Helping Yourself When Your Spouse Has Died
By Charles A. Corr, Ph.D
The intimate relationship you shared with your spouse enriched your life and made it possible for you to grow. Important parts of your identity were defined and shaped by this special union. The deeper your attachment, the greater was its nourishment of your development.
Similarly, the deeper the attachment, the greater was your investment of self and the greater your loss. Everyone who loves deeply runs the danger of losing their loved one and suffering the consequences of that loss. If you did not truly love your spouse, you would experience no grief. You simply would not care about that loss. In other words, only people who avoid love can avoid grief. But to avoid love is to impoverish your life. How then can you help yourself when a spouse has died? How can you learn from your grief?
Reactions to loss
“Grief” is the word we use to indicate reactions to loss—your feelings and thoughts about the loss, your behavior, your spiritual or existential search for associated meaning, as well as related physical sensations and social difficulties.
Grief is not an illness or disease
Grief is a normal and healthy reaction to loss. It may be an unusual experience in your life, but it is not abnormal. You may come to think you are “losing your mind” or “going crazy,” but that is unlikely. Grief is not an illness or a disease. The truly abnormal scenario would be for you to have loved your spouse deeply, but to not react in any way when that person died. So, don’t let people tell you to “forget your spouse,” to “put your loss behind you” or to just “get over your grief.”
So here is the 1st lesson: Honor your grief!
That may seem to be a strange thing to say. To honor your grief does not mean that you will like or enjoy that painful experience. It means, instead, that you value what you have lost, you value your reactions to that loss because you understand them for what they are and in these ways you value life itself.
Becoming a survivor
It has been said that “the death of a spouse is not only an ending; it is also a beginning for the partner who is left behind.” At first, the death of one’s spouse victimizes the bereaved individual. It takes away a person who is highly valued. It terminates a prized relationship. It leaves the individual adrift on the unchartered seas of grief without the familiar anchor and stabilizing presence of the loved one.
However, this is the 2nd lesson: You need not remain a victim.
You can transform yourself into a survivor by finding constructive ways to cope with what has happened. You will not be able to change the fact that your spouse has died, but you can make efforts to manage the implications of that death. For example, in acknowledging and coming to accept your loss, you can work through the pain of your grief by experiencing it in tolerable doses. As you do this, don’t hesitate to learn from others who have been similarly bereaved.
Continuing bond with your spouse
You need not “forget” your spouse. Instead, you can restructure your relationship with your spouse in order to reflect the new realities and challenges in your life. You can forge continuing bonds with your spouse that will help you “love in separation” even when “loving in presence” is no longer possible.
Learning to live in the world after the death of your spouse will present you with many new, often surprising, challenges. Some of these involve “secondary losses” that appear as the full scope of what you have lost unfolds.
For example, you may have to take over some of the duties and roles that your spouse formerly filled. Also, you may find that future events will remind you of your loss and trigger new outbursts of grief.
Forging a new identity
You may also need to develop some new skills to cope with the new reality of your life. Certainly, you will need to rethink and redefine your own identity, to discover anew who you are now that your spouse has died and is no longer physically present in this life.
This is a lifelong set of tasks. Take your time. Don’t try to live up to some rigid, artificial schedule. Be patient with yourself. Other bereaved spouses have reported that although their grief never ended completely, it did change its character. The intensity and the duration of their grief usually became less powerful and less insistent as it became a permanent part of their lives and as they moved ahead with living. In doing so, you may sometimes feel guilty, as if you were being disloyal to your spouse. Remind yourself that developing a life without your spouse is what others who truly love you would want. Surely, they would wish you all the best.
It is unlikely that you will ever “get back to normal,” or return to your former way of living. However, you can work to develop new ideas of normal, new ways of living that will enable you to go forward with productive living and loving.
About the author
Charles A. Corr, Ph.D, is professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and former chairperson (1989-1993) of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Dr. Corr’s professional publications include 22 books and more than 80 articles and chapters on a wide variety of death-related topics.