I had the misfortune to go through a deep, overwhelming grief when I suddenly lost my husband within a few hours – an aneurysm is a cruel killer. The surgeon came to explain what and how. There I was in a small family room in hospital clutching at my husband’s clothes, stunned, lost, paralysed. I managed to get to our empty home with the help of a friend. But at home the palpable absence was frightening.

My desire to be near my husband was so strong that my mind was playing tricks on me – I could hear his voice. Denial in action? Bereavement creates bizarre states of mind. 

As advised by a friend I kept a diary registering what was happening to me. I was hoping that it might keep me sane because I feared insanity beckoned. The pain was so strong that it almost completely paralysed me. Yet at times I would assume enormous speed; fast driving and even faster speech. Those close to me occasionally could not understand a word of what I was saying. I am not sure I myself always knew.

I was tense inside and out. Mere swallowing became a problem; swallowing my own saliva caused chest pain. I expected the heart to be affected – don’t we talk about dying of a broken heart? But it wasn’t to be. I could not sleep, I could not cry and I could not think. My brain waves were moving only to churn out senseless foam onto the surface.  

Time assumed a curious ability to turn into a subjective impression; long or short, both lost their meaning. There was only empty timeless now. As if there had been no past or even a glimpse at the future; the present was vague too. The darkness within me was scary. How could I ever accept such profound all-encompassing loss? My husband meant the world to me; I felt lost without him. The unexplainable vacuum set around me, especially at night. I could only hear my disturbed, short, loud breathing.  

Mood swings reared their ugly head – deep sadness alternated with euphoric moods. Intense numbness and hypersensitivity alternated. Every day felt like an odd, unpleasant continuum, merging into the next. Days felt like one big stretch of nothingness. I was not actually engaging with or aware of much around me or within me, for that matter. 

Sunny days started offending me; rainy ones, I felt, were in tune with the state I was in. Rainy days made me feel as if I had been ‘at the bottom of the village pond’ (a phrase my husband used to describe such days). I found mere breathing difficult; I felt so overwhelmed by the ‘mud and the mire’ that I eventually felt completely enveloped by it. Autopilot was working only partially.  

I disliked every activity, including eating – maybe primarily eating. Actually, life itself had much in common with eating; it resembled being force-fed. I was ‘swallowing’ life without ‘chewing’ in order to avoid sensing its taste. I was swallowing quickly so as to get the ‘food’ down as fast as possible. But then, just like with being force-fed, digesting became gruelling, painful and long lasting. I even felt nauseous occasionally. The only activities that made any sense at the time were those that had anything to do with my husband. I bought a voice recognition program in order to dictate my husband’s manuscripts I found in his desk. I felt that kept him alive, at least for me. And keeping him alive became my purpose in life.

It was hard to escape the stupor. I found all of it impossible to cope with, yet I believed there was nothing I could do about it. And it lasted for a long time. 

I managed to pull out of this state with the help of a psychotherapist. She slowly and gently led me along a winding and rocky path, which I eventually wanted and needed to be led along. She helped me understand what was happening to me and helped me accept that nothing was wrong with me, that I was not losing my mind. She helped me understand the process of grieving, normalising for me this unfamiliar and unbearable state I assumed nobody else had ever felt. I gradually started noticing the world around me and, more importantly, started engaging with it. I found beauty in nature; suddenly sunny days felt nice, I liked listening to ‘our’ Beethoven, I found a place for myself. I did recover and eventually became a psychotherapist myself. I still miss my husband, I still talk to him, but now I have learned how to live with him in me rather than with him by my side.