My wife, Cali, passed away last summer.
Although I have been a mental health and addiction therapist my whole life, I found that hasn’t helped very much when it comes to this grieving business.
The pain can still be intense and I was not given a “How to Grieve” handbook along with my diploma.
So, in the absence of a map to guide me—and in the presence of great pain—I decided to live with the grief as I do with my life in general; spend more time with the questions than searching for answers, live in the Mystery and don’t resist where the experience is going to take me, no matter how dark and lonely it looks.
Here’s how my journey of grieving has unfolded thus far.
During the first part of the process, I waded through was what a friend referred to as the “death darts.” Those are all the hundreds of immediate details that I had to see to personally, whether I wanted to or not. Fortunately, I had family protecting me. I was pretty numb for the first few weeks anyway, so the darts were tolerable.
When the numbness and the attendant shock began wearing off, I realized one thing very quickly:
Limit the stimulation!
I was still living in our home with everything of course still in it, from my wife’s favorite syrup in the kitchen to her signature perfume in the bathroom. Since her departure was so abrupt—I’d assumed that she’d be back from the hospital shortly—she had left everything as it was, including her unmade bed.
This made the whole situation all the harder to believe, more surreal.
In light of this, I instinctively knew that I had to manage the load that was being placed on my senses. That meant no trying to “keep her alive” by constantly touching, smelling, looking at and listening to what was hers.
I found early on that my senses were feeding off the sights, smells and sounds of my wife which was feeding the memories, which in turn was keeping the grief fresh.
So, until the gods said otherwise, the senses got a rest from “our” music, pictures of us, especially videos, and anything else stimulating such as spending too much time in her bedroom.
Write your way out.
At about the three-month mark I realized that another tool which had always served me well could be useful in ameliorating the grief: journalling.
I began to write down everything I was feeling, thinking and questioning.
I found that things didn’t feel nearly so foreboding and unwieldy once I got them on paper. It also helped give me meaningful topics to discuss when I engaged in one of those time-honored, grieving “must do’s,” being around other people.
Speaking of which, it was extremely uncomfortable to purposely talk to people about the memories of Cali, our life together, her illness and last few days. But I did it anyway, because I knew that I needed to gain some level of perspective on her life and death—to normalize it—so I could regain my inner balance.
I did it in small doses, and found it was as necessary as it was painful. I allowed myself to shut it off whenever I felt it was getting too intense. The process turned out to also have the unexpected effect of drawing people closer to me and opening me up more which has continued to this day.
Rebalance inside and out.
It struck me one day as I was walking through the house that in a metaphoric sense what I was doing in a very real way was walking around in my wife’s psyche. This is a hard one to articulate but once I became aware of that insight I began realizing that I was immersed in everything that represented who she was, from her journals and the books she read, to her drawing journals, to the clothes she chose to wear, even her favorite couch and the art she created.
I was already wrestling internally with issues and questions like, “Who was this woman I was married to?”, “How well did I really know her?” and as a wounded healer, “For being wounded so early in her life, what a great therapist she was.”
As a result of these revelations I began rebalancing my house by moving things around. I put a different, non-memory-imbued couch where her pet one had been, and switched the locations of some of the art. I also performed some much needed cleansing rituals to include sending all of Cali’s journal energy back to the universe.
I was grieving the loss of those parts of me that left with her that day last summer—it was painful, but very necessary.
Allow your heart to break…open.
This is the last and easily the most painful but crucial thing I had to, and still have to do, however unsettling it continues to be. I had to “let Cali back in,” which meant slowly but purposefully bringing back the music, the poetry we often read to each other, the pictures of her and us and finally the videos, which was very tough as it was the first time in over eight months I had seen her move, heard her voice or had been dazzled by that ice melting smile of hers.
All of this broke my already fractured heart but the gods have been busy reconstructing it according to a new blueprint. I am not who I was before Cali left. The old me remains to a great extent but a new me is starting to surface as well and that unfolding process is keeping me intrigued.
Like gentle snowflakes, Cali’s memories have settled peacefully into their new home and my tears have found a safe place to fall whenever they need to. After nine months, it’s a good start.
The rest is just that same “living in the mystery” and “learning to walk in the dark” business that makes life so painfully interesting.
Author: Jim Jensen
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Shutterstock (owned by the author)