Sandra and her husband Bill had spent the last 45 years raising children, building careers and investing in their retirement. They dreamed of traveling the world and spending time with their children and grandchildren in their golden years. But those dreams were dashed when Bill died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Sandra was devastated by her loss and sought the support of family and friends. As she worked through her grief in the weeks following the funeral, she began to take stock of her life.
“I’ve not only lost my husband, but I’ve lost my life as I knew it and all the plans we made together. Bill and I were planning to travel after he retired. Now what do I do?” she asked, feeling lost and despondent about the future.
As those of us who have lost a loved one know, dreams for the future can be pilfered in an instant. But many times we don’t recognize that dimension of loss until weeks or months after our loved one has died.
“What do I do now?” can be a paralyzing cry. I recall speaking with a financial advisor following my 32-year-old husband’s death. As we spoke of the future, I was unable to picture any life but the nightmare I was currently living. I felt in my heart that my children would never need money for college because I could not envision seeing them growing up.
But as I embraced my grief and learned more about myself as a single parent, I began to understand that working through my grief would allow my heart to slowly heal. And my young daughters and I would begin to develop a “new normal” way of life, which included plans for the future.
In any relationship in which we love another, we naturally perceive the future unfolding with our loved one actively present and involved. But death ends the possibility of any future plans.
This dimension of loss can be a dilemma when facing any type of loss. Parents who have lost a child mourn not only the presence of their beloved son or daughter but also their child’s potential life, including educational achievements, career successes and family choices. A child who loses a parent will forever mourn the possibilities of what the presence of that parent would bring to a graduation, wedding, birth of a child, etc. And the list goes on.
In Sandra’s case as she bemoaned the thought of a future without her beloved Bill, she was encouraged to think that, though future activities would not include him, she might someday enjoy life again in a different way. Achieving that would mean redirecting her energy to new ventures of interest to her. Reinvesting emotionally in life requires a certain shift in the heart — an inner examination of core values and perceptions.
Following a period of time that allowed her to grieve deeply, Sandra began to experiment with volunteer work in her area in an attempt to find a place where she felt she could contribute. “After being Bill’s wife for so long, I couldn’t even think of what else I was good at,” she said. Her search for meaning and purpose in life reflected Sandra’s desire to live life more fully. And with effort Sandra now finds purpose delivering flowers to patients in the local hospital as well as spending time with family and friends.
Many times, even years after the loss, those dreams you hold deep in your heart will resurface. It’s okay to recall cherished hopes for the future. But the work of grief not only includes remembering and letting go, but also turning toward the future with new hopes and dreams, and trusting that you will find the right path.
Sandra muses as she finds her way, “I know now that though my life is different without Bill, it’s still a good life.”
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