Sunrise for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Things That Suck

A Countdown Calendar for Grief?

Sometimes, I just can’t believe what I find on Google.

The other day, I was trying to look up something for a blog post, and so I googled, “widowhood.” My eyes scanned over the first few hits, and one really stood out to me. The title of the article was, “First year of widowhood most harmful to mental health, according to a sample of over 70,000 middle aged women.”

It’s an awkward title. But it made me think. And what I thought was, well no shit.

I mean, of course the first year of widowhood is the most harmful to mental health, at least compared to the years that follow.

Turns out, this finding was merely one tiny piece in a larger study about “morbidity and mortality” among postmenopausal women. Basically, it was a footnote in a much larger study about what this age group of women eat and how they exercise and whether they die. This question on mental health and widowhood was just one of many.

This finding – that the first year of widowhood is particularly brutal – didn’t strike me as notable at all. Of course it’s terrible! But what I found interesting was that the authors of the article pointed out that the years after that first one are often much better. On the whole, mental health improves after the first year of widowhood.

Part of me thought, Of course it does!

But then the other part of me remembered what it was like for me after a year had passed, and I was still having such a hard time. The spring of 2019 was so terrible for me, and I remember thinking many times, It’s been over a year! Things are supposed to be easier!

For the first 18 months of widowhood, I wanted an end date so badly that if someone had looked at me and said, “you just have to wait for 568 more days and then you won’t be sad” I would have been overjoyed. I would have made a countdown calendar and been excited that at least there was an ending. At least I knew that someday, things would get better.

I wanted that year mark to be a point at which things would get better. And it wasn’t. I didn’t see a “marked improvement” right after the one-year anniversary of Shawn’s death.

And yet, if somehow I had actually measured my mental health – if I had been a part of this study – I think that overall I would have followed the same curve of many of the other widows. Over a number of years, life did get easier.

I’m not saying that the grief ever fully receded, but rather that it became an easier aspect of life to live with. It became a less hurtful part of me.

So I think two things can be true: healing does not happen on a set date, no matter how much I wanted it to have a timeline. There were a lot of ups and downs, and I really didn’t feel “better” after a year. But also, healing does happen, for most widows, over some period of time.

I think it may have been useful to know this when I was trying to navigate those tough days. But honestly? There’s still a part of me that wishes there had been a 568-day countdown calendar.