Dealing with the Death and Loss of a Spouse
The loss of a spouse is devastating and requires one of the biggest life adjustments you’ll ever have to make. Some experts say that the loss and the new identity it thrusts upon you take at least three years to adjust to, and often much longer. You are accustomed to someone’s continued presence, from a greeting when you come home to having someone to share your daily life with. The stories you tell over dinner, pats on the arm or the little negotiations over who will do this or that…suddenly, they’re missing. It’s natural and appropriate that you should grieve both these seemingly minor losses as well as the great loss of your spouse.Because your spouse was a daily presence, you may find yourself preoccupied with thoughts and dreams of them. You may look for him or her in a crowd, or be sure that you just saw your spouse out of the corner of your eye. Some people keep re-experiencing the circumstances or events around their partner’s death. Others find themselves sticking to old routines: setting the table for two, reading something and turning to tell their spouse about it, picking up the phone to call him or her. All of this is natural and expected.
Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges
Because your spouse or partner was such a major part of your daily life, their loss is usually felt more immediately and for a longer length of time. Regardless of the tenure of your marriage or relationship, this is the person you made long-term plans with and chose to spend your life with. You valued their unique qualities, their humor or charm, their intellect, kindness or strength, and no one will ever take his or her place. As acute as your loss feels now, being alone doesn’t mean a lifetime of loneliness. It may be tempting to isolate yourself at this time, but reaching out to others for support is critical.
One of the critical factors in healing from the loss of a spouse is the support of other people. Having your family, friends or a community of others who have also experienced grief allows you to feel that someone else “gets it.” Being able to share your story or your feelings is vital to the healing process.
Places to find support
Faith-based groups: If you are religious, you may find support in your community or with the leader of your church or temple. They may be able to provide suggestions for rituals or prayer that can help you deal with death of a spouse. Because of their role in the community, they may have extensive experience with loss.
Support groups: There are many support groups for widows and widowers. If this feels intimidating, remember that you can attend a group and just listen. You won’t be forced to speak until you’re comfortable, and you may draw comfort from being in a community of others who have some understanding of the depth of your grief. You can find local support groups on HealGrief.org.
Therapists or counselors: Sometimes, talking to a professional with experience in grief counseling can help you deal with some of the intense emotions you may be feeling. It’s normal to feel vulnerable after losing a spouse, and you might not always want to share your thoughts with the people in your daily life, especially children dealing with their own grief. A compassionate third party who has grief experience may help you overcome obstacles to your healing. You can find more resources here.
Community: You may be a private person or not have a local network of support. Here at HealGrief, you can read the postings of others who have suffered a similar loss. Through this community, you may feel less isolated.
Taking care of yourself
When you’re coping with grief, it is both important and difficult to take care of yourself. Your loss may take away your energy, your appetite and your emotional reserves.
Allow yourself to grieve: Often we push the grief away, or tamp it down by distracting ourselves with activities or tasks. Trying to avoid grief only leads to prolonging it — the grief has to be allowed to surface. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems.
Express your feelings in a tangible way: This can be done in many ways, depending on your creativity or usual means of expression. You can write about your loss in a journal, or send a private note to the person you’ve lost. You can make a scrapbook, photo album or create an online memorial celebrating your spouse’s life. You can also get involved in an organization or philanthropy that was meaningful to them, or make a donation in their name.
Be physically healthy: Your mind and body are connected, and physical health helps with the emotional healing process. It’s natural to feel lethargic or low energy, but if you’re able to take a walk or a run, it will help you cope with the grieving process. Combat your fatigue with an appropriate amount of sleep, and choose foods that provide you not just with comfort but energy.
Don’t judge yourself, or let others judge you: You are allowed to grieve for as long and as deeply as you need to. No one, including yourself, can tell you when to “move on” or “get over it.” It’s okay to be angry, to cry, not cry, or even laugh — you need to allow for moments of joy in your grief, and feel no guilt for having a moment without pain. We recommend that you read the Mourner’s Bill of Rights to reassure yourself of your “right” to grieve.
Finances are another challenge
If your spouse managed the finances and you’re unsure of where you stand, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed. In most households, one spouse — husband or wife — handles the day-to-day finances and there seems to be no reason to discuss the details. But when the death of a spouse comes suddenly and unexpectedly, the surviving partner is often left unprepared. Unfortunately, financial matters are often a challenge immediately after the death of a spouse, at a time when you feel least able to manage them. In addition to regular bills, you may have hospice or funeral costs and more. Enlist a trusted family member, friend or financial advisor to help you make sound decisions and stay on top of any financial obligations or decisions that need to be made.
There are additional considerations for seniors
The death of a spouse, and your resulting financial situation, may necessitate a change in your living situation. That type of decision is best pushed off for 6–12 months if at all possible; no major decisions should be made during the initial stages of grief. But for some seniors, the loss of a spouse can lead to the end of independent living. If your physical limitations meant you were dependent on your spouse’s support, this sudden shift from independence provides yet another reason to grieve. If you find yourself dealing with this situation, seek out others who have gone through a similar experience. If you are moving to an assisted living community, there are many peers and professionals who can help you through this period of adjustment.
You will eventually redefine yourself, and your life
You have gone from being a husband, wife or partner to a widow or widower. These words feel harsh and confining, and it’s difficult but critical to ensure that the new title doesn’t define you. As time passes, you will regain your energy and your hope for the future, as distant or unreachable as that may feel right now.
As you cope, topics that may be useful to you include the Mourner’s Bill of Rights, as well as the recommended readings to the right.
Finding Your Way After Your Spouse Dies
Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life
Genevieve Davis Ginsburg
How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
Therese A. Rando
Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief
Martha Whitmore Hickman
Living When a Loved One Has Died
Earl A. Grollman