Husband’s Cancer Death: grief processing

This was written in response to an Ask Dr. Neimeyer Q&A about suicidal thinking. Here is a link to the original post:

Suicide thinking: I want to be dead


Andrea, I read your letter with tears, because I relate so well to it. My Ken died from cancer 20 months ago, and, like you, I met him at 19 after a lifetime of abuse. We were married for 28 wonderful years; he was my first experience of safety and unconditional love. My inner child is as heartbroken as my adult self, and yet the ferocity of her love and loyalty to Ken strengthens me.

I have found the process of creating a “new” life exhausting; I don’t want it and I didn’t ask for it. Yet, I want to want it, if that makes sense, and I suppose that’s a good start. It does feel like a pale imitation of living, but I take heart from other widows who have said that it does get different. I actually don’t like the term “new” life – I mean, it is new, for sure, but I prefer to think of it as a challenging phase of Ken’s and my journey together. Because I believe our relationship continues, just in altered form. Have you read material on continuing bonds? If you haven’t, I strongly urge you to do so. You can move forward, but not without your sweetheart – you get to take him along with you.

And yet, Andrea, while I say we didn’t ask for this, everybody who finds the love that you and I found, risks great loss.  We would surely have wished for our beautiful husbands to be with us for longer, but this is what we’ve been given, and I know I would never have traded my years with Ken to escape this.

I have felt very suicidal periodically, and I’m thankful that I promised Ken I would not take my own life – nor could I see myself inflicting that on my adult children. Andrea, it can feel so isolating, can’t it, to feel as if you are no use to anybody anymore. I do believe that as I dig my heels in and feel more like engaging with life, this is likely to change.

Dr. Neimeyer says that due to your past, it is likely that you feel more isolated. I think this is true, possibly because we already have abandonment issues. I know that I lived with a perpetual sense of expecting the other shoe to drop. When Ken was dying, I felt that my traumatic background would render me more vulnerable in the face of this tragedy.  But it occurred to me, Andrea, that even if that is true in some ways, my history of surviving terrible things may actually have equipped me in other ways I hadn’t appreciated, to get up and keep going even when I didn’t want to. Of course, I understand that it’s not necessarily appropriate to compare childhood abuse to widowhood; nevertheless, you and I have survival skills which can perhaps be useful now.

I have a terrific counselorHusband's Cancer Death AfterTalk Grief Support who does not insist that I must “let go” of Ken to be healthy, and that has been a great plus. I hope that you can find help that truly helps you. I know you say you don’t have any religious beliefs, and that’s okay – neither do I, but I will say that I have read some intelligent material on the probability of an afterlife, and I am coming to understand – in a way that goes beyond the desperate wishful thinking of early days – that Ken’s spirit survived his bodily death and that I will see him again. He will never completely leave me, and when I talk to him, I believe he hears me. That’s probably my biggest comfort.

Andrea, darling, Megan Devine, widow and author of It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay, asks grieving people to look at anything we have that can help it suck a little less, or even make the journey “a little bit good.” Adopting four rescue cats, while not comparable to having my husband here, has made it “a little bit good” at times. Taking a patchworking course with lovely ladies, some of whom are widows, so that I can make a memorial quilt from Ken’s clothes has been tremendously helpful. Also, reaching out to others who are hurting the way I have been hurt, helps me.

I do hope that you will find hanging in worthwhile, sister, even as it takes time. I hope I will too. This is such a dreadful wound, but I have to believe it is not one beyond all healing, even if it may be beyond complete healing. I wish we could have coffee and a hug.

Dr. Neimeyer, I religiously follow your column and have found it one of the first lines of assistance I have engaged since my husband died. I have also recommended it to my counselor. Even when your weekly correspondent isn’t a widow, you frequently say things that resonate anyhow. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to consider the questions you raised with Andrea. What did my husband give me that has enduring value? Well, I don’t think I realized until he’d passed, what a difference his love made to my view of myself. His love, and the way that it helped heal past wounds, has made me a person who isn’t afraid to let go of situations or relationships that are not good for me. Because of Ken’s love, I can believe I deserve better. Thank you so much.

Blessed Be,

Louise McOrmond-Plummer

Every Thursday we publish “AfterTalk Inspirational.” We invite readers to submit their own poem, essay, or suggestions for inspirational quotes for publication. If you are a therapist you are welcome to extend this invitation to your clients as well. Please send your submission to

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