How Others Responded, Part 2

“Counseling wisdom is that it takes five years for life to start feeling normal again after the loss of a spouse,” a woman I knew said.

How do you respond to a statement like that? My husband had been gone for more than fourteen months at the time. Her statement was not unlike a curse. It came hurtling across the internet and into my email inbox as a prison sentence she seemed bent on imposing: three years and ten months more before you will be okay.

But I already felt okay. I’d experienced an energetic shift at the anniversary of Howard’s death. There were still moments of sadness (as there always are in life), but I was back. The concept of “normal” seemed ridiculous to me, not simply because I’d never aligned with statistics for the “normal” person, but because what normal is changes with major life events. Including the death of a spouse.

Actually, there was something more to her pronouncement than a sentence. It felt like a judgment, a way of saying, “Don’t try to fool yourself. You’re in denial and you’re suppressing grief if you think you’re okay. I’m a member of the psychology community. I know better than you.”

Of course, I’m overeducated in the field of psychology, with two degrees in it. Psychological generalizations and labels had been among the things that had disenchanted me with psychology. Too much of the field seemed divorced from the “psyche” in psychology—the soul of it. When I became a shaman, I realized that while I couldn’t deny the impact of psychology on my thinking and life, it was shamanism that spoke to the soul-based way I lived.

That woman’s reaction was a bit more blatant that others after my husband’s death, but it was one of the classic reactions I got: Know that you will be devastated for a long time. In fact, you may never get over it. There were four other reactions: Discomfort over the death; heartfelt sympathy for my loss; surprise that I wasn’t over it yet; and, genuine acceptance of however I was dealing with it. It was a relief to be with people who were grounded in that last response and could radiate it. These four basic reactions remained the fundamental reactions I got from people throughout the first eighteen months after my husband’s death.

Many people expressed heartfelt sympathy when they first heard of Howard’s death, and they expressed it again when they were face-to-face with me. A few people avoided me. A few rallied to support me. But over time, it seemed to me that the fundamental mindset that a person had about life and death came oozing out when I responded to their question, “How are you doing?” Some people seemed permanently fixated on the pain of loss. The woman who pronounced that it would be five years before I felt normal again appeared to me to be one of those. Others projected a kind of fearlessness about life, an understanding that tragedy happens, but life wins out for the survivors of death—if they let it. Maybe because I fall into that latter category, I appreciated that reaction from others most.

It wasn’t that this latter group pushed me to be perfectly fine when I wasn’t. On the contrary, as a whole, they were better at assessing exactly how I was feeling and accepting it more than others. More than anything, they didn’t lay a judgment on me about how I “should” be responding to the death. Their response to my response allowed me to relax into exactly who I was when I was with them.

If there is something to be learned from all of this, for me, it is that we cannot really make assumptions about how anyone will handle the death of a spouse. And the person who has experienced the death cannot make assumptions about how others will respond to them, as survivor, or to the fact of the death.

So what can any of us do for another when they lose a loved one? We can bother to pay attention to how they are and what they need—reading it in what they say, what they don’t say, and what they project—instead of making assumptions. And we can send them waves of love, from our heart to theirs. Does anything else really matter, anyway?

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

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11 Responses to “How Others Responded, Part 2”

  1. kathykaiser Says:

    Having just experienced a setback in my life, I was interested in the advice you got from people, some who want to ignore the topic, move on to something more cheerful and others who are willing to just listen. I agree, the love and support, without condition, are the most important.


  2. Becky Says:

    I love this article. It reminds me of a great book I just finished reading titled, “I’m a Widow, What Now? Embracing Life after Loss” by Patricia N. Muscari. It doesn’t have to take 5 years to mourn the death of a spouse- we all mourn in our own time. However, what is so refreshing about Patricia’s book is that, having gone through the mourning process of losing a spouse as well, she offers great insight and unique ways to experience and move more quickly through your grief. For me the book was exactly what I needed…


  3. Becky Says:

    You are welcome. I hope others find it as helpful as I did.


  4. Gail Storey Says:

    Wise and from your beautiful heart, Melanie. Your insight runs so deep about the loss of a beloved spouse that it would be helpful in flowing with all sorts of losses in life. Thank you, and blessings.


  5. tamaragsuttle Says:

    Melanie, I’m just now finding your new beautiful website. Congrats to you! I love it! And, it seems to reflect who I “think” you are – your heart, your energy, your spirit.

    I’m also just now finding this post and although it’s obviously been up for a while, I wanted to add a thought or two . . . . I know that you know that in this culture we are rarely prepared to embrace the bumps in life that often come cloaked with death. So, it’s not uncommon to find “good intentions” wrapped in ugly packages.

    My first partner and I were together for 10 years when she died unexpectedly. I was 33 years old at the time. Regardless of how well-informed and well-trained we are, when loss happens – expected or not – it’s typically a jolt. For me, it was a life-altering jolt.

    However, I suspect like you, I knew even in the midst of the many losses that came with her death, that I would be OK in the long run. The biggest “gift” that came with that ordeal is that sometimes gifts come in ugly packages. (I’m going to write a book by that name eventually:)

    And, like you, it didn’t take years for me to find joy and peace and even love again. It’s unfortunate that sometimes our good intentions are best left unsaid. (When Kathy died, some lady in the waiting room said to me “At least you didn’t have children.” Of course, I knew she meant well. She just didn’t know something better to say. And, yes, it was still a clueless thing to say.) When we know better, we do better.

    Just wanted you to know . . . it’s not uncommon for there to be huge variations in how we respond to and deal with our losses. There is not one “right” way. Thank you for sharing your way . . . . For normalizing something other than “the five-year journey” of limping along.

    I hope I have an opportunity to meet you in 2013!


    • Melanie Mulhall Says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful comment to this post. Even though the last few years of my husband’s life were sometimes difficult, my lot was, in many ways, easier than yours. Losing a partner suddenly is difficult. There’s no time to prepare. I can easily imagine the “life-altering jolt” of it. Yes, I knew that I would be okay. More than that, I knew that he would be okay. That knowing came as a result of mystical experiences over time. And despite the fact that my husband didn’t share some of my mystical proclivities, I suspect he shared more of them than he was willing to admit and seemed to take some comfort in my confidence that all would be well.

      Yes, it is true that many people are not only made uncomfortable by death, they have no idea what to say or what to do with that discomfort. As you say, sometimes our best intentions are left unverbalized. I can look in the mirror and know the truth of that. But there always seem to be people who believe they know more about what is good for us than we do. I admit I haven’t much tolerance for that. The woman who made her pronouncement meant well, but she assumed I fit some sort of mold she’d created by using the worst of psychology to generalize. And she assumed she knew some things about my grieving and my way of moving through the world that she didn’t. So she put her foot in her mouth, mostly because of hubris. I’m no stranger to hubris, so it is a good reminder.

      Thanks for the comments on my renovated Dragonheart website, which can be found at

      I’d love to meet you in 2013. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves at the same BMW potluck.



  6. tamaragsuttle Says:

    haha – I have a love / hate relationship with those mirrors, for sure! Actually, I think they are just great when other folks get to look in the mirrors; it’s my own reflection that can cause me to squirm! 🙂

    As for that anticipatory grief vs. the sudden jolt . . . I’m sure that there’s pluses and minuses to each. However, both of my parents as well as Kathy died suddenly and, truthfully, I have to say I’m really quite a fan of the whole sudden death thing. I just have no idea if I could really exhibit the grace (that I like to think I have) if my loved one had a prolonged illness.

    It sounds crass, I know! But, it’s true! I think that we don’t get more than we can handle – even if we don’t know that we know how to handle “it.” And, that makes me wonder if there’s a reason (which, of course, I believe there is!) that I’ve been dealt the quick stuff rather than the lingering stuff.

    Oh! Just rambling out loud here. Sorry ’bout that!
    When your husband died, I had not been part of BMW for very long and only knew you my name. What I’ve seen all along and not taken time to say is that your transparency and generosity of spirit are amazing. Thanks for sharing so much of your journey with us.


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