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The World In-Between

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When your spouse dies, you will most likely embark upon a difficult and lonely journey of grieving. Somewhere on that journey of grieving and healing, you will move through the “world in-between.” You might be thinking, “What is this world in-between?”

Footprints in the sand

Simply put, it’s a world where you find yourself saying, “This must be a mistake! I’m not supposed to be here! Yet… I am. It no longer feels like my world.” Everything is changed — hopes, dreams, lifestyles, aspirations, family, friends… the life that you once knew is suddenly gone. Life no longer seems familiar, no longer feels comfortable, no longer is the one that you knew and created. There are so many changes, both externally and internally.

A grief support group member once said, “I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe since my husband died.  I’m over here watching everyone else live life.” You might suddenly feel like a “stranger in a strange land,” living in some twilight place. The “world in-between” can be confusing, painful and disorienting. It’s the place that must be visited between an ending and a new beginning, between feeling hopeless and finding hope, between loss and beginning a new changed life.

This is the place of transition, the place between an ending and a beginning, the place of being lost and of finding, of re-identifying and reinventing, the place of healing through grief and learning to integrate that your world has changed forever and will begin again. It will never again be the same… but you will begin again.

The book, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments, by William Bridges, offers guidelines and knowledge for traveling through the “world in-between.” Although he had written several other books and had been an authority on transition at a corporate level for many years, he best began to understand it as he went through his own grief process after the loss of his wife to cancer. After her death, this book was written from his personal experience and his transition through and to his changed life.  Although his works apply to transition during any kind of loss, not just the death of a loved one, I will use some of his ideas to specifically address the loss of a spouse. 

According to Mr. Bridges, there are six “cardinal aspects of loss.” Using some of Mr. Bridges thoughts, as well as my own, I will briefly explain and give examples of these concepts.

  • Disengagement— the separation from your spouse through death. This separation occurs on many levels: physically, emotionally and mentally. It does not mean that you will forget.
  • Disidentificationthe way that the loss destroys your old identity. You’re no longer the person or the roles that you used to feel, believe or live. “If I’m no longer a wife/husband/caregiver, then who am I?”
  • Disenchantment —  the way that the loss tears you out of the old reality you accepted unthinkingly.
  • Disorientation — how, as a result of losing the object of your feeling and the identity you had together and the reality you shared, you feel bewildered and lost.
  • Discovery —  the discovery of a new life, a new identity and a new outlook.
  • Disloyalty — the idea that something new and meaningful can evolve after a death causes one to question if they are being disloyal to their deceased spouse.

As you go through these stages of transition, you will begin to find light and to heal.  It is normal to have loss. It is normal to grieve. It is normal to begin again. That is the way of life. I offer a few suggestions to help you through the process of grief/transition and healing.

  • If your grief is complicated, seek professional help from a licensed therapist.
  • Read books that will educate, support, bring comfort and inspire. Recommendations are available. The Way of Transition is a good place to start.
  • Having a transitional or linking object, something that belonged to your spouse (i.e. ring, shirt, socks, picture, keychain) can bring comfort during a time when nothing seems to bring comfort. It’s ok to carry it with you, to touch it, to remember.
  • Talk to yourself in a way that perpetuates healing. The way you talk to yourself can make a difference. If you can, keep your thoughts in the present moment.  Read inspirational thoughts that give you support and comfort. It’s too easy to feel hopeless and predict the worst by going into the future. It’s not here yet… and you will change. Determining what the future holds will only reflect the pain that you feel now.
  • Having the belief that you can survive this loss and heal will help to bring hope, courage and something to hold on to. Some people find that their religion and faith give them support. Seek beliefs that support your healing and recovery.
  • Grieving is an individual journey. Making comparisons or judging others will not assist you in your healing. Trust that, with the support of others, you will heal… in your own unique way. 
  • Seek support through friends, family and support groups. Being in a support group with others on a similar journey can feel comfort and reassurance during this difficult time.
  • Give yourself the time that you need to grieve and to heal. Sometimes you need to visit the grief. Sometimes you need to visit the distractions and resources in your life. Allow room for both. It’s the “space” in between where the healing begins.

I want to remind you that grieving, transition and healing are a process, not an event. It will take as long as it takes for you to travel this journey. You won’t do it “wrong.”  You will do it the way that you need to heal. Statistically, it is believed that normal, healthy, uncomplicated grieving takes about two years. For some individuals, it will be shorter and for others, longer. Trust your process and your journey. Trust that you, too, will heal. Trust that you will find life and light again.

By Jo Christner, Psy.D.