You Are Alone. Accept That. Carry On.

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley with youngest son Tommy holding her face

As I groped through the month of March, I tried a LOT of different things to feel better.

I wrote. I ran. I talked to my friends. I drank wine. I cried. Sometimes I sobbed. I even texted my friends that I was thinking about following Michael Pollan’s experimentation with psychedelics. (My therapist friend Kelly responded with, “don’t do mushrooms! That’s a hard no.” I listened. Because, kids, you shouldn’t do illegal drugs to dull your pain. There are plenty of FDA-approved medicines that can help if that’s where you find yourself.)

But before I get too far away from my key point here: March was terrible. (And yes, I know it’s not over, but it’s ALMOST over, thank God.) I was miserable. And I was willing to try anything to make myself feel better.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief and sorrow, including some interesting online articles about the idea of “radical acceptance.” Basically, the idea with radical acceptance is that you have to accept the reality in front of you in order to really move forward.

So, I took out a post-it note one morning. On it I wrote 3 lines:

You are alone. Accept that. Carry on.

I put it in my pocket and went to drop off Tommy at my friend Purva’s house. “I’m trying radical acceptance,” I told her, and showed her the note.

“That’s one way to do it,” she said, “but I think the future is probably brighter for you than that.”

But I couldn’t see it. All I could see – especially in the middle of the night – was a sad future where I was totally alone in the world. I was okay during the day, distracted by my students and my children and the fact that I needed to make sure that I had signed all of the permission slips and coordinated rides to baseball practice. But when night came, things became difficult. Usually, I could fall asleep. But at 3 am, when the anxiety woke me, I couldn’t keep myself asleep.

It’s bleak at 3 am.

Before Shawn died, I almost never woke up at night unless one of my children needed me. But now….well, it’s rare that I sleep through the night. And the more unhappy I am, the worse the sleep is. One night, so totally upset at 3 am, I wrote a blog post. I read it the next morning and decided it was one of those blog posts that would remain in my “drafts” folder forever because publishing it would cause my loved ones to worry excessively. But as a window into my mindset, here’s an excerpt: “I will die alone. That much seems true to me at 3 am.”

Yikes.

So, yes, things did not look good for me in March and I figured that radical acceptance might be the only way to move forward.

Still, I made an appointment to see an actual therapist. This particular therapist would be number 7 or 8 since Shawn died. I believed in therapy, and yet the therapists I saw didn’t always help. I was still sad. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try yet another therapist. I remained hopeful that I might be able to get a bit of relief from seeing her.

(As a side note, a few hours before I went to see this therapist, I was in the hallway with some students. They were in a psychology class, practicing how to use a certain kind of therapy that was patient-centered. In the scenario, the fake “patient” was complaining that her boyfriend always ignored her unless he wanted to make out with her, and the fake “therapist” had to just keep asking questions about how it made her feel.

“Well,” I said to my students, “I know this is what you are supposed to be doing, but isn’t there something to be said for telling it how it is? I mean, how about ‘your boyfriend is a total jerk and you should break up with him!’?”

They laughed. I did too. But I thought, “God, I hope my therapist isn’t like that.”)

A few hours later, I met with my therapist. She listened to my story and offered some thoughtful reflections. As we wrapped up, she said to me, “I think what we need to work on is containing the thoughts you have about being alone for the rest of your life. Yes, you may be alone. Or you may not. But thinking about being alone forever is what’s causing you anxiety.”

I agreed with her.

“What I want you to do,” she said, “is try to stay in the moment. When you are up at 3 am and you start thinking about being alone forever, I want you to really try to focus on the next day or week. Do your best to stay in the present.”

Then she put her hands together, as though she was holding a small ball. “I want you to stay in the small. When you start feeling like you are spinning out of control, think about the next morning or the next day. Don’t think about the rest of your life.”

I left her office, put on my headphones, and went for a long walk. I thought about what she said.

Stay in the present. Stay in the small.

I thought about my “radical acceptance” note. Maybe I was alone for now. Maybe I would be alone for a long time. Or maybe not.

But I can’t know what is next. And this “radical acceptance” plan I was using was really only making things worse.

That night, I put my hands like hers, pretending to hold a small ball. “Stay in the small,” I said. I wasn’t really sure what else I was supposed to think about. I was so tired I fell asleep easily, which was a blessing.

Later, around 3 am, Tommy crawled in my bed. I was asleep, but he woke me. A few minutes later, he was snoring and I was wide awake with anxiety.

I looked at my note that I kept in my nightstand. “You are alone. Accept that. Carry on.”

It was bleak.

And then I thought about the therapist. “Stay in the small,” I said to myself.

I rolled towards Tommy and put my head next to his. His hair smelled like baby shampoo. He must have woken up a bit when I moved towards him, because right then, he reached his hand over to mine.

And in that moment, I was able to stay in the small.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

23 Replies to “You Are Alone. Accept That. Carry On.”

  1. I love this post, and I love the advice your therapist gave you. I think we can all do better with living our lives in the moment — no matter our circumstances. I’m in a completely different situation (divorce), but oh boy, can I relate to that 3 a.m. feeling of anxiety and just overwhelming helplessness that EVERYTHING is on my shoulders. It’s really not. But at 3 a.m. it can feel that way. Five years after my divorce I can say my life is very different from what I thought it would be, but I am happier than I ever thought possible. Life is unpredictable and we don’t know what it has in store for us…but I’m hoping and praying that you have lots of happiness in store for your future.

    1. I love this – and thanks so much for sharing it. I love that you point out that 3 am is not really the best time to judge the reality of life. Things are certainly distorted at that hour! Thanks for the love.

  2. Stick with that therapist! She has great advice.

    1. I am! It actually just occurred to me that I should probably tell her that I wrote about her in this blog post…..

  3. Carrie Miller says: Reply

    My therapist and I had the same
    conversation last week. “How are you doing at staying in the Now?” She asked. “Not great,” I admitted. I’m a planner and like to know how things turn out. My husband’s cancer diagnosis took away that sense of control I thought I had. Over the last three years “Be Here Now” has been the mantra repeating through my head with her guidance. Incidentally, my boys like to snuggle up at night before they fall asleep and it is those sweet, small moments that keep me putting one foot in front of the other. ❤️

    1. Yes, I think this is the same idea – stay in the now and stay in the small. It’s all about not getting ahead of ourselves, which I think is a common thing for widows to do. Maybe for everyone to do! And yes, I do think it’s rooted in the sense of control we once had. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Sheryll Brimley says: Reply

    Seems that 3-4 am is a common hour for anyone grieving to be awake & struggling. There are various theories about why that is. I would always worry about how I could carry on with my day or week if I wasn’t sleeping! Particularly if I was doing an immunization clinic in a school or at the health unit. A very good friend who has gone through a similar situation with grief always told me not to worry about the next week or month of sleepness nights. Just “take one day at a time”. Sounds like your new therapist is a keeper.

    1. She’s definitely a keeper! I think she is great about getting me to stop stressing when things go badly. If I get less sleep one night, so be it! I need to remember to stay in the small. xo

  5. Gosh, “radical acceptance” sounds awful. Your therapist’s advice seems a much more realistic and loving way to treat yourself. I’m trying to get out of the “what if” mode and thinking small and taking each day at a time is great advice. I don’t know what it is about suddenly being awake at 3:00 am, but there are a lot of us out there who do that, me included. Like you said, you can distract yourself during the day, but at that time of night the panicky thoughts just keep swirling.

    1. Yes, I think there’s nothing worse than 3 am….especially because I get up at 5 am! It just feels oppressive, probably because it is. I like the idea of keeping it small because it does just that – keeps the panicky thoughts from swirling.

  6. Also 3am and wide awake says: Reply

    Thank you for being so honest about how you have been willing to try almost anything to feel better. Grief really makes you feel like you are going crazy sometimes. That lonliness that comes with it really does not help. Thank you for sharing your therapists advice it really does make sense to stay in the small and I am going to give this a try myself.

    1. Oh good! I’ll make sure to tell my therapist next time that she’s having a real impact! (Though maybe I should have told her ahead of time that I was going to tell the world about my therapy session? Hmmm….) Yes, grief can make you feel crazy – that is certainly true. Thanks for sharing. I love that you call yourself “also 3 am and wide awake.”

  7. I enjoy your writings as I can really relate to how you feel after losing my husband 18 months ago. Recently I tried to overcome that scary ‘is this it?’ feeling that you descibe so well by making myself write a list of the positives. That sounds really weird as of course one’s first reaction is “what the hell…what positives???!!!” Bear with me. 🙂 I wrote a post about it on my own blog but here’s how it all started. I was lying in bed, awake as usual, listening to rain on the roof and feeling sad and alone. Then it occurred to me that I haven’t heard rain on the roof for a very long time because my late husband snored like a chainsaw. I used to have to wear earplugs which worked fine…except I never got to hear the rain on the roof. I decided this was actually enjoyable and I fell asleep eventually, listening to the rain on the roof. The next morning I thought hard and came up with a few more. It’s a small change but it has made a difference for me. Good luck with your grief journey….you’re not alone.

    1. This is fascinating. I read this comment and then went for a long walk and thought about it. I think you’re right that there can be some positives. In fact, I think my husband would be really impressed with what I’ve been able to do with my writing. That makes me feel proud.

      And I do love listening to the rain. I bet your husband is glad you can enjoy listening to it. 🙂

  8. The dread you describe is familiar. It still crops up in me, somewhat cyclically, getting me jittery as I near 3 years without H. I’ve been thinking a lot on what you wrote last week about death and grief and how they affect your spirit, and I think, not unlike your therapist, I’m coming down on the side of simplicity. That concentrating on the small ball of *now* in your hands will lead to what’s important and meaningful, even if laundry and lunches aren’t existentially fulfilling at the moment.

    As an aside, I’ve found traveling with my kids a great way to be in the now. When we’re all focused on the varying tasks of packing, getting there, finding something to do, choosing the next meal, etc, we don’t tend to dwell on the past. Plus it cements the four of us together as we are now, away from the familiar, facing new challenges, a way of saying, “This is the new team, play ball!” I recommend the beach and the mountains, both are magic. Just get outta Dodge by yourselves once in a while. DC often gives us plenty of reasons to want to escape.

    Hope you feel better soon. Tomorrow needs you and there’s no substitute.

    1. It’s funny you mention this, because I just booked a big trip with my kids this summer, and I’m already trying to plan some other shorter trips to come. I have a friend who is also widowed who swears that traveling is the best medicine. I’m going to try it out. Thanks for sharing!

  9. It will be two years next month since my wife died. I too struggle a lot with coping with the awful realization that it is just me to look after our 5 year old. Living day to day, week to week. It gives me just enough mental space to inhabit and reduce the stress and anxiety of wondering what the future might – or might not – hold. Every morning I get up I remind myself that this is a day I get to spend with our beautiful daughter that my wife will never have – and would have dearly loved to. It is very bittersweet but it is now the life I have and am slowly learning to accept that – bite-sized chunks help. I realized a while back that it was the same methodology we got through the many bad patches she had while sick – “just worry about this week/day/hour. If we get through it, we will be ok”. Your writing is incredible and resonates so much with my experience. Thank you for sharing with us all.

    1. And thank you for sharing – what a beautiful note you’ve written. And yes, it is also my children who get me through the days. Many other cancer widows have told me that a long cancer diagnosis was when they learned about the “one day at a time” mindset. I never quite got there. But I’m getting there now, slowly.

  10. I absolutely agree with the idea to stay in the moment–the “small” — love that image. It’ll be fifteen months for me tomorrow, and I’ve had many times where I’ve had to say to myself, “Are you okay right this minute. Yes? Okay then.” I didn’t even venture into the “next day or week.” I can look forward a bit more now, most of the time, but I often found staying “small” worked best for me when it was REALLY small — just one moment, like that beautiful small moment with your small son. As always, thanks for sharing your journey down this tough road.

    1. I love how you talk to yourself: “Are you okay right this minute? Yes? Okay then.” That is brilliant and I’m going to start asking myself that very same thing.

  11. This will be awkward to convey via blog comment – if only I could I send you a PDF of the speech I’m about to describe! – but it’ll have to do.
    Google “Greg Baker Latin School of Chicago.” Mr Baker was a high school English teacher. He was exceptionally popular and well-regarded. Among other things, he taught a course on Joyce; the class met not only on schooldays but at his house on Sundays, where he served Guinness to his underage students (egads!).
    Mr Baker drove off a highway when he was 22. He broke his neck and never walked again, and his comments on papers were scrawled, because that function was impacted as well. He was a handsome man and my guess is he was tall (although since he was in a wheelchair, I don’t really know), and since he was a swimmer, I am guessing he was in great shape, too. And because he was popular and charismatic as an adult, I’m guessing he was popular and charismatic as a 22-year-old as well. Long story short, quite a transition from being on top of the world to being paralyzed.
    In a Commence Address reprinted in the alumni magazine, Mr Baker related the following: about three or four weeks after his accident, his father was holding up a newspaper for him to read when he asked, I can’t walk – how will I live? His father replied, You’ll take it one day at a time, each day as it comes.
    For what it’s worth, in addition to being an amazing English teacher as noted, Mr Baker also married, coached swimming, listened to music, was held in exceptionally high regard by all. and lived an enviable, meaningful, fulfilling, happy life.
    I found the wisdom of Mr Baker’s father to be powerful and related it to my parents, who agreed, and it became a sort of shorthand for us when times are bad. One day at a time, each day as it comes.

    1. One day at a time, each day as it comes. What great advice!! I’m going to keep that as a mantra.

  12. […] And, of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, it made me feel worse. […]

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