Backsliding Into Grief

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley looks at a card at a party with her husband Shawn

“Shawn used to order the craziest pizza toppings,” someone said with a smile.

“He loved the ‘meat classic’ and anything else that had meat on top of meat,” I said, and everyone laughed.

I was smiling remembering his ridiculous pizza orders for our group of friends.

And then I was crying. Sobbing, really. “I miss him so much,” I kept saying as I continued to cry for what felt like a really long time. Everyone was comforting. I was beside myself.

I don’t know how to fully put this down on paper, but at that moment I felt just as sad as I had in the weeks immediately after Shawn died. Yes, it’s been over a year. But somehow, I’ve been backsliding with my emotions. In fact, I’ve felt more grief-filled lately than I’ve felt in months. Even now, as I’m writing this post, I am not totally sure why I’ve spiraled so badly in the past few weeks.

But what I do know is this: I feel like I’ve been re-living my loss every day lately. I wake up every morning and cry (something I haven’t done in months) and everything throughout the day can set me off.

For example, last week I had a guest speaker in my class who used to work with Shawn. He came to talk to my class about China and he was really thoughtful and engaging. If I closed my eyes, I could hear Shawn’s voice in the way that my guest speaker answered my students’ questions and talked about high-level policy challenges. Afterwards, a number of students told me that he was the best guest speaker we’d had in our class.

After the guest speaker left, I went and had lunch with my friends Emily and Julie. I barely closed the door to Emily’s office before I started sobbing. “I just had a guest speaker,” I said through tears, “and he reminded me about how Shawn used to be – so smart and humble and thoughtful. Sometimes I just remember what Shawn was like at home but this guest speaker reminded me that he had so many other great parts to him. He was funny and warm with me at home. But he was brilliant too.”

Shawn was the best. I swear, this isn’t revisionist history. I like all my friends’ husbands, but I used to look around the room at a party and think, “I am totally married to the best guy here.” I knew what I had.

And I know what I’ve lost.

It should have been Shawn talking to my class about China. It should have been Shawn ordering bad pizza for all of our friends. And it should have been Shawn next to me in bed this morning rather than my 5-year-old.

But all of those things have been true for the past 14 months. I’ve missed Shawn every day in the big and little things. So it might seem surprising that I’m so grief-filled now. But I am. Maybe it’s because I’m in year 2 now, and so I’m moving from shock and survival to the reality of the rest of my life without Shawn. Maybe it’s because I had a number of significant life distractions over the past few months that enabled me to push my grief aside, and now that normal life is returning, I feel the pain even more. Maybe it’s because I tried to move forward too quickly with work and parenting and men, and now all of the grief is catching up with me.

I honestly don’t know what the cause is for this new cycle of grief. I only know that almost anything can set off a wave of crying for me. In those moments, it feels like no time has passed at all, and that I’m in the early days after losing Shawn.

The grief was never gone. But it had become smooth around the edges, encapsulated in a vessel that I could hold and manage. Somehow, a series of events over the past few weeks has broken that vessel and the grief has spilled out everywhere.

All I want to do is get back to where I was a few months ago. I want the grief to be manageable again so I can go back to living my life. I want to be able to find joy in my kids’ antics, and I want to be able to come alive in the classroom. I want to sleep through the night again and I want to make pancakes on a Saturday morning without tears. I want to be able to try again with men.

But I am stuck in this grief and it is robbing me of this new sense of self that I had cultivated over the past 14 months. I thought I was figuring out who I was going to be. But right now, I feel like I’m back to defining myself in terms of who I no longer am: Shawn’s wife.

And I’m back to missing him with such deep grief that I can’t quite manage to find happiness in the everyday. I had gotten to a good place at the beginning of 2019, I thought, and now it feels like I’m back to square one.

I thought this blog post was going to end there. I typed it up on a Saturday morning as Tommy played Minecraft in the bed next to me. But then Tommy interrupted my thoughts. “Mama!” he yelled as I was reading over what I’d written, “I have something to say to you.”

“Yes, baby?” I said.

“I love you,” he said.

“Oh, Tommy, I love you too,” I said, and hugged him. And in that moment – just for a moment – I felt a bit of happiness again.

35 Replies to “Backsliding Into Grief”

  1. Hi Marjorie. I have followed your blog daily and occasionally replied. I am just going into year three and I will have to say that year 2 was the worst thus far for all the reasons you mentioned. Year one there are so many distracting details that kept me going forward, but in year two I was left with the time to sit and really absorb my loss. I got through it though and so will you and while I still have my days of overwhelming grief…..today being one, I am feeling a little more grounded and together in year three. I have come to realize though that I will never know the complete joy I knew before my loss, but I am finding a new kind of joy and peace.

    1. I’m hopeful that this pain isn’t the entirety of my second year! But I get what you mean – it’s so uneven to navigate this grief. I just want it to be OVER and to only remember happy memories with Shawn….but that, unfortunately, is not how it’s working out for me.

    2. Maureen Owens says: Reply

      Although I have had many significant losses in my life, I am not a widow. My husband died suddenly and tragically just 2 months ago. The “stuff and”noise” keeps me moving.I have been here before. But this time it is so different, difficult and horrific. My friends and family help but they have lives. Someone just advised to “get rid of his clothes “,it will make you feel better. I just don’t know.Thank you for your blog.I am just feeling stuck this morning.

      1. Those first few months are so so so tough. Like nothing else. The pain I feel now is awful but I was physically debilitated at 2 months. I got rid of some of my husband’s clothes, but there are still plenty in the closet. It’s a process, and you get to do it at whatever pace you want.

  2. Hi Marjorie, Like Pam (above) I have been following your blog.Like you, I lost my husband too soon (in an accident at age 48) our daughters were in middle school, and I am a teacher, too! My heart breaks for your loss. As a grief “veteran” , please know you are not back sliding and like Pam said, year 2 is harder than year 1, and year 3 isn’t all that great either. Every one’s journey is different. For.me, year 1 is complete shock. Year 2 is survival, year 3 I mourned the future I would never have. But you will start building your new future and come out the other side. You will always love and miss your husband, that never stops. But the waves of grief will lessen. In time. Lots of time. Sending you a big hug.

    1. Yes – I know, cognitively, that you’re right. But feeling it in the moment is really tough. The “waves of grief” is a metaphor I use often and it is such a good one.

    2. Nancy, I lost my husband at 49 also unexpectedly. Hearing you describe year three, I am realizing that’s exactly what I’m experiencing’ just this tremendous sense of sadness 9and at times anger) for the future that Ill never have with my husband and I also find myself just so very sad thinking about what my husband has lost. He worked so hard to provide a future for us and he’ll never get to reap those rewards. I now encourage everyone I know to live more in the moment. Another thing that is so hard in years two and three is this outside pressure to get on with your life already. I always am so appreciative to hear the prospective from someone who is a little further along in the journey than I am.

      1. Pam, this is something that I was thinking about today – my husband will never get to reap the rewards that he worked so very hard for his entire life. Whether it would be a well deserved retirement someday or the vacation to Hawaii that he dreamed and talked about for years or helping out with our son’s scouting troop. He is gone and our future is forever changed as well. I was attending my son’s troop meeting tonight and every time, I have to hold back the tears because my son does not have his father there to do all of those cool things with. It breaks my heart every time. I have stopped looking into the future. Right now, I can only do day by day, at the most.

        1. I feel exactly the same way. Shawn knew he lived a good life but he should have gotten that retirement trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

      2. Yes – this exactly. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that there are widows providing other widows with advice and comfort on my blog. xo

  3. Yes,
    I totally agree. I lost my husband in August 2017.
    Last year I was just surviving. This year – Even with a bunch of travel planned, I am really missing hubby. I think its because some of the travel are things hubby would have wanted to do with me and were on his bucket list – Honolulu (his) to see Eminem (mine).
    Also I have finally bit the bullet and have started clearing out his clothes – dresser and closet. That has put me in a bit of a funk too.

    1. Oh, yes, whenever I go somewhere new that Shawn and I went together before…that’s really tough. I know it is for other widows and widowers as well, as this is a common conversation I’ve had with them. But then, it’s not like I want to never return to those places! I think it promotes healing, but it’s tough to do at the time.

  4. Duane perkinson says: Reply

    There’s a false impression that once you pass the 1 year mark it all goes away
    For me surviving was built around the promises I made to my wife as she lay dying and looking to a future goal My focus help me control the triggers The key to survival as a widow is to know what your triggers are and how to manage them I find if there’s that lightening bolt of emotion I pause and tell myself: keep breathing it’s almost five years for me and time is a healer
    Now I reach out to widows and just share what worked for me. I’m not an expert just a survivor. Don’t lose your faith confidence and map out a way to move forward. You can change it as you go forward. May your angel watch over you

    1. Thanks. I think you’re completely right that I believed in this false impression that as I passed the 1-year mark, things would progressively get easier and that has NOT held true. It anything, it’s been harder over the past month. But I like your idea of focusing on triggers – I think that’s important for continuing to live my life.

    2. Duane,

      Please share with me any advice you have. My husband passed away seven months ago. I honestly feel like I am losing my mind.

      Amyelise83@gmail.com

      1. I think we’re all just trying to make it through this world, especially if we are experiencing terrible grief. Just keep going – seriously, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and know that you’re doing something amazing by doing THAT.

      2. But I’ll also say this – I am going to write a blog post about how I responded to one woman who wrote me (privately) and asked the same question. Stay tuned….it’s in progress, but I think it’s a question we all have: How do we go on after this?

  5. Hi Marjorie!
    In the middle of year 3 and I just burst into tears for no reason a week ago and have been struggling with sadness — I don’t think winter helps widows at all! Don’t be hard on yourself, it takes much more time than you would think. It does get better, and worse, and better and worse and better…. Over time the better is longer and longer. One step at a time is the only way to go. While grief is the price for love, it still sucks!
    Hugs!!

    1. Oh, I totally agree that winter makes things harder! I am going somewhere sunny in just two weeks and I’ve never needed it more. I love what you said here: “over time the better is longer and longer.” That’s beautiful.

  6. A year for me this month losing my best friend..and I’ve been crying more too…the tears make me feel closer to him though.

    1. I agree. I don’t want the tears to go….just the anxiety. But I know once the anxiety dies down, so will the tears….and then the loss will start to fade around the edges.

  7. The booklet the hospice people gave me calls these waves of grief “Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief,” and they gave them the acronym STUG. And, yes, STUG sucks. I had one last night when I was reading a news article that had a photo of a man in a hospital bed. He was on oxygen and was trying to eat from the tray in front of him. That image just reminded me so much of what my husband had to endure while he was hospitalized, something I’d pushed to the back of my mind because it hurt to remember it. But there it was. STUG.

    Perhaps with you, Marjorie, it was a combination of your birthday and then the event honoring Shawn that just brought it all back with a vengeance. That would be a lot for anyone to handle no matter how far along they are in this process. Give yourself some love. You deserve it.

    1. Wow – I’m going to remember this. STUG is a memorable acronym and really sounds exactly like how it makes me feel! That’s what’s happened to me over the past few weeks (caused by all that you mention, plus more) and I think remembering that STUG comes along at times is important. It’s just all so uneven.

  8. Hi Marjorie,
    I’ve messaged before. We are 1 month behind you in our grief journey with the same cancer and a similar love story. My husband was so loved and admired in the community that I feel like the first year was getting through all the celebrations of life and memorials that were made to honor him. Entering our second year we are still surrounded by support and love but the heartbreak of missing him is so raw. I raise my girls knowing we were so loved and that he would be so proud of us. Thanks for sharing your story. It helps us all. Lots of love from Australia x

    1. Yes – I think the first year is full of so many celebrations and then you wake up in the second year and realize that your whole life is different and everyone else still has their intact lives….and that’s really tough. Sending hugs.

  9. I’m am so sorry. It’s horrible. I’m coming up on year 2 also and i got blindsided by what I call I’m not fit to be around others grief too. I thought I had gotten to a better place. I had just started to feel life was becoming manageable and bam! Out of the blue the enormity of everything just hit me. I spent the whole weekend in bed, I just could not cope. I hate these waves, they are debilitating. God this is nightmare.

    But bless you Marjorie for sharing your pain because I’m sure, like me, there are others out there that are feeling all this too with no one that understands. But you let us know we aren’t crazy or alone. I’m just sorry that the loss of our amazing men brought those of us on this site together. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad that my blog is helpful – really, it makes me feel like I’m not just a victim of my circumstances but that I’m making something of my loss. Still, that doesn’t always help late at night when I feel so anxious. But I really appreciate you reaching out and telling me that you appreciate me sharing my pain.

  10. I don’t know that it’s ever really over. Almost 8 years since my brother’s death and I still have some knee-buckling, sobfests. Your writing is so true to grief. The waves will keep coming, maybe there’ll be more space between them and maybe we just become better swimmers. Sending love xoxo

    1. I love this – “The waves will keep coming, maybe there’ll be more space between them and maybe we just become better swimmers.” Beautiful metaphor!

  11. I lost my husband to cancer 13 1/2 months ago and everything you write is so spot on for me, especially this blog. I never in my mind thought I would become a widow and single mom to 3 kiddos (they were 12, 9, 9) at 37. Thank you so much for telling your story. I absolutely hate that anyone has to go through this but reading your story and comments help make me feel not so alone and a little more “normal” with the feelings and bad days I have. Thank you!

    1. I’m really glad that this blog can make you feel normal – it makes me feel normal to hear from others who feel the same! Sometimes I feel like I’m going a little bit crazy….but I still want to put out my feelings because it’s important to me that I’m honest with this process. It’s definitely not just an uphill climb! Thanks so much for reaching out – it means the world to me.

  12. Hi Marjorie,
    I’m sorry you are going through this. It sucks! I’ve had similar feelings lately, being just past the first anniversary also. I’ve been crying about everything… missing him so much. It seems that my memories of him being sick aren’t as vivid, so the fact that he is gone just makes absolutely no sense 🙁 He should be here singing Happy Birthday to our daughter this week and tobogganing with the kids… helping me paint the living room 😉
    I feel like most days are hard without him but Birthdays are especially hard and you’ve had two recently so I can just imagine the emotions you are going throughg.
    Take care, and keep “doing today”.

    1. That’s true. I didn’t even think about the fact that I had Tommy’s 5th birthday as a trigger, but it certainly was. I actually sat down with a friend yesterday and talked through all the things that had happened in the past month and I realized that it’s been a LOT. So I’m trying to go easy on myself. But I get that emotion you have – he should be here.

  13. I read early on that you don’t get to tell grief when you’re done with it, that it’ll let you know when it’s done with you. I found this to be trite, unsatisfyingly non-specific and, annoyingly, true. Almost three years in, I still get flashbacks, particularly in those situations that would have gone smoothly if only H had still been here. Like others have said above, whenever I feel this way, I revert to doing things by rote, one hour, one day at a time, and I lean heavily on the fact that I’m batting 1.000 in terms of making it to tomorrow. Remember that you’re battle tested and that you have ample hard evidence to support this claim.

    1. I love this: “I lean heavily on the fact that I’m batting 1.000 in terms of making it to tomorrow.” I am going to start saying that Every. Single. Day.

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