Grief often takes people by surprise, not because they didn’t expect to feel it, but because it doesn’t present in the way they’d imagined. Sometimes grief presents so unlike their conception that they don’t even realize that a behavior is tied to their grief. For instance, one way to deal with intense grief is to focus the pain elsewhere. In your case, it might be easier for you to distract yourself from the pain of missing your husband by turning the pain inward and beating yourself up over what you did or didn’t do for him.
After the death of a loved one, people tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship—remembering conversations or experiences you had together, revisiting joyful and meaningful moments and also those you regret or wish had gone differently. These memories can serve as a way to feel a continued connection to the person who’s gone. But when these thoughts veer into obsession—you can’t stop thinking about them; you’re “consumed” by them—they start to take on similar qualities to obsessive-compulsive disorder or even an addiction.
Addictions, no matter what they’re to, have one thing in common: They temporarily numb you. But instead of helping you deal with your pain and move forward, they start to take over your life. Similarly, with OCD, people may temporarily quell their anxiety by repeatedly performing a ritual (such as flicking the lights on and off or compulsively washing their hands). But what they’re actually doing is soothing themselves with something that on the face of it seems miserable. For you, whenever you think about the loss of your husband, you soothe yourself by doing something miserable—going over and over the time you yelled at him or said something hurtful or didn’t buy him rice.
One reason you may need to escape your feelings is that you’ve been feeling them for a while—since long before your husband died—but have had no healthy outlet for them. Often when one person in a marriage is seriously ill, the couple directs all of their energy toward this person, even though the illness is also excruciatingly hard on the partner. I once treated a woman who was dying of cancer, and although her husband had been loving and attentive throughout their ordeal, he had also been suffering in silence. One night, as he was relaxing in front of the TV, his wife came in to show him another study about a possible experimental cancer treatment that she’d found online, and he snapped.
“Can’t we just have one night off from cancer?” he yelled. To which she replied, “I don’t get a night off from cancer!”
His reaction didn’t make him a bad partner. Instead, it brought to the surface something many couples dealing with a terminal illness don’t talk about: Grief doesn’t begin the day a person dies. We experience the loss while the person is alive, and because our energy is focused on doctor appointments and tests and treatments—and because the person is still here—we might not be aware that we’ve already begun grieving the loss of someone we love.