I remember meeting for coffee a friend I’ll call Ashley with whom I had been associated in family life ministry the past couple of years. She had recently lost her husband to a tragic industrial accident. She said she honestly believed that their marriage of almost nine years had been closer and happier than most of the marriages she knew of among family members and close friends. She told me how completely devastated she still felt four months after suddenly losing her husband. As for tears, there were no more to be shed! She just continued to feel numb inside. She was having trouble convincing her welt-meaning family members and close friends who kept reaching out to her that right now she just wanted to be alone! She said that, if she could, she would just crawl into a hole and pull it in after her. Her words touched my heart deeply. For a moment, I couldn’t help wondering where the lively, outgoing woman had known so long had gone.
Many people, especially those who had been basically outgoing their whole lives, wonder why in the aftermath of losing a spouse they now have an overwhelming desire to just be alone. There may be a couple of reasons for feeling this intense desire.
The basic reason is that people who are grieving the end of their marriage find themselves feeling very wounded amid the ruins of their couple-life which they had hoped would be “happily ever after”. At such a time, al’ attempts by family members and friends (and even strangers) to offer sympathy and advice, however well-meant, can all be just too much! There is a natural desire on the part of the surviving spouse to withdraw like a wounded animal back into one’s den to lick one’s wounds. Of course, the prolonged desire for isolation can be a symptom of depression. No one need apologize to anyone else, or judge oneself less of a person, because one feels depressed in the wake of a terribly painful experience like the end of a marriage, even if, due to a declining health situation, it was years in the making. Depression is actually a normal human reaction by one’s inner self to the personal trauma one has experienced. This state of depression usually lessens with time as one’s inner self slowly heals. (On the other hand, chronic long-term deep depression may be a signal from one’s inner self which finds itself completely overwhelmed. Depression such as that may well require that one have the assistance of a professional healthcare provider.)
Another reason for one’s desire to withdraw from even close family members and friends can be one’s stunning realization that everything is changed now. One may fear that she or he now lacks the knowledge, skills, or ability to rebuild long-term relationships either within the former relational network of family and friends or within a “couples’ world” as a newly-single person. Any real re-connecting naturally takes time and energy as well as a basic willingness to risk.. One often finds that others who really know and care about her or him may well be ready to re-connect but they have been holding back waiting for the “right” time. (Of course, in addition, one may be surprised to discover during one’s time of greatest need, new people who really know and care about one.) In the end, one should not be too hasty to judge another’s level of knowing and caring. The stress of profound grieving is not an ideal environment for accurate evaluation of one’s interpersonal relationships. It goes without saying that relational bridges that do not need burning should not be burned! The good news is that, because of our inbuilt human drive for healing, normal situation-based depression (as opposed to chronic, severe, unfocused depression) naturally tends to heal with time.
I told Ashley that I saw it as a good sign that although she might prefer to just be alone, she still made the effort to stay connected to a couple of us. She, after all, had joined me for coffee when, as she frankly told me when I invited her, she really did not feel like it! I told her this might well be a sign that her inner healing had already begun, even if it seemed to her like it had a long, long way to go. Ashley admitted that, in the end, she was glad that she had “pushed” herself to join me for coffee and conversation.