Redwood tree similar to that used in Marjorie Brimley's EMDR image in therapy after becoming a widow
New Perspectives


I got together with one of my widow friends the other day (yes, that’s a thing) and we started talking about all of the crazy types of therapy we’ve both tried. Of course, we both have individual therapists (I’ve been through three) and group therapy (we’d each tried a few.) She told me about a “grief yoga” group she attended. I talked about the crazy “mindfulness and grief” group I went to that was not a terrible idea in theory but that I had to leave in practice once people started crying about their dead dogs.

Of all of them, I found the spousal loss group I did at the Wendt Center to be the most helpful for me. I met people like me and I felt like I could really tell my story there. I cried a lot when it was over.

But I still need some sort of therapy. I am obviously very open about my grief, but there are parts of Shawn’s illness that still weigh very heavily on me. Sometimes, I can’t sleep if I think too much about it. In the past month, I’ve started to feel more like myself. But the images of Shawn’s suffering remain with me. It is not how I want to remember him.

Shawn was stoic through the entire illness. I mean, he walked himself to the damn car the night before he died. He never complained, and he left me with many words of encouragement about my future life without him. More than anything, those words are what have allowed me to heal.

But I still saw him hurt, even if it wasn’t anything more than watching him grip the side of the bed as he tried to gain his breath. And that has been very hard to forget.

I did some research and I consulted everyone I knew. “Maybe,” a few different people had suggested, “you should try EMDR.”

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a kind of therapy, I learned, that tries to alleviate the stress associated with traumatic memories. I would do some visualization and then hopefully, I’d feel much better about events in the past. To be honest, it sounded crazy, but I knew it had been used on veterans who suffered from PTSD, so I figured I could at least give it a shot.

My EMDR therapist is not my regular therapist. I had to go to a specifically trained person, and this therapist is a holistic one, which is not exactly my cup of tea, but hell, none of the other therapies have really helped me with this aspect of my grief. So I figured, why not?

We started out visualizing many different things. Times when I felt loved, times when I embraced others, times when I felt warmth and kindness. I liked it at first, but it seemed tedious. I was supposed to envision a physical being that personified all of those wonderful feelings, and I did this with ease. We repeated the exercise again, and produced another physical being in my mind.

Then the therapist asked me think about my spiritual self. She had me think about a time that I felt truly connected to something larger than myself. I felt my heart twist as I thought about what she termed “spiritual” events. Many of those times revolved around Shawn, because it was with him that I had experiences – like birthing our children – that felt otherworldly. I cried as I thought of them, and then we created a being that represented my spiritual self. For that one, I chose a redwood tree.

I chose the redwood because I liked the idea that it is firmly rooted in the ground but reaches up, almost endlessly, towards the sky. It seemed like an apt metaphor. I need to remain rooted here on earth, but I also don’t want to forget the life that was once mine with Shawn. The image of the redwood felt right.

So, with my physical beings surrounding me, we tried walking through the various terrible images in my mind. Then, she made me track her hand movements with only my eyes, and we repeated the process as I said a series of mantras about everything being okay, or something like that.

It was probably 10 minutes but it felt like an eternity. I was exhausted at the end of it. And yet, I felt a bit better when I got up to leave and so I decided to go back again to give it another shot.

I’m not sure if it helped. I told everyone I saw afterwards that I wasn’t convinced it was effective. It was weird.

But so is grief.