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When 'We' Changes to 'Me' -- Finding the Strength to Move Forward After the Death of a Partner or Spouse

What if, in the midst of this blissful time, your partner suddenly and unexpectedly dies? How do you find hope and meaning in life after your world is turned upside down?
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From the moment you "knew" that you and your partner were meant to be together, your life took on new meaning and definition. You built your world around each other and your relationship became an integral part of who you are. Your hopes and dreams for the future now include the two of you as a couple.

What if, in the midst of this blissful time, your partner suddenly and unexpectedly dies? How do you find hope and meaning in life after your world is turned upside down?

As the clinical director of adult programs at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles, these are the questions I posed to Melissa Christensen, a 28-year-old young professional whose partner died in 2010. Here is how Melissa describes her poignant experience:

I had just started my second year of graduate school in social work. Sometime in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 4, Brian, my boyfriend and best friend of five years, began experiencing seizures. I called the paramedics and Brian was taken to the ER. Over the next few hours, his brain continued to seize repeatedly without sufficient time between seizures for adequate recovery. They struggled unsuccessfully to stabilize him. Later that morning, Brian experienced an 11-minute grand mal seizure -- the worst of many. It was touch and go all weekend.

On Monday afternoon, we were informed by the doctors that Brian had suffered severe irreversible brain damage -- essentially he was brain dead. His family took him off of life support the following day and he died of a serious medical condition called 'status epilepticus.' Brian had no prior history of epilepsy or seizures, nor was he using or abusing any drugs. His death remains a mystery to us all.

In those first few weeks after Brian died, I operated primarily on adrenaline and a desperate need to distract myself from my painful reality. The loneliness was unbearable. The pain was heavy in my chest and my stomach. When I slowed down each day, comfort was all I could think of. I craved blankets, soft slippers, loving and warm people around me, my dogs, comfort food and sweet music. It was like caring for myself as a newborn.

Melissa appreciates the support she received from close friends and family. Her mother, cousin and best friend came from Colorado to help out in the immediate aftermath. Her friends rotated sleeping with her in the earliest days when she couldn't bear to sleep alone. Her classmates at graduate school organized a bake sale for her to demonstrate their support.

Despite her overwhelming grief, Melissa believed that moving forward with the goals she had in place prior to Brian's death was the best plan for her. Keeping to her routine of attending classes and having a set place to be gave Melissa something to focus her energy on. "I do think having some kind of schedule is important, even in the earliest days. I was determined to continue with my schooling and somehow I was able to complete my coursework," she says.

Brian had been a strong advocate of Melissa's rigorous graduate program and graduating on time was a way to provide both meaning and structure to her life and honor Brian's memory. She plans to specialize in grief and loss in her clinical social work practice.

Melissa has found meaningful volunteer work as a member of the associate board of Our House Grief Support Center. She feels she is making a difference in the lives of grieving younger adults. "Some people devote themselves to a charity supporting research on a particular illness. In my case, I chose to spread the word that grief support exists, and urging young people to connect and share their grief. Groups provide structured ways to join with others to memorialize and remember the person who died," she says.

Now, three years since Brian's death, Melissa offers the following practical advice to those who have experienced the death of a loved one:

When a death happens (and it will happen to us all) allow the people in your life to care for you. If they offer to bring you food, let them. If they offer to pick things up at the store for you, let them. If they offer to help with housework, let them. Allow yourself the space and time to reflect, to cry, to write, to read, to talk to friends -- whatever it is you need to do to start processing and working through the pain.

And when the time is right for you, resume a schedule of activity. Find meaningful work, find ways to give back, channel your energies into positive contributions to your community. Know that 'moving forward' does not necessarily mean 'moving on' and that it's possible to honor the life and love of the person who died and still build a meaningful, rich and fulfilling life.

I hope the readers of this article will find reassurance and inspiration from Melissa's intimate account of her compelling journey through grief towards healing.

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.

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