Ask Dr. V, Losing A Spouse

Venus Nicolino holds a Ph.D. in Psychology. Her column addresses Love, Life and Relationships. This week: losing a spouse

Dear Dr. V,

My husband died in a car accident five years ago. It was a devastating experience for both me and my 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. He was our rock and picking up the pieces was traumatic and difficult for all of us. We went to a grief and bereavement counselor who was extremely helpful in healing the devastation. Like anything else, time did heal the wound and we were able to live again. However, after hearing and reading about Natasha Richardson’s death, I recently have felt incredibly sad all over again. I thought that it was momentary but today I found myself holding my husband’s photo and crying hysterically. Why such a strong resurgence of emotions? I feel as though it happened yesterday … thoughts?


Dear Veronica,

I’m so sorry for your loss. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one is traumatic. And, after a point, words are inadequate at describing or even defining the event. I applaud you not only for being brave and strong enough to do the work of your own grieving, but also for modeling this for your children. Surely your strength as a mother played no small part in your family’s pulling through this terrible ordeal.I think your reaction to the tragic news about Mrs. Richardson speaks to the empathic nature you must have, and also to the interconnectedness that binds all of us. In a way, the painful story playing out in the news is a polarized version of your own loss. Instead of a husband and father, Mrs. Richardson’s family lost their wife and mother. Perhaps you identified with the pain and suffering her family must be going through, and that in turn led you back to revisit your own.

The healing process we go through when we grieve is an odd thing. As you said in your letter, we learn to cope with the loss. We do not completely “get over it,” but we can get used to the empty space in our lives and inside ourselves that the departed used to fill. We hurt for a while, and if, like you and your family, we are willing to do the work to heal in a healthy way, we learn to carry on, even to thrive and enjoy our lives once again.

This does not mean, however, we have somehow been able to discharge or expel the hurt and sadness completely.

Though we are not constantly experiencing the feelings, we still carry them with us. These feelings can come to the surface now and then when we’re reminded of our loved ones. We may see them in a dream, hear their favorite song on the radio or just think of them for “no reason.” There’s a pang of sorrow and we can take a pause, honor the feeling, and get back to whatever it was we were doing.

In the instance of your relation to the news story, there’s a bit more in play. In some ways I think it’s analogous to someone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in that you are still dealing with the emotional fallout from an ordeal. For you, the news of Mrs. Richardson’s death, accidental, unforeseen and heartrending, was like watching your own painful experience play out again in front of you. As a result you now find yourself returning to those old feelings and memories. I don’t think there’s anything abnormal about what you have described, in fact I think what would be odd is if you weren’t affected deeply by this news. You personally know exactly what that family is going through right now, it must be as if the TV screen has become a strange mirror, in a way.

As important as it is to honor and acknowledge the feelings that are returning to you, it is equally important for you to know when to release them. This can be difficult for one person to discern on her own. If you pray, you can ask for help in letting go when the time is right. Speaking with family, friends, a counselor or therapist could prove beneficial as well.

If you feel it’s appropriate, you may want to discuss this with your children, if you believe they’ve been affected by the news story as well. I don’t know what your kids are interested in watching as far as TV and other media go, but it could be prudent to have a chat with both of them to see how and if they’ve related to this story, and if it has reawakened similar emotions in them.

I suggest revisiting some of the tools you and your family learned how to use in grief therapy. If you bought any books on grief, try re-reading the parts you remember being most helpful or comforting. If you’re revisiting the emotions, allow yourself to revisit the healing process as well. You carry the knowledge and power with you along with the grief.

We never truly recover one hundred percent from the great losses in our lives. It’s a hazard of our human existence on this planet. Learning how to cope, heal, and move on with our lives in a full, loving way, not just honors the living, but the memory and spirit of the departed as well.
With compassion and empathy,

Dr. V

Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.

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