grief, where nothing seems to change, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to get any better. I struggled with this around six months after Tim died, when the numbness wore off and the reality kicked in.
There are a number of things that can make the feeling of being stuck more likely:
What can help
I found that making ‘done’ lists rather than ‘to do’ lists helped when I felt stuck. These were anything I’d achieved, from getting up and cleaning my teeth, to making myself a meal or doing the sadmin. Looking back through these showed me how I was actually moving forward. Keeping a journal or diary can help too.
Talking to people who understand is a major help. People who have been bereaved can be a listening ear, tell you whether what you are going through is normal (though there is no real normal in grief), and offer suggestions of what has helped them. Joining a local or national grief organisation will provide you with a support network. However, don’t compare or judge your grief against other people’s. Everyone’s grief journey is different, and there really are no Top Trumps in grief.
Take time to grieve. Sometimes you just have to sit out the waves of grief and let them pass. And remember that self-care is a big thing – looking after your mind and body is very important while you are grieving.
When feeling stuck sticks around
For a small proportion of people, however, grief does become something more. Prolonged grief disorder, while a controversial diagnosis for some, describes a grief that is persistent, enduring and disabling, or that gets worse.
This might mean that even after time has passed:
While these are all symptoms of raw grief, there may be a problem if you experience them at an unchanged level over a long period, or if they get worse.
If your grief significantly affects your ability to function on a day to day basis for a very long time after your loss, if it makes you isolate yourself from others, or you feel that life is not worth living, find someone to talk to – this might be your GP, a counsellor or a psychotherapist.
Moving into a new year for new widows means moving from 'My partner died this year' to 'My partner died last year'. For those who have been widowed longer, it can feel like their person is moving further into the past.
Another unexpected loss.
This is a guest post from Jeanette Koncikowski. Jeanette is the founder of the Widowed Parent Project. You can follow her on Twitter/X @widowedpp.
I kept secrets for the 21 years of my relationship with my husband. Hell, I kept secrets for most of my life. This is the way trauma (and trauma bonds) work. The secrets existed to protect the people I loved from the truth. From the deep pain I held that I wanted to prevent them from sharing in. I thought I could love beyond truth. I believed that love would save us. And it has. Just not at the expense of truth.
When 2024 comes roaring in at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I will be entering a full decade of life since losing my first husband, Mark. We were 36 years old when he died suddenly. His death was the answer to how our marital separation would end. Throughout our separation, I had maintained to him that our marriage would now be based on conditions but that my love for him was unconditional.
Mark was my highschool sweetheart. He was my first love, my protector, and my rescuer. The father of my two children. From the start until the end, our 21-year relationship was nothing if not intense. He loved me fiercely. But he could not give that same love to himself.
Most people that came to Mark’s memorial service did not know we had been separated. Some knew of his physical health struggles with epilepsy. A few closest to us knew he had been “touched” by depression (as if depression were a dove landing on your shoulder and not the god-awful thing that could turn him from Jekyll to Hyde.) Only a handful of his friends who he partied with knew of his substance use. But no one lived with or loved him through these difficult things the way I did.
Mark’s death was also not the first significant loss I had in my late thirties. In the four years before his death, I had lost a pregnancy in my second term and I watched my mother suffer from terminal breast cancer until she died at the age of 62. One of my closest friends died suddenly the following summer and it was her death that was the catalyst for me to walk away from my crumbling marriage. My grandmother died next and thirteen months into our separation, when Mark and I were actually, finally, in the process of deep healing, I lost him too.
Mark died alone in the middle of the night in a run-down apartment building, just a few blocks from where our children and I lay sleeping in the home we used to all share. I was the one who found him in the morning. His life was more than his illnesses. He was a loving father, a caring chiropractor, and a good friend. I blamed myself for his death. I thought if I had just been there, I could have somehow intervened and rescued him, as I had done so many times before, when death seemed to have him in her reach.
Going through loss after loss, culminating with Mark’s death, gave me the gift of rawness in grief. What does life mean when the people you love most can die on you at any time? When they can die on you in quick succession? It was leaning into this vulnerability that finally stripped away my ego, which had been the part of me carrying all of the secrets of our past and present. I realized that they were not, in fact, protecting anyone. I did not have that kind of power or control.
When we show up in our grief the way we really are: messy, devastated, guilt-ridden, shame-ridden, blaming ourselves, hating ourselves...when we let ourselves feel these hard feelings, we can eventually accept that none of it was our fault (nor the fault of our deceased loved ones). Facing the guilt and fears I had about what Mark’s final moments were like allowed me to also face the good, the bad, and the ugly in our relationship as a whole. It was then that I began to heal.
The funny thing about healing from trauma is that it’s not a “one and done” kind of thing. Opening the wounds from Mark’s death opened the wounds from our marriage which opened the wounds from my childhood. Trauma therapy taught me that once I started showing up as my true self in my grief, I could make space to show up as my true self in the other areas of my life. Learning to be more authentic required me to also have and keep boundaries in relationships. I learned how to walk more humbly and share more of my real thoughts and feelings with the world (and most importantly, with my children and my next partner). I learned that asking for help when we struggle is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It was not a linear walk. Mark had kept secrets from me too and some of those had trickled down to the truths our children carried. I learned how to replace secrets, shame, and guilt with grace: for myself, for Mark, and for everyone I loved.
What I have ultimately learned in the years since Mark died is the embodiment of one of my favorite quotes from Brene Brown. “Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is one of the bravest things we will ever do.” Whatever your loss and love story, know that it mattered. It is valid. That your grief, however complicated, also matters. And you are not alone. Being honest about who you are, what happened to you, and what you need now will help you cultivate a life not only of authenticity but of joy.
Life may teach us to hide the darker parts of ourselves from others but death teaches us too. It shines a light in the holes of our heart. If we follow that light, we might just find the path back to our true selves.
Jeanette's first book, Shipwrecked: A Memoir on Widowed Parenting and Life After Loss, will be released in Spring 2024. Sign up for launch news or learn more about grief coaching with her by visiting Thrive Community Consulting LLC.
After Tim died, and after the numbness worse off, I felt that I had to live my life to the full because he wasn’t here anymore. It’s made me realise that life is short, and I’ve taken opportunities, tried things that I might not have done otherwise, and put myself well outside of my comfort zone. And I’ve loved some of them, liked most of them, and found a few I’d rather never touch again with a very long bargepole.
However, this can mean we put ourselves under too much pressure to do things ‘for’ our person, and if it doesn’t work out, we feel guilty or a failure. Grieving can involve these feelings already, and we don’t need more of them. I’m still aiming to live my life to the full, but now I’m doing it for me. Because life is too short.
At the weekend, I read a letter in the Guardian to Pamela Stephenson Connolly entitled I don’t like the way my partner smells and it reminded me how much I loved your smell. I would nuzzle into your neck and breathe you in. Before you moved in with me, when you visited and then went back home, I would fall asleep hugging your pillow. I knew when you were stressed or low because your smell changed. When you died, I lay curled up with you on the bedroom floor taking in as much of your smell as I could. I wore your jumper for days after you died.
After Tim died, I heard the phrase ‘the new normal’ a lot. That I would find my ‘new normal’. That people settled into their ‘new normal’. That the ‘new normal’ kicks in after six months when you realise that it’s all real, or in the second year when all the firsts are over. But what is the new normal?
I think it’s about understanding the changes that we have gone through, accepting what has happened, and looking at how we move forward. This is about how it’s happened for me. It’s not the same for everyone, and for people in the darkest days of grief, the thought of a new normal may be too hard.
The new normal: Physical and psychological
The trauma of being bereaved, whether it’s suddenly or after a short or long illness, changes us physically and psychologically. Physical symptoms include headaches, chest pain, muscle and joint aches, sleep issues and immune system issues. Psychological changes include brain fog, flashbacks, panic attacks, dissociation and hyperarousal. Trauma also increases the risk of self-harm and suicidal feelings, and of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME).
These changes don’t always last forever – for me, the physical symptoms eased after six months or a year, and the worst of the psychological symptoms after a year or two. It’s important that we look after ourselves, and this isn’t about fluffiness and bubble baths. It’s about genuinely being kind to ourselves, and about taking proper care of our mental and physical health.
The new normal: Acceptance
The new normal can be about acceptance, and this was significant for me. I accepted that this was my life now. That things were never going to be the same again.
For a while it was just about keeping going, and putting one foot in front of the other. The next phase was reclaiming a space and a life for myself – I cleared and redecorated, I went back to university, I started The Widow’s Handbook.
I accepted that grieving was a long-term thing. That I wasn’t going to ‘get over it’, or ‘move on’. That it was something that I was going to walk alongside. I also gave myself permission to feel happy again.
The new normal: Moving forward
Ever since I saw this brilliant TED talk from Nora McInerny, I have talked about ‘moving forward’ not ‘moving on’, because I have taken Tim with me into my new life. While it’s not the life I expected or planned for, it’s the life I have and it’s a life I like.
Bereavement is what happens to you; grief is what you feel; mourning is what you do.
Dr Richard Wilson
The Whirlpool of Grief model was created by Dr Richard Wilson, who worked with parents who had lost a child.
The idea behind the Whirlpool of Grief is that we are pottering along the River of Life, when we are swept down the Waterfall of Bereavement. It feels like we have been swept off a cliff, and we are hurtling down, out of control, numb, in shock and perhaps in denial.
We land in a whirlpool of grief, where we feel lost, emotionally disorganised and falling apart, and as we get swept round, we might go through the same things again and again. We might get battered on the rocks, where we feel the physical symptoms of grief. We might get washed into shallow water where we can rest, or onto the banks, where we experience the fog of widow brain, and we might feel that we are stuck in grief.
As we move into back into the River of Life as it flows out of the whirlpool, we mourn, and we move forward (but not move on) into our new normal.
I say ‘be kind to yourself’ or be gentle with yourself’ a lot to people who are grieving. I was typing it on Twitter/X and I thought – what do I actually mean?
It’s about being as nice to ourselves as we would to our friends or family. It’s about self-care that’s more than just a bubble bath. It’s about wanting the best for ourselves, not pushing our needs to the back. It’s about understanding that we are just as important, just as amazing, just as worthy as everyone else. But it’s also about understanding that we are hurting and a bit fragile.
So – please – be kind to yourself today.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.