A Surprising Way to Handle Grief

A widow asks why she should 'get over it' when it is a reminder of love

By Jill Smolowe
Originally Posted On August 6, 2014

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Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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In the days immediately following my husband’s death, I heard this sentence not once, not twice, but three times: “It takes five years to get over grief.” In each instance, the message was delivered by a widowed man or woman, and, frankly, it didn’t sit well.

I’d just been through two-and-a-half years of caregiving. The thought that my life might be on hold for another five years weighed far too heavily.
 
Today, I hit that mark: five years without Joe. Did it take all this time to get over the grief of losing my cherished husband of 24 years? Am I over my grief?

It may sound like a contradiction, but the answer to both questions is no.
 
During my first year of widowhood, my main challenge was to figure out how to keep going with a huge hole at the center of my being. Joe’s absence was so raw and palpable that he remained a presence throughout my days. The first six months, no matter what I was doing, Joe was constantly there, reminding me that he was gone. I remember actually telling him silently (but quite firmly) that the bathroom was off limits; hey, a girl needs some privacy.
 
Even after I met Bob, a widower, seven months after Joe’s death and began to discover that it was possible to experience both giddy happiness and deep sorrow at the same time, Joe was still on my mind most of the time.
 
The Second Year Is Harder
 
That changed in Year Two. No longer awaking to thoughts of Joe every morning and no longer falling asleep to thoughts of him every night, I also no longer felt him as a constant presence throughout my days. When he would visit my thoughts, he never stayed for very long, which is perhaps what many people mean by “getting over grief.”

At the same time, however, I felt Joe’s three-dimensionality begin to flatten. My memories of him and us began to seem more like vacation photos than the actual experiences. As Joe grew a little less vivid with each passing day, I felt like I was losing him all over again — this time irretrievably. Heartsick, I wondered if this dimming was what widowed people meant when they said, “The second year is harder than the first.”
 
By then, I’d mastered the special occasion thing. A birthday? An anniversary? A holiday? For predictable dates like those, my instinct was to begin girding weeks in advance. By the time the actual day arrived, I was sometimes so defended that I forgot the occasion. What I couldn’t gird against were the moments that would catch me by surprise, suddenly summoning a memory that left me aching. 
 
And Then, Year Three…
 
In Year Three, memories of Joe and the pain of his absence resurged with sometimes biting vividness. The ache started after our daughter, Becky, received her first college acceptance letter late in the fall of 2011. Bob had accompanied us on most of our campus tours, nearly a dozen in all. Yet, as Becky and I jumped up and down, shrieking like two little kids, Joe was the man with whom I shared the moment. Can you believe this? I marveled silently. Our baby is going to college!
 
Six months later, Bob was again the man at my side, Joe the one on my mind, as I sat at the high school crew team’s spring awards banquet. Becky had been an indifferent athlete through her elementary and middle school years, so Joe and I had been delighted, but surprised, when she announced her freshman year that she wanted to take up the grueling sport of rowing.
 
In coming years, Bob’s was the male voice that cheered Becky on as she racked up city, state and national medals. But on this night, it was Joe’s absence that left me blinking back tears as the coaches handed Becky her varsity letter. Can you believe this? Our daughter, the non-athlete. A varsity letter. Who would have thought?

Grief Comes as a Wallop
 
Now, as I hit the five-year mark, those unanticipated moments keep coming, each time packing a similar emotional wallop.

Most recently, when Becky, a college sophomore, identified and secured a summer internship in the music industry, the swell of pride I felt was attended by a powerful punch to the gut. Her passion for music? She says that comes from Joe and me and our eclectic tastes. Her determination and tenacity? That definitely comes from us, too, Type A personalities, both. But the internship? She did this, all by herself. Where are you, Joe? You should be seeing this! 
 
Looking to the future, I expect the milestones in Becky’s life — some that I can anticipate, some that I cannot — will continue to hurt. They remind me that Joe is not on hand to witness our daughter’s evolution into a stunning woman. They remind me that Becky doesn’t have her adoring dad present to express his pride and joy in her every achievement. They remind me that our “Becky sandwich” is one irreplaceable slice short.
 
Although I’m now happily married to another man, I am also still Joe’s bereaved widow. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. The best — and the worst — days are those when my memories feel alive and more vivid than a flat image in a frame.

Get over my grief? Why would I want to? Each time I feel the sting of acute longing, it is reassurance that Joe, and Joe and I as a couple, are for me still very much alive.