7 Things I Learned About Grief When My Husband Died

Woman sitting on bed, looking off to the side

Verywell / Catherine Song

As a therapist, I already knew a thing or two about grief—at least on an intellectual level. I’d learned about things like “complicated grief” in graduate school, and I’d treated my fair share of people who were struggling with loss.

But I gained a whole new understanding of grief when I spent a solid decade grieving a series of losses. I lost my mom at 23, and I became a widow at 26. My father-in-law passed away just a few years after that.

While all three losses were painful, losing my husband, Lincoln, taught me the most about grief. Here’s what I learned:

Grief Comes in Waves

Initially, the grief felt constant. As the months passed, however, the painful feelings came in waves. Sadness, anger, anxiety, and a whole bunch of other jumbled emotions would come and go.

I might laugh one minute only to later feel guilty that I was having fun just two minutes later. Or, an otherwise happy trip to the store might be interrupted with tears when I remembered I no longer needed to buy Lincoln’s favorite cereal.

I don’t feel like the grief has ever “gone away.” But it did change over the years, and the waves of intense emotions get fewer and further apart.

Grief Makes Your Brain Play Tricks on You

There were moments when I’d think, 'I can’t wait to tell Lincoln about this!' And then, I’d remember this was permanent. He wasn’t just away on a trip that would end with him walking through the door again. He was gone.  

It was as if my brain couldn’t quite process the permanency of my situation all at once, though. It took a while for the gravity of my loss to really sink in. And until it did, my brain often tricked me into thinking that somehow, relief was around the corner.

Kind People Make a Huge Difference

In the days after Lincoln died, some people sent cards. Others delivered food to my house. And lots of people spent time with me. It was such a relief to be surrounded by kind people who cared.

Most people weren’t sure what to say or do. But all acts of kindness helped me feel a little less alone.

It’s Hard for People to Sit With Someone Who Is Sad

It’s really tough to sit with someone when they’re in emotional pain. So it’s not surprising that a lot of people tried to cheer me up with jokes or by offering a ‘silver lining’ to my situation.

Of course, their heart was in the right place. And while having fun and sharing laughs can be part of the healing process, there was sometimes pressure to act like I was doing better than I felt. I didn’t want other people to feel uncomfortable being around me.

Practical Tasks Feel Overwhelming

And, of course, the list of practical things I had to get done didn’t end with the funeral. I had to decide what to sell (like Lincoln’s car), send death certificates to cancel services, and figure out how to get by financially once I was down to one income.

Those tasks are so hard to do. Regrettably, I’m sure I took out my frustration on more than one customer service agent who refused to talk to me because the cable bill was in Lincoln’s name and not mine.

Grief Doesn’t Have a Timeline

The mental health agency where I worked as a therapist granted me three days of bereavement time. Sadly, that’s more than some people get when they lose a loved one.

Clearly, I was not in shape to work as a therapist after three days. I applied for short-term disability but was told our disability plan “doesn’t cover grief.” But as a therapist, I knew they covered other mental health issues. My physician diagnosed me with PTSD the following week—and that diagnosis granted me three months off from work.

But grief doesn’t have a clear timeline—even though there’s pressure to have one. There was no guarantee a certain amount of time was going to make me “better.”

Some people insisted I start dating after six months. Others encouraged me to make some big changes after one year. But I knew I couldn’t depend on the calendar to tell me when the timing was right. I had to do what felt right for me.

Grief Is the Process by Which We Heal

Grief is really painful. And it’s tempting to try and go around the pain. I wanted to distract myself and fast forward until I felt better.

But grief is a process I knew I had to go through. Time doesn’t heal. It’s how we deal with time that matters.

I had to allow myself to experience many really uncomfortable emotions if I wanted to come out on the other side someday.

And I’m grateful now that I did. As tough as those years were, allowing myself to feel painful emotions then, allows me to feel pleasant emotions now.

These days, I get to live a life beyond my wildest dreams. I live on a sailboat full-time in the Florida Keys. And while I’ll never say, “I’ve moved on,” I will say, “I’m moving through grief.”

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips to stay mentally strong when you’re working through grief.  

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A Word From Verywell

Writing an obituary and planning a funeral would be tough for me on my best day. But doing those things when I was at my worst felt nearly impossible.

Although your journey through grief will be an individual one, getting support can help you through the process. Whether that means talking to an individual therapist, attending an in-person support group, or subscribing to an online grief forum—hearing other people’s stories, coping skills, and experiences might help you feel less alone as you work through the pain.

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.