“You have to move on.”

If you’ve been widowed more than 90 days, you’ve inevitably heard that phrase from well-meaning family, friends and acquaintances.

Move on…

What many people don’t understand is that losing a spouse is the equivalent of a massive ball of soot exploding in your life. The dust gets on everything…you, your children, your finances, your photos, your home…everything. It blurs your memory and clouds your future. It blinds you, making you unsure of which path is best for you, best for your children. It suffocates you, leaving you breathless and wanting to give up. It seeps into your pores and affects your health – mentally and physically. It changes your children. It divides your life into the before and after.

There’s a grief triad for many in the widowed community. When a spouse dies, we mourn our past, our present and our future.

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Our Past

We miss how things were. Even if our marriages had soured over the years, we missed the connection that initially drew us to our spouse. We miss our innocence. We miss growing together as a couple and finding our way in the relationship. We miss starting a family. We miss how we held hands. We miss date nights. We miss having our person. We miss having a sounding board, an advocate, a confidant and a best friend all rolled into one. We miss vacations. We miss the little things. We miss the big things.

That ball of blackness that exploded in our lives often threatens to consume many of those memories with each passing year. Our children lose another bit of their father the older they become. We don’t “move on” simply because we can’t. We hold onto those memories and moments because we never want to forget.

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Our Present

Our present looks a lot different without our spouse by our side. Whether our lives are “better” or “worse”, there is still pain that comes with our present. Why isn’t my spouse here to see the fiercely independent person I’ve become? Why didn’t he/she get to see our children grow into amazing adults? Or, why did it take my spouse’s death for me to find my worth? Why did his/her death give me my freedom?

Each obstacle overcome and every defeat we experience is a reminder that we are widowed. Every parenting frustration, every financial challenge, every dating disaster, every home repair issues…all reminders that the soot continues to permeate our lives.

Death reminds us daily that we are widowed. How do you move on from something that continues to slap you in the face every single day (even on good days)? It’s not for attention. Widowhood sucks!

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Our Future

The death is a reminder of unfinished plans. It’s the incomplete house renovation, the pregnancy that never happened, the trip we didn’t take. In mourning our spouse, we grieve what should have been, what could have been. We grieve wouldas, couldas and ifs. We miss the lives that we’d carved out in our head despite not knowing if things would have turned out that way. Regardless, it’s our fantasy and we get to mourn that as we see fit.

Yes, we can continue many of those dreams alone but the truth is, the experience won’t be the same (though that’s always a negative thing). It’s not until the thickness of that dark cloud that hangs over our head begins to dissipate that we begin to get clarity on how we move forward with our lives. No amount of pressure from family and friends will clear the fog. It requires effort and time and is unique to each widow.

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So, the next time you feel inclined to tell a widow that she needs to move on, please remember that her grief is tied to her past, present and future. Allow her to move forward, through the pain, the sadness, uncertainty, etc., the best way she can. Just be there. Offer support and guidance. You don’t have to be a problem solver or a savior. Sometimes all we need is a hand to hold or a listening ear.

Mom to a feisty preschooler, Kerry Phillips became widowed at age 32. She runs an online support group for young widows and widowers venturing back into the world of dating and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.

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