She looked down toward her feet at the end of her visit. "I've got one more question, doctor" she said, hesitating. I turned toward her and waited for her, letting her ask on her own time. Clearly this was something difficult for her to ask.
"When will I get over the death of my husband? It's been ten years, and I still wake up each morning thinking he's there. I still come home wanting him to be there. Am I crazy?"
Her face showed the shame that was so clear in her words. I had been along with her during the death of her husband, and she handled that period with much grace and strength. Now the silence at home is deafening. People around her, on the other hand, are far too quick to tell her how to grieve.
"If you lost an arm or if your legs were paralyzed, when would you get over that?" I asked. "You wouldn't. You never live without the reality of your arms or legs being missing. You just adjust to their absence."
"But people are telling me I should find a 'special friend,' and I have no desire to. I just miss my husband." Her already moist eyes now let go of their tears. "Sometimes I want to be with people, but other times I just want to be alone."
I handed her a tissue and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Nobody can tell you how to grieve. No one knows what your loss feels like, and there shouldn't be a penalty for loving your husband so much. Everyone handles things differently. If I as a doctor lost the use of my legs, I'd probably adjust much quicker than a professional athlete. Some people are married for fifty years, and yet have an independent relationship with their spouse. Others are so invested in them that the loss is so much greater."
She thanked me for my words and gave me a hug as she left. As she walked away I wished I could talk with the people around her. She has not shut herself off from the world. She has continued to go to church, spend time with family, and go out with friends. She just can't get rid of the feeling of loss, which is not a wrong way to be.
There is no rule book on grief. Is it better to move on quickly, or does it show the person is self-centered enough that they don't feel it as much? Is it better to grieve for a long time and deeply, or is a sign of pathological dependency? People want to make rules for which there can never be rules. People don't like the messiness of life, and don't want to be made uncomfortable when others remind them of that messiness. But pain and loss are as much a part of life as joy and love (in fact, you could argue they are more a part of life for many people). This woman's grief shows the depth of love she had. It is a memorial to that love.
She will never get over her husband, and I think that's OK.