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How to Rediscover Purpose After the Loss of a Spouse

Beginning again after after focusing on the challenges of grief.

Key points

  • Grief is accompanied by a cascade of secondary losses—including, often, the loss of our sense of purpose.
  • Sense of purpose is what propels us out of bed in the morning.
  • For a time, our purpose might just be incorporating our grief.
Anatol Lem/Unsplash
Anatol Lem/Unsplash

The primary, terrible loss of a spouse or partner is just part of the whole grievous equation. Because to that, you have to add all the secondary losses.

The loss of the future you imagined. The loss of a helpmate. The loss of a second income. For some, the loss of a co-parent. The loss of someone to sit on the couch with on Friday night. The loss of couples’ privilege, which affects the kind and number of invitations you receive, your place in the social order. Suddenly you are a third wheel, harder to fit into the machinery of your previous social life. The loss of some friends, who are scared off by or impatient with your grief.

The loss of part of your identity. We were Tom-and-Sophie—a solid entity, sturdy on four legs. Now Sophie floats out there in the world, alone, unprotected, and vulnerable. (Note that all losses include secondary losses, some the same, some different from the ones listed here.)

Each one of these secondary losses is worth its own post (and I'll take on some in the future), but these days the one that has been weighing most heavily on me is the loss of my sense of purpose. This is perhaps a hard-to-pin-down concept, different from ambition. To me, it translates to feeling a reason to get up in the morning, a sense that your life is leading you somewhere that feels important in heart and soul. And we know that a sense of purpose is key to a good life.

I'm not feeling it right now.

Job Done, Vows Fulfilled

I’ve always been an independent type, and both Tom and I maintained a great deal of autonomy within our marriage. Still, although I often said that my marriage of nearly thirty years was my greatest accomplishment, I was unprepared for how utterly at sea I feel now that the marriage is, in earthly terms, over.

Caring for Tom and tending to our marriage, in ways both material and emotional, occupied a great deal of time and brain space. It was, to my mind, my most important job, and I was happy to do it, even during the less-than-happy times, which every marriage has. I imagine Tom would say the same; we were committed to our marriage for better and for worse, in good times and in bad.

But now we have fulfilled our vows. We were together until death did us part. My marriage is now a discrete whole with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The job is done. The marriage is complete.

Now What?

Grief expert David Kessler says that the goal for grievers is “grieving fully and living fully.” I have the first part down, but the second is still shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

For all intents and purposes, I appear to be living fully. I work. I see friends. I travel. I have hobbies. I keep my house clean, if you grade on a curve, and feed myself. I even dated someone briefly; we’ll just call that an experiment.

And yet there is a kind of aimlessness to everything I do. When people ask how I am, I say, “I’m just blah-ing along.” It’s how I feel when I’m not actively grieving, which still entails daily tears. Just… blah. Not sure why I’m doing what I’m doing or what I want to do now with, as poet Mary Oliver put it, my one wild and precious life. I’m not not living, but I don’t feel like I’m fully living either. I don’t even know what that would look like.

Purpose Comes From Within

Sure, people are full of advice and suggestions, but purpose is not the sort of thing that comes from without—it must be born within us. I hope my purpose will just hit me one day, like an epiphany. Or perhaps it will seep up into my consciousness slowly. Maybe it will come to me in a dream. Or maybe I am actually doing it now but don’t know it because it is buried under the still-active grief.

I suppose one could say that my current purpose is incorporating my loss into my life, which is exactly what I’m doing. Grief is huge and complicated and many-layered. It can’t be processed in one go; you have to slog your way through it. I’ve always been a do-er and a fixer; I take matters into my own hands and make them happen whenever possible. My grief’s refusal to bend to my will is frustrating. I feel like I should be able to get my life and future squared away. I should be able to identify my purpose and start marching toward it.

What Good Is Should?

It's hard to let go of the shoulds in grief, which is a strange, amorphous state. There is no instruction manual, no map, no clear path. Should I still be crying? Should I be crying more? Should I stay in my house? Should I move somewhere else? Should I know what to do next? Why don’t I? What is the right way to do grief?

“What if,” Kessler often asks people he counsels who are tangled in the shoulds, “you’re doing it exactly right?” It’s a simple question that soothes me like a deep, slow breath.

OK. Fine. This is where I am right now: convalescing from the gut punch of my loss. Maybe blah is just the stage I have to be in. Maybe it’s OK that I’m just faking it until I make it. I’m taking care of myself, taking care of my dog, letting feelings wash over me as they will. I’m showering and eating dinner and meeting work deadlines and doing crossword puzzles. I read books and watch TV. It’s a life of sorts.

Maybe my purpose, for now, is just putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not exciting, to be sure, but I have to trust that it will eventually take me somewhere.

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