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‘Will Grief Destroy My New Marriage?’

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Dear Polly,

This the second time I’ve written anything in many years. The first time was about a month ago, when I tried to squeeze my entire life story into a single paragraph on a therapy clinic’s intake form. My husband and I were married five months ago. A lot of my family couldn’t make it to the wedding, most notably my older brother, who reported to county jail on the morning before we walked down the aisle. When I finally did get to see my brother, just after Thanksgiving, it was at his funeral. He died of alcoholism a few days before his birthday. The proximity of these two events — our marriage and the death of my closest sibling — has had the effect of blurring the lines between grief and the “marital adjustment period,” after a year of family drama and mind-numbing, reluctant wedding planning.

As an atheist, I wanted to get hitched at the courthouse, but my husband wanted a religious wedding with a big reception, and I relented out of respect for his traditions. I remember telling my brother about the wedding. We got into an argument about who he could invite. I think about this call with him a lot, and how things might have been different. Maybe he wouldn’t have been as depressed if I had let him bring whoever he wanted; maybe he would have been motivated to get help to ensure he’d be at the wedding, and he might still be alive now (but probably not). The internet says these thoughts are part of the “bargaining” phase of grief, but knowing that doesn’t make them stop.

My memories about our wedding are inseparable from my memories of my brother’s funeral. His absence at the wedding wore on my heart that day. I cried that morning and felt sad looking out over my other half-siblings, fair-weather friends, aloof parents and in-laws, and drunk husband who couldn’t be lured away from his even more intoxicated groomsmen all night. No matter how many drinks I had myself, I felt numb and couldn’t enjoy myself while worrying about all of the DIY details.

I was also glad that I knew where my brother was, and that I knew he was sober — at least he was safe from himself in jail. My parents are scatterbrained, secular baby-boomers with few family traditions and no aptitude for modern technology, and my other siblings are distant and self-absorbed, so after planning the bulk of our wedding, it was then up to me to plan my brother’s viewing and memorial service, write his obituary, field questions from friends and family, make a photo board, and buy cheese platters at Costco. I had to remind my husband that we needed a cat-sitter while we were both out of state for the funeral. Meanwhile, a friend asked if I could still perform in a show we had booked that weekend, and my father convinced me to scoop out some of my brother’s ashes into an old makeup bottle for his estranged alcoholic girlfriend. I became bitter and hopeless in the face of other people’s incompetence, selfishness, and inability to grasp the weight and significance life events such as marriage or death.

When I returned home, after four days of bereavement leave, my husband jumped back into his 60-hour workweek without taking a day off. Most of my evenings were spent alone, sobbing, clutching my phone but calling no one, and standing in the hallway like a zombie in our dark, cold apartment. I Googled things like “Do people really have friends?” and “Is everyone afraid of my grief?” No one in my family checked in to distract or comfort me, and friends I saw at work couldn’t be convinced to visit me at home where I might be safe to shed a tear on their shoulder without embarrassment. All I wanted was someone who would give me permission to be real with them without having to travel to a church or after-hours support group in the middle of winter, but the thought of asking for these things felt selfish and entitled. The fact that no one would take it upon themselves to extend an unsolicited caring gesture of friendship or familial concern left me simultaneously disillusioned and disgusted with myself for wallowing in self-pity. By conventional standards, one would consider me a popular person — a former model and sometime performer with flattering Google results and a successful career — but now I was a cliché whose entourage turned out to be comprised of vapid, indifferent acquaintances. After a few weeks, I felt confident enough to host a New Year’s Eve party, and that night I had to ask my husband kindly not to finish the fourth drink that he was spilling all over the floor, reminding him how my brother died.

Then I got angry. To be fair, I had been angry the whole time, but for some reason it all came out after I asked my husband if he felt like spearheading dinner some time and he described his disinterest in cooking. In general, my husband is objectively a very kind and sentimental person, but I know now that he is not thoughtful and probably never will be. I let out a wail and sobbed something about how no one does anything just to be nice anymore, and then lectured him about how spouses who don’t like to cook subconsciously just want a maternal caregiver to take for granted for the rest of their lives. I recalled the last time I blew up at him, just after the wedding. I had asked him why he didn’t help me plan anything; why he took more time and spent more money for his bachelor party than he did for our honeymoon, and why he didn’t try harder to spend time with me on our wedding day. He gave me a sullen hug.

I’ve painted this picture of general dysfunction, strangely, to provide context for the main problem I seek advice about: We haven’t had sex since the week before my brother died, and I think our lack of intimacy is at once a cause and symptom of my prolonged grief. I called a friend in tears on my husband’s birthday, terrified that I would need to pretend to feel happy in order to let him have a good time, and thinking that having sex was the only way to prove to him (and myself) that I’m “getting better,” but that all I could think about was death and dying. She told me that it’s normal to feel vulnerable, which I do, but I also feel contempt. When we make out, a dull anxiety washes over me, my heart pounds and I choke up at the thought that he’s expecting or hoping it will finally lead to sex, sensing an eagerness and impatience in his body language — I pull away and then sense his disappointment. We’ve talked about it briefly, and by that I mean that I’ve waited until the lights were out to say that I’m not ready yet, following up with, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” and ugly-crying myself to sleep. He is understanding, and we mostly just cuddle at night now. He bought me flowers and chocolate for Valentine’s Day and I’ve tried to cheer myself up by self-caring with haircuts, mani-pedis, facials, and massages, hoping that I can coax myself into feeling sexy enough to do the deed again one day.

In a post-group-therapy daze, I recently impulsively said yes to getting drinks with a good-looking stranger who approached me on the subway platform. It felt good to have a superficial conversation and be lusted over by someone who didn’t know me, or know that my brother had just died. I told him I was married, which confused and maybe enticed him. I wasn’t attracted to him, and won’t be meeting with him again, but it was an odd respite from my problems. Lucky for me, this stranger turned out to be a nice guy who probably thought he’d met a real manic-pixie dream girl, but the encounter feels like a sign that something strange and dark is brewing inside me, or like my life has become a watered-down Terrence Malick film.

I fear that grief and contempt are destroying my marriage before it’s even had a chance. I feel like someone on the edge of insanity, unable to conquer the many barriers to healing that lay before me. Before all of this, I wanted to start a family with my husband. Now, when I see children and yearn for one of my own, I think to myself, “You know that you have to have sex to have babies, right?” and am flooded with tears as I think of how I have no one to rely on for support if I ever became pregnant, how I’d need to initiate an adult conversation and spell out every lifestyle change that’s expected of a father-to-be to my apparently clueless husband. My thoughts wander to images of my fictional children growing up in a broken household, becoming homeless drug addicts, dying of an overdose, a drunken car accident, or a suicide, and of me becoming my own mother — traumatized, constantly tidying, and bouncing between relationships until settling into a sheltered monotony of middle-age. I’m afraid of re-creating the kind of cycle that destroyed my brother, and his death has made me fixate on my husband’s every flaw, bad habit, and annoying tendency as I keep hoping he’ll prove to me that I married the right person by acting like a good friend rather than a friendly roommate.

How can I untangle my relationship from my web of family baggage? How do I salvage what’s left of our first year of marriage? How do I forgive everyone, and myself, for not being picture-perfect examples of reliability (and should I)? Am I no longer in love, or is my capacity to love just imprisoned by my grief and anger? No one in my world seems brave enough to help me unpack these questions, and every psychiatrist in NYC appears to be booked.



Dear Wait-Listed,

The key to your letter lies in the last line: “No one in my world seems brave enough to help me unpack these questions.” You’re talking about yourself.

You don’t seem brave enough to unpack these questions with anyone in your world. You will only unpack them in your letter to me. You will only unpack them in your head. You will only unpack them with strangers in group therapy or a stranger you met on the subway platform. You need to become brave enough to unpack these questions with the people who know you, who matter to you: your husband, your friends, yourself.

You might think that you are unpacking these questions with yourself, but as long as there’s this spirit of self-recrimination in the air (making sure not to cry at work even though you’re in mourning, covering up your brief attempts to talk about sex with the question “What’s wrong with me?” as if sex is a one-person show and you’ve just refused to go onstage), your relationship with yourself will deteriorate as rapidly as your relationships with other people are deteriorating right now.

Facials and mani-pedis and chocolates are not enough. These are the stand-in consumer signifiers of love and caring that we’ve slowly come to encounter as a replacement for the real thing. When the actual love and caring never arrives, we are meant to accept these purchased substitutes into our hearts. Calling haircuts and massages self-care is like calling constant tidying “therapy” (which our culture also does, not surprisingly). But most people don’t really need a concerned hairdresser or a sensitive-seeming masseuse or a horny stranger on the subway to tell their troubles to any more than they need sullen hugs and silent cuddling from a husband who’s hiding in his work and wondering when his fun, upbeat-seeming, perfectionist girlfriend is going to return. What most people need is someone who can show up and say, “I care about you and I love you. Tell me what’s going on inside your head and your heart. Tell me how angry you are. Tell me how devastated you are. Tell me the truth.”

Sex feels wrong when you’re hiding from the truth. But for you to tell the truth about how angry you are, you’re going to need to accept that you have things to say that fly in the face of your fun, upbeat-seeming, perfectionist former self. That girl is gone. She might reappear in some other form in the future, but if you want to feel your feelings and be an authentic person in the world moving forward, you’re going to have to reckon with just how disappointed you are in the life you’ve created for yourself and the people you’ve pulled close and the successful, charming, exhausting DIY strategies that landed you here. You were raised by withholding ghosts who don’t want to face themselves or address what’s real. You were raised among smaller ghosts who mimicked their parents and wound up with drinking problems (and many other maladies, I’m sure). And now you have a choice. You can become a contemptuous, withholding ghost who never has sex with her husband and never tells her friends or co-workers the whole truth, or become something new: a ragged, ineffectual, melting woman who tells everyone everything.

I guess there’s some middle ground between those two things, but I’ve never navigated it all that well under duress. Plus, you’re saying that you’re starting to lose your mind. The stakes feel high. It’s time to unleash the melting woman. Instead, though, you’re holding out for a psychiatrist (get a therapist immediately and they’ll refer you to someone if you need meds!), waiting for your friends to notice that they’re failing you (tell them what you need, directly and repeatedly), and blaming yourself for your sex problems (tell your husband the truth about how disappointed and alone you feel).

If you’re going to save yourself, you need to start melting out in the open. Right now you are tidying. Stop it. This is no time to seem fine. This is no time to be good. This is no time to play along with our culture of weak substitutes and tenuous connections and fake friendships and imaginary alliances and never-ending, around-the-clock bullshit.

This is a moment to be an authentic raging, sobbing mess. This is a moment to say to someone, anyone, “I am falling apart. I need you.” This is a moment to show up, in all of your wretchedness and fear, and ask — no, actually, demand — that your brand-new spouse very quickly learn to show up, too. He will express disappointment, too, of course: My brand-new wife is mean and sad and won’t fuck me. Prepare to hear that. When he begins to peel off the layers of how he feels, the top layers will be gross and you’ll hate him even more. Be patient with that part, knowing that there’s something underneath that you want.

Because whether you realize it or not, this man matches you. He is another form of perfectionist. He is a sentimental workaholic who decides how to feel instead feeling whatever he’s feeling. His denial is not more dramatic than yours. Part of what’s making you feel crazy these days is the conviction that you’re the only honest, brave person you know. That’s an illusion. You are extremely hard-working and generous and responsible and you try very hard to do the “right” thing, but you are not being all that brave or honest at this moment in your life. You’re very afraid, and you’re lying.

You’re saying “What’s wrong with me?” when you mean “What’s wrong with YOU?” You’re going home from work to hide your tears when you want people to see you cry. You’re doing all of the work on your brother’s funeral instead of calling your parents and your siblings and saying, “I will need some help with this or your son/brother will have a half-assed funeral.” You’re smiling weakly at your friends instead of telling them that if they can’t show up for you at this moment, they shouldn’t call themselves friends at all.

Because you’ve spent your whole life trying to bury your sadness and anger, you now believe that your sadness and anger are what’s making you crazy. But sadness and anger don’t make people crazy. Sadness and anger can be clarifying. If you can feel these things without blaming yourself for them, they’re relaxing. They feel right. They can feed you. They can indicate a clear path forward from your confusion. They can make you feel more calm. They can put things in perspective. Even “crazy” (various mental-health challenges defined in the DSM-V) doesn’t always make people act “crazy” (an inaccurate behavioral category that tellingly, includes things like crying at the office, things that are signs of ROBUST MENTAL HEALTH and CONFIDENCE and A STRONG BELIEF IN THE VALUE OF EMOTIONS).

Being brave right now means FEELING THIS. You need to feel this. You need to be where you are, out in the open, so everyone can see you. You need to stop playing along with bullshitty sullen hugs and bullshitty consumer gestures and you need to demand more broken, frightened, intense, awkward, on the spot, jagged SHOWING UP. You need to ask for ugly shared moments. You need to make some space for the emotions that will flow out of your similarly broken, shut-down, denial-loving husband when you ask him to grow along with you, out of this deep dark pit and into the sunshine.

THAT IS BRAVE. I’m not saying it will fix everything. I’m not saying you’ll like your husband more once he starts talking. I’m not saying you’ll like yourself more once you show yourself to others. I’m not saying your friends won’t continue to disappoint you. I’m not saying your family won’t go from disappearing to defensive. This is how the process tends to look, sadly. Grief and contempt precipitate a crisis, and you crawl out of the shadows and reveal your full, hideous, untamed self, and the world becomes hideous as it resists your frightening insistence on telling the truth.

It’s all ugly. But from that ugly place, a very calm, loving spirit emerges. This spirit sees the man on the subway and notices that he’s attracted to her. This spirit sees the older woman holding three groceries bags walking down the street and notices the pain in her eyes. This spirit feels her mother’s resistance as she gets up to tidy more instead of just sitting and talking. This spirit notices the fear in her husband’s eyes when it’s time to tell the truth about where they’ve landed together, in this unexpected space of reckoning. This spirit takes in the scared souls around her, and feels compassion for them.

It starts with compassion for yourself. You say you’re angry at yourself for letting your brother down and not letting him invite whoever he wanted to your wedding. But you know in your heart that this was reasonable of you and no part of what happened to him is even remotely your fault. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Take that in. You aren’t responsible for him or anyone else in your family. It’s time to let go of that role and let them fend for themselves for a change. You can’t swallow their ineptitude anymore. You’re a generous person, celebrate that, but stop giving way too much to everyone out of guilt and anxiety. Stop trying to fix everything. Take a step back and let your family do nothing for a change. It’s not up to you.

I know that you’re angry at everyone in your life for being so inadequate, for being so scared and weak. And you have a right to be angry. I was furious at almost everyone after my dad died. So many people disappointed me. I had befriended a bunch of chickenshits and I didn’t even know it. But I was also a chickenshit who didn’t show up for people when they needed me. I had no idea. I was generous, after all! I was always trying to fix everything, always rallying everyone and drawing them out and pulling them together. None of that meant I was being real, though. I was playing a role. And I wasn’t completely reliable. And I wasn’t really showing up. I was angry, behind my exhausting efforts. I had to reckon with that.

And I was angry at myself, on so many different levels that it was hard to even scratch the surface of any of them. You need to know that you’re also angry at yourself. You need to stop beating yourself up for not breezing through this colossal loss and fucking your husband with clocklike regularity. You need to stop berating yourself inside your head for not receiving the healing powers of mani-pedis and chocolates into your heart. You need to stop feeling guilty for not snapping out of this. You are flattened by your grief. Nothing feels the same. Let that in. Keep writing about it. Keep feeling it. LET IT IN.

Will anyone come to help, or are they too afraid? I’m not sure. But I do know one thing: No one will give you permission to be real with them. You have to give yourself permission. You can start by giving yourself permission to be real with yourself, to be real with a few friends, to be real with your husband, but trust me, it’ll feel so good over time that eventually, you’ll give yourself permission to be real with everyone. That doesn’t mean stopping people in the street to yell at them about your periods. It means looking people in the eyes and sometimes choosing to tell them the truth about where you are, calmly, without feeling ashamed of it and without blaming them for it. Once you stop blaming yourself for EVERYTHING, once you stop living inside an elaborate perfectionist DIY existence where everyone else can just passively nod along and get drunk and do nothing, once you grant yourself the same rights that other people have to be human, you’ll find it easier and less scary to show up and be honest with people.

My belief is that when you show yourself compassion, you start to move through the world with compassion for others. This patience bridges the gap between your honest tears and other people’s fears of emotional intensity. In other words, you can feel angry and still be patient with broken, hiding people. Remember, as you come out of your own state of hiding, that even in your efforts to fix everything and take responsibility for everyone around you, you probably still let people down sometimes. Think of the times you didn’t want people to get too intense, or backed away when they leaned on you or talked about their problems too much. No one is 100 percent dependable and perfect all the time. But it’s clear from your letter that in the past, you preferred to be the one buying the Costco cheese platter instead of the one falling apart in the corner.

The term “ugly crying” is a giveaway. People who say this often truly believe that sadness is repulsive. You also write, “The fact that no one would take it upon themselves to extend an unsolicited caring gesture … left me simultaneously disillusioned and disgusted with myself for wallowing in self-pity.” I get what you mean here, but it’s a very conflicted statement: You’re (understandably!) angry at other people for being so heartless yet you’re disgusted with yourself for having normal human emotions about that. In other words, you’re conflicted about what it means to be sad, to ask for help, to appear weak. You expect to rise above these things. You expect to be a great wife and have a great sex life in spite of your grief. You expect way, way too much from yourself.

It’s a lot, I know. You’re devastated and sad and you also have to face yourself and forgive yourself for all that you are. You have to face yourself and also say I AM OKAY, ALL HUMANS ARE A LITTLE BIT BROKEN, THERE IS NOTHING SHAMEFUL ABOUT THIS. It’s so easy to imagine that you’re to blame. Our world is built around this essential concept: You triumphantly sally forth, no matter what’s happening in your life, and if you can’t, that means there’s something wrong with you.

But it’s this world that’s broken. We have been formed in its image. We make ourselves into consumable products, signifiers of real people, empty shells that seem happy and productive, and then we wonder why we feel so hollowed out. Have compassion for this world anyway. Have compassion for yourself. You’re at the boundary of a brand-new world now. You are being transformed into a messenger from the future, one who tells your friends and your family and your husband, It doesn’t have to be this way. We can feel this sadness together. We can show up and care instead of hiding behind signifiers of caring. We can be ragged and uncertain in each other’s presence. We can find our compassion and our passion again.

We just have to be good to ourselves and each other. We just have to tell each other the truth.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Will Grief Destroy My New Marriage?’