Ask a Widow: How Long Does It Take To Feel Better?

Sunrise over a field for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley

Six months. That’s how long it takes. But really, it’s a year. Or maybe a bit longer. It depends, really. What were the circumstances? What happened afterwards? How long were you together? Are you caring for young kids? Do you have community support?

Of course, after someone dies, there’s no real answer to the question, “how long does it take to feel better?” It’s so individual. Furthermore, very few people get to the point where they never grieve again over the person that they lost. But I think when people write me and ask, “how long does it take to feel better?” they aren’t actually asking, “when will every speck of pain be gone?” but rather, “when will I stop feeling this crushing weight on my chest?”

Because it feels like that, doesn’t it? Especially in the early days of grief, it felt like I was carrying around an actual weight that just wouldn’t lift off of my body.

And yes, it slowly got better. “But when???” you want to know.

I’m going to tell you my story. It is not the story of anyone else, so take from it what you will. And before I get started, I need to say this – I’ve known people who’ve been able to feel like things were okay in a few months and others who take many years to get to the same place. There is no “right” way to grieve or recover or move forward.

This is just my story, written here to provide some context – and maybe some hope.

Shawn died quickly. From his diagnosis to death, we had less than six weeks. It was not remotely enough time for me to wrap my head around the idea that I was going to lose my partner. Really, the first time I even imagined that he would die was just a week before he actually did.

So for the first few months, my overwhelming emotion was shock. Yes, I felt sad and I cried a lot. But I cried progressively more as the spring progressed. The shock fell away, and I was simply left with grief.

I know this happened, because I can see it in my blog posts. Here’s an excerpt from one in the spring of 2018, entitled, “Press Fast-Forward“:

There are a lot of days where it feels like I need to put on a mask in order to make it. Today is one of those days. I am just sad, horribly so, and there is nothing that anyone can do to make me feel better. The rose-colored glasses that I used to wear through life are gone, replaced by something that dulls everything around me. Other people notice when I am like this, I think, but they are too polite to say anything. It’s better that way, honestly. But it’s so isolating. Tommy did something adorable tonight at dinner and although everyone else laughed, I didn’t even smile. It’s like I’m sheltered in my own little cocoon trying to stave off the pain that pushes down on me.

I am sad that I don’t have Shawn to be my forever support. I am sad that I am so totally alone in the world. I am sad that I have to do everything for my kids and when I try and leave the house alone, at least one of them will throw their body on me and demand that I stay. I am sad that I can’t connect with people like I used to be able to do easily.

I hit the rock bottom of grief at about four months. I remember the moment when it hit, because I was sitting in the same spot that I am sitting right now. I was thinking about Shawn, and about our life together, and I thought, “I can’t do it without him. I am in pain that is impossible to manage. I don’t even know how to move from this spot.”

(As a note, I was not suicidal. I worry just a bit that discussing these types of emotions runs the risk of encouraging them, which is the opposite of what I want to do. If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please get immediate help from a trained professional. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.)

It was a terrible place to be. I knew I had to keep going. But it felt impossible. It wasn’t just about the backpacks that I needed to clean out or the stacks of ungraded papers in front of me or the empty refrigerator that needed filling. In some ways, those tasks kept me going. They were things that I had to do, so I did them, even when I felt overwhelmed by them.

No, what I felt in that moment four months after Shawn’s death was a pit in my stomach that said, “you’re never going to be okay.”

My rational brain knew it wasn’t true. I had known other young widows (my dad, of course, was only a decade older than me when he lost my mom) and I knew that things got easier at some point. But I wanted to know when I was going to stop feeling so horrible. In fact, I remember saying to my friends, “if I could just know how much longer the pain will last, I can make it through.”

What I really wanted to do, as I noted in that blog post, was to “press fast-forward” on my life and get to a place where I wasn’t in such pain. But if I couldn’t do that, knowing how long the terrible pain would endure would also have helped. Of course, neither is possible.

But things did get easier for me. I think it was at about six months that the weight felt just somewhat lighter. I was laughing with my cousins at my Aunt Nancy’s house when I really felt a degree of freedom from the grief, sometime in that summer of 2018. The weight wasn’t gone, but it was a bit lighter.

And then I felt it lighten again at about a year. Yes, this “lightening” was uneven, and sometimes I slid back into terrible grief for a few days or a few weeks. Dating, in particular, could trigger my grief in a way that made me say, “time to take a break from dating.”

So while it wasn’t a straight line, I did slowly feel better as time progressed. It was at about 18 months that I remember feeling like I was really reclaiming myself. I traveled alone with the kids and flirted with strangers that I met. I felt okay about the future, even if it was filled with all sorts of uncertainty.

And the weight? It wasn’t absent, but I didn’t notice it for large portions of most days. Life felt measurably easier.

So what if you’re reading this and you’ve just lost your spouse? 18 months seems really far away. But here’s the thing – I didn’t feel awful for 18 months, and then feel great on the specific day a year and a half after Shawn’s death. It was a process, and there were days when I felt okay even a few months after he died. As time went on, there were more days that felt okay, and then I even had some days that felt good. As more time went on, there were a lot of days that felt good. And so on.

I haven’t really given an answer to, “how long does it take to feel better?” But I’ve written what I would have wanted to read all those years ago – something that says, “there’s a light in the future.”

Because there is. It’s hard to see when you’re living in darkness. And yet it is out there. Just like the sun in the pre-dawn hours, you sometimes don’t notice that things are getting lighter, even as it’s happening.

But then you look up and realize that you can see some sunshine.

**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

8 Replies to “Ask a Widow: How Long Does It Take To Feel Better?”

  1. Lisa Pieniazek says: Reply

    Well said.
    If I may share, one take away from my therapist was to set a date. This was a date randomly chosen deciding when I would start to feel better. Sounds silly, but for me and my personality it was a huge help. I knew that I only had “this much more time” and I’d start feeling better. It worked for me. Yes, I still have “the really bad days” 14 months later, but I know they won’t last as long as they did in the beginning.

    1. Oh that is a really interesting tactic! I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds promising, and I love that you tried it and it was successful (at least in part) for you!

  2. I know its different for everyone but its only been a month for me and its helpful to hear how others progressed. I think I will survive but I can’t imagine looking forward to anything again. I was so excited about all the spring bulbs I planted this fall. I planted a bunch of red ones for him because he likes red and I don’t. I was so excited for the big reveal. Now when I think of spring it makes me sick. His birthday is March 1, he would have been 42. Our 5 year anniversary would have been April 28. I miss him. Thanks for this blog.

    1. I’m so sorry. You are in the newest days of grief when everything is hard and nothing feels like it will ever be okay. But there is light ahead, even if you can’t see it yet. I’ll be holding you in my heart.

  3. I second Shaven’s comment that it is helpful to hear how others progressed. This blog has been helpful for me. (My wife died about eight months before Sean.) Take a day off and go back and binge-read it from the beginning.

    1. I think it would take longer than a day! 🙂 Thanks for the sweet comment, Henry.

  4. I too just lost my husband. It was sudden and unexpected. Michael died on January 9th, 2021. I have cried every day since I lost him. Some days I howl, some days I scream and some days I cry from the depths of my being. Some days, surprisingly, I just weep. I’m overtaken with the reality of never seeing him again in this world. I have deep faith and believe that time will help me but for now, I can’t even begin to see it.

    Knowing that I am not alone has helped me. I will forever be grateful to you all.
    Doreen

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. It happens to be the same day that I lost Shawn (Jan 9) just a few years apart. Hang in there. This is the time to go easy on yourself, when nothing in the world feels easy.

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