When a Spouse Dies: Coping with the Loss of Your Partner
By Ken Doka, Ph. D.
When a Spouse Dies
- Wendy, 46 years old, is coping with the sudden death of her 48-year-old husband. For over two years now, she has raised her teenage daughter alone. It was difficult for her to attend her daughter’s high school graduation alone, without her husband. Now that her daughter is away at college, she would like to begin dating again. Yet she shies away from friends’ offers to introduce her to men. She had dated her husband since high school, and as she says, “The current dating scene just confuses me.”
- When Robert’s wife, Debra, died of cancer at 34, Robert was left to care for his two young sons. Still in the first year of grief, he feels emotionally and physically drained as he not only struggles with his grief, but also with the demands of being a single dad.
- Janet and Sheila were together for 35 years before they had an opportunity to legally marry. Sheila, already diagnosed with cancer, died two years later. Janet treasures their relationship, but still carries resentment that they were only allowed to legally wed toward the end of their time together.
- Luanne takes great comfort from the 59 years she shared with her husband. In her early 80s, she manages to be active with grandchildren, church, clubs and hobbies. But she still deeply misses her husband. “It is worse at night,” she relates, “I haven’t had to sleep alone for nearly 60 years.”
- Paul’s partner of 52 years died six months ago. They never legally wed as both felt it was unnecessary so late in their relationship. Well into his 70s, Paul grieves the absence of Don’s presence. Both retired, Paul seems at a loss of what to do now that Don has died. Both were active retirees. “We did everything together—it is hard to now do things alone.”
- Helen’s marriage was always rocky—a sort of “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” relationship characterized by conflict, frequent separations and struggles with alcoholism. In the last years, she was a full-time caregiver for her husband. Despite the physical demands of care, it was one of the best times in their relationship. Her children cannot seem to understand the level of her grief, but Helen often regrets that the warmth they experienced at the end was not always in their relationship.
Six widowed individuals, yet each with their own story of grief. Just as every marriage and relationship is different, you are likely to encounter your own unique set of reactions and experiences when a spouse or life partner dies. Often the death of a wife or a husband radically changes the world as you have learned to understand it. As one writer, Thomas Attig, remarked, you have to “relearn your world.” Everything changes—sleeping, cooking, eating, even watching television, are now very different once a spouse dies. Activities or chores, once shared, now have to be tackled alone. Events that both you and your partner anticipated— graduations, the birth of grandchildren and other special occasions—now have to be attended on your own. The world becomes a different, lonelier place.
What to Expect as You Grieve
Grief is the natural and normal response to loss. Grief is often thought of as emotions—loneliness or sadness. In fact, grief is far more complex. Grief affects you at every level—physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially and spiritually. It influences the ways you think, as well as the ways you behave.
Grief can make you feel unwell. You may experience a range of aches and pains such as headaches, backaches, muscular pain, digestive difficulties or exhaustion. While physical reactions to loss are common, it is essential that you monitor your health carefully in the period following the death of your spouse.
This is a stressful, vulnerable time. Begin by looking at how the death has affected your own lifestyle and habits. Are you eating and sleeping well? Are you getting adequate exercise? For Paul, this was an issue. He treasured walks with Don. Once Don died, he was no longer motivated to walk alone. Are you taking prescribed medications in the proper way? Are you overusing any prescriptions or over-the-counter medications? Has alcohol become a way to cope with the loss? Are you doing things to reduce stress? For some, that might be listening to music, exercising, or other pleasurable activities. In tense times, good self-care is critical. If problematic physical reactions continue, have them evaluated by a physician. It is important to let the physician know of your recent loss.
Naturally, emotions are part of grief as well. You may experience feelings as you cope with the loss of your spouse. Some are clearly expected. It is easy to understand the loneliness, the yearning and the sadness.
Other feelings may be surprising. You may be unprepared for the anger you may feel or shocked that your temper seems to run so short. Anger is a natural response to loss, a feeling that arises from having someone, once so important, disappear from your life. You may direct that anger at those you feel are responsible or unsupportive. Sometimes, it can even be directed at those closest to you. Other times, you may even be angry with the person who died or even God for allowing that loss. While anger is a normal reaction as you grieve, it can be problematic if you blame or drive others away, depriving you of support and separating you from those you most need in your journey through grief.
Sometimes the anger can be directed inward at yourself. Guilt is also a common response to grief. You may feel guilty that you had some role in the death. “I should have made him go to the doctor sooner, lose weight, or stop smoking.” At other times, you may believe that you could have done more in the relationship. Some may experience “survivor guilt” that they are still alive. You may even have “moral guilt,” a feeling that this loss is punishment for something you had done or not done. You can also feel guilty that you are doing too poorly, or even too well, in your grief. You cannot control these feelings. Guilt does not have to have a rational basis to be experienced as real, but sometimes it does help to move outside of yourself and ask yourself if others would see you as guilty.
You may also feel jealous of others who still have their spouse. Jealousy may not only surprise but also disturb. Frank felt that way when his wife died. He would find himself resenting his still married friends, especially when they complained about little things their partners did that annoyed them. Janet felt some jealousy of those who could marry when she could not legally wed Sheila. At other times, you may be gripped by a great anxiety and fear wondering how you will survive alone.
Some feelings may be more positive in character. There may be a sense of relief that your spouse’s suffering is now over, or even that your own care-giving responsibilities have now ended. You may feel a renewed appreciation of the role that person played in your life. These emotions are normal, too. They are the natural result of life shared together. It is not unusual to experience these many, even conflicting, emotions as you grieve. Yet feelings and emotions are only part of the grief experience.
Grief also influences the way you think. You may find it difficult to focus or concentrate. You may seem forgetful—going downstairs for example, only to forget your reason for going there when you arrive. You may constantly think about your loss, rehashing painful details in your mind. Nor is it unusual to have experiences that evoke your spouse. Dreams for example, are common. You may even hear a voice or sound that reminds you of your spouse.
Your behaviors also may be different. You may find yourself less patient or more prone to anger, or you may be more lethargic and apathetic. You may even withdraw—seeking lots of time alone that was not typical of you before the loss. You may find yourself needing time to cry or surprised that tears do not seem to come, or you may constantly seek the activity and company of others as a way to divert your grief. Some may avoid reminders of the spouse who died. It simply may be too painful to view photographs or listen to songs that remind you of the person. Others may seek these reminders and find the memories they evoke comforting.
Grief may affect you spiritually. Some may find great strength in beliefs. They sustain you as you struggle with your loss and grief. You may find your spirituality deepen—attending worship, praying, or reading scripture—even more frequently than you did in the past.
Others may find their spirituality threatened. You may struggle with anger at God and have doubts about your prior beliefs. You may be confused over why the person suffered and why you also seem to be suffering so greatly. You may find it difficult to connect with your previous beliefs and find little comfort at this time in your faith.
These are all ways that you may journey through your grief. It is important to remember that there is no single, right way to experience grief. Your experience of grief is what it is. It comes from who you are.
After all, you cannot compare your loss, reactions or responses to others. Differing experiences of grief have little to do with how much you loved or cared about your partner. Everyone and every relationship is different, so it makes sense that the experiences of grief are different as well. Some, for example, will experience grief as vivid colors. Their emotions and other reactions will be open, transparent to the world. In others, the experience of grief will be more muted or in subdued pastels. In these later instances, others may never see the grief that you are experiencing.
It is important to remember how individual the experience of grief is. So many times as you grieve, you will hear people, often well-meaning folks, tell you how you are supposed to be feeling or how you should be reacting. Yet there is no one, single way to grieve, no set of predictable responses or preset stages. Your pathway through grief will be as distinct and unique as you are.
The experience of grief is so personal and distinctive because each loss is so unique. Some have experienced a sudden loss perhaps due to a heart attack, stroke, an accident or some other external event. Others may experience a slow decline, witnessing your spouse fade away even as you care for that person.
Some may be widowed early in life facing responsibilities such as raising children alone. Young widows and widowers may face many different complications. The loss may shatter your world since one rarely considers the possibility of being widowed at a young age. In addition, your social world is greatly disrupted. You are now alone in a world full of pairs. Yet you may be able to draw on certain strengths that are now available. Your health is likely to be good and your support system is likely to be intact.
Older widows may face other difficulties. You may find you are dealing with multiple losses as those who once provided support now struggle with their own health. You also may be dealing with the death of a spouse at a time when you are dealing with your own health conditions. It may be more difficult to live alone now that your spouse is no longer there. Yet, older widows may draw from their own strengths. Earlier losses in life may help you know more about what to expect as you journey in grief. In addition, many of your friends may share similar experiences.
Older widowers may experience their own unique issues. You may feel more isolated especially if your spouse arranged the social activities. Again, depending on the roles that you and your spouse played, it may be more difficult to negotiate the regular tasks of living alone.
Others may have lost partners or lovers whom they never formally married. Here it is easy for your grief to become disenfranchised—that is for others to never realize the intensity of the relationship or the seriousness of the commitment. It may seem that others do not support your grief, and you feel you grieve alone while your loss goes unacknowledged. This can be true, too, in same-sex marriages. While Paul’s family has been very supportive since Don’s death, his sister, Muriel, once a childhood favorite, never acknowledged their relationship or even came to the funeral.
There may be other factors as well. Each relationship is different. Some relationships may be highly interdependent—every activity is undertaken along with your spouse. Others may be more dependent. You really leaned on your spouse to initiate activities and to carry them through. Other relationships may be more independent with each of you having your own separate activities. Some relationships may be very supportive while others may be more conflicted.
In some cases, the death of a spouse can take place among or in the midst of other types of stresses and conflicts. Frank died in a fire. The fire not only widowed Marion, it left her homeless, destroying many treasured possessions.
These differing situations and circumstances do not make a loss easier or harder. They make it different. And you are different as well. You have your own culture, your own spirituality, your own personality and your own social situation. All these factors make your grief unique.
The experience of grief may often be described as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. On some days, you may feel that you are doing well only to plunge into a deepened sense of grief. Some of these low periods are predictable as you may expect holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to be difficult, while others may hit you by surprise. Tom, for example, woke one day feeling better, even full of energy. Yet as he began to drive away from home, his grief seemed to wash over him. He could not seem to fathom what had brought him down. But when he returned home that night, he noticed the lilacs had blossomed. His late wife had cultivated those flowers. They were her favorite. She even wore a lilac-scented perfume.
Margaret Stroebe and Hans Schut, two researchers from the Netherlands, describe grief as a “dual process”—mourning a loss even as you adjust to a new life. For example, one widow at one moment described her loneliness at the loss of her spouse and the awesome responsibilities she now had to assume even as she also celebrated the triumph of obtaining her first driver’s license. When you grieve, you bounce back and forth between these dual demands of past and present, of loss and restoration.
Remember that building a relationship with your spouse took years. It may have begun as a friendly encounter, developed into a romantic courtship, and then continued to change and to develop in the years of marriage. Grieving over the loss of that relationship takes time as well.
There is no timetable to grief. It is not accurate to say that everyone’s grief will last for a year or even two. For most, over time, the roller coaster begins to ebb—the down days are less frequent, less intense and do not tend to last as long. As the pain ebbs, you may find that your energy levels and previous abilities seem to return. Grief becomes less disabling. However, even over time, you may experience surges of grief especially at special times such as holidays or anniversaries or at events in which the presence of your spouse is profoundly missed.
Journeying with Grief
The Power of Ritual
As you begin your journey with grief, remember the power of ritual. The power of ritual is evident in funerals. Funerals can be highly therapeutic for many reasons. They are a “rite of passage,” You have your own culture, your own spirituality, your own personality and your own social situation. All these factors make your grief unique. a dignified way that people move on from the death to rejoin the world of the living. More than that though, funerals play many roles for survivors. They provide a sense of structure and support at a highly stressful time. Funerals provide a safe venue for the physical and emotional expression of grief, because the ritual contains that grief and guides its expression. They offer a chance for family, friends and the larger community to come together in support. Funeral rituals provoke memories that help you find meaning in the life of the person you are remembering. Finally, funerals allow you to draw upon your own spiritual beliefs to find comfort even in this difficult time.
There may be things you can do within the funeral, that may assist you in your journey with grief. Funeral rituals are especially therapeutic when they are personal. Your funeral director and clergy can assist in making the funeral more meaningful. Funeral directors, for example, can develop different ways to exhibit photographic images of your spouse. This can be highly effective in evoking memories and remembrances. It can be especially important after a long illness to remember the images of the person and the activities shared before the deteriorating effects of disease. As you plan with the funeral director, there may even be additional ways to personalize the funeral.
Speak with your clergy, too. Are there readings, poems, music or hymns that have special meaning? Is there an opportunity for others to participate in the readings or music? Are there other roles that treasured family and friends can play, such as pallbearers or ushers? Is there an opportunity for a family member or friend to give a eulogy and say some words about the deceased? Naturally, clergy and faith communities may differ in what opportunities for participation exist and what they allow within the funeral service.
Even beyond the funeral, there may be opportunities for rituals that memorialize and remember your spouse. Every Father’s Day, for example, my grandmother would lay flowers by her husband’s memorial stone. Others may have a memorial service or Mass at the anniversary of the death, or perhaps take a few moments in the holidays to create a small ritual of remembrance. Marge does this every Christmas. When she and her children decorate their tree, the first item they hang on the tree is a memorial ornament to her late husband. To Marge, this offers an important message to her children that it is important to remember and acceptable to speak of their father during the holiday season. This family ritual also validates the grief that might be intense during the holiday. Don used to light Chanukah candles. Though Paul is Christian, he still lights them in Don’s memory. In short, both the funeral and other rituals can become powerful aides as you journey through your grief.
What Helps When It Hurts?
While everyone’s experience of grief is different, Dr. J. William Worden, a grief therapist, speaks of common tasks or issues that individuals need to address as they deal with loss. The word “tasks” is interesting. Just as with any set of tasks, some people find some tasks easier than others. Each person does their tasks in their own way. The tasks of grief are like that as well. Some may struggle with grief reactions and other issues, while others find different issues tough to tackle. Everyone deals with these issues and tasks in their own ways.
Engaging in any set of tasks can be difficult and tiring. Grief is no different. Just as you need time off from any work, you also need respite from the tasks of grief. You don’t need to feel guilty if there are times you do find enjoyment in an activity or seem removed from your loss. These times when you are a bit removed from grief are both necessary and natural. They are part of the cycle—the roller coaster of ups and downs—that is so much a part of grief.
Acknowledging the Reality of Your Loss
When your husband or wife first dies, it may seem like a bad dream. You may not wish or seem to believe it. Part of you may think that the person is at work, on a trip or perhaps out running an errand. Whenever the phone rings or you hear footsteps, you may think or wish it were that person. You may even find that as you watch television, you turn to where your spouse would sit, ready to say something. Your routines may have involved being with the person, dropping them off or picking them up from somewhere. Even as you shop for groceries, you may have in mind what that person likes and what you should purchase for him or her. In short, when your spouse dies, every aspect of your life now feels different.
In the beginning, the shock of the loss may insulate you from the new reality of what has happened and is still happening. However, slowly that reality begins to emerge, eroding that shock and initial denial. The funeral ritual itself is a reminder, a reaffirmation of your loss, as are the sympathy cards and condolence calls. That same ritual also may help you as you talk about your loss and grief with others.
Most people over time acknowledge the death. Gradually you will no longer expect your spouse to return. The reality of the loss slowly seeps into your consciousness. Bit by bit your behaviors adjust to the new reality. You no longer look from the television to the empty place. Your hand no longer reaches for the once requested item in the grocery store.
Exploring and Expressing Your Emotions
As stated earlier in this booklet, grief is often a time when you may struggle with many difficult and complicated emotions. As the shock recedes, you may experience many distinct emotions such as loneliness, sadness, yearning, guilt or anger. In fact, as discussed earlier, there are few emotions that you may not experience as part of grief.
The first step in dealing with your feelings is to acknowledge them. They are a natural part of the process of grief. You really have no control over this experience of feelings. Recognizing your feelings is the first step in dealing with them.
Explore your feelings. What are the circumstances and times that trigger these emotions? How are you dealing with these feelings? You often may find it useful to examine your emotions. Sometimes you may discover that you are holding yourself responsible for things or events you simply cannot control. Sometimes when you really examine difficult emotions, they fade like the mist.
That may often happen with guilt. As you explore your feelings of guilt, you may recognize that you are not and could not be responsible. Helen for example, felt guilty that her husband died of lung cancer; “I should have made him stop smoking” was her constant refrain. Yet as she really explored her actions, she recognized the many ways that she sought to assist her husband in breaking his addiction. She realized that smoking was his choice. The truth is that, you cannot see all possible consequences, control all actions, or maintain perfect relationships. As you struggle with your emotions, draw from your own spiritual strengths. Learn to forgive yourself.
While you cannot control what you feel, you can control how you deal with your grief reactions. There are constructive and destructive ways to deal with emotions. Think, for example, of anger. Constructive ways to deal with anger may include exercising, punching a pillow, screaming at an empty chair, fantasizing or directing your anger to enact change. When her husband died in an accident, Lisa fought to have a traffic light installed in a busy intersection. But there also are destructive ways to deal with anger such as lashing out at those around you, driving others away and limiting your support. These should be avoided or minimized.
As you explore your emotions, two troubling themes may emerge. The first is ambivalence. You may find yourself distressed by previous conflicts, hurt by unkind remarks, troubled by unpleasant memories or even regretful of missed opportunities. It is natural that sometimes you have mixed emotions or feelings toward those with whom you are closest. Examining what you miss and do not miss about your spouse, the qualities you like and did not like may help you come to terms with that natural ambivalence.
Another theme that may surface is unfinished business. You may regret something you did or said, or something left unsaid or undone. Once you recognize that unfinished business, you may find a way to complete this unfinished act. Some may share a final comment with an empty chair or at their loved one’s graveside, others may write a note in a journal or a letter to their |deceased spouse, or complete a small ritual. Joan argued with her husband as he left for work. His train was derailed and he never returned. Their custom when they argued was to place a single rose across their bed—a silent sign of apology. Joan placed it on his graveside. Undoubtedly, feelings can come at unexpected times. Yet certain days, such as holidays, birthdays and special occasions such as anniversaries, or even the anniversary of the death, are generally hard. You do not need to drift unaware into these emotionally difficult times. Prepare for them. Think of where you would like to be, what you would wish to be doing, and whom you would wish to be with on these difficult days. Janet, for example, always visits Sheila’s grave on the anniversary of the death. She always asks a few friends to accompany her.
Sometimes you may be able to do this exploration on your own. Taking time to work through your feelings or journaling about them can be helpful. Other times it may be helpful to examine your emotions with a close friend or confidant, within a support group, or perhaps with a counselor or your clergy.
Adjusting to the New Reality of Life Without Your Spouse
When your spouse dies, your world changes dramatically. These changes can be profound. When a spouse dies the whole fabric of life may seem different. Everything seems to change in its wake. Every day may reverberate with the differences. Your living arrangements or finances may have to be modified.
Relationships with children or other relatives, especially in-laws and even friends may change. You may now need to take on new responsibilities and practice new skills. For Hank, it was mastering laundry and paying the bills—tasks once done effortlessly by his wife. Other changes may be subtler. Eating a meal or watching television may now no longer seem the same.
The death of a spouse brings these “secondary losses” or other things that now must change after the death of someone significant. There may be “secondary gains” too. Perhaps even the crises of illness-strengthened ties with children or friends. The death of a partner may have changed your financial situation, leaving you with an insurance settlement or inheritance. Even positive changes are still change. You will have to adjust to them as well.
One of the critical tasks of grief is adjusting to a life without your spouse—a life that is now changed. It helps to name those changes. This does two things. First, it validates and reminds you of the many ways that life has changed. Second, it allows you to problem solve and figure out what you can have control of and which changes you may simply have to accept. Norma found that many of her friends ceased to call since her husband died. She discussed this with them. Some really heard her concerns, worked through their own seeming discomfort and are back in her life. Others continued to avoid. Norma felt her conversations with these friends, whether fruitful or not, returned some sense of control. She realized she could do more than look at the phone and wonder why her friends failed to support her.
You may need to take stock. What has changed in your life? Which of these changes is causing the most difficulties? What can you do about them? These questions allow you to assess the situations, times and events that are most difficult for you. Only then can you decide how to adapt to these changes in the way that is best for you. Marge, for example, found that Sunday evenings were a difficult time for her. Both Marge and her husband worked. Often on Saturdays, they did their own thing—she played golf and he participated in his own leisure activities. Sundays were for church, family and chores. Sunday night was their time—a quiet time to sit, share supper, watch TV and converse. It was Sundays, Marge realized, that were the most difficult. Here is when she most felt her husband’s absence. Recognizing that Marge decided to make plans so she would remain active on Sunday nights.
Assess your own strengths and weaknesses. How have you adapted to change and loss in the past? What did you do well? What are some of the problematic ways you have coped in the past that you might now want to avoid? Who can you count on to help?
One of your strengths is the people who offer support to you as you grieve. One of the exercises I do with my clients is that I ask them to make a list of their support system. I then ask them to place an “L” by the people who are good listeners and a “D” by those who like to tangibly help. I even add an “R” for respite people. These are the people that you can go out with or enjoy a movie together but who never will ask about grief. I remind my clients that grief is hard work and like any hard work, we need time off. I often find that when clients complete this, they begin to value their respite friends as well as realize they might not be using their support systems well—asking their doers to listen and their listeners to do!
Finally, recognize that these changes add stress to your life. Taking good care of yourself, getting enough nutritious food, adequate sleep and sufficient exercise, as well as doing whatever you can to manage stress, prepares you to cope more effectively with a now-changed world.
Since you are under a great deal of stress when your spouse dies, manage these changes. The first thing is to be cautious of changing too much too quickly. In the time immediately after a major loss, you might not be thinking clearly. In addition, too rapid a change can add more stress at an already stressful time. Moreover, a radical change such as leaving work or relocating can remove you from significant sources of support when you need that support most.
This is true even when you are deciding what to do about your spouse’s personal items. Some may give you well-meaning advice to simply clear them all away. They may even offer to help. This is part of the individuality of grief. Some may find such possessions too painful to have around. Others may find them comforting. Some may wish to keep items that have particular significance. Others carefully will choose who should get these very personal legacies. The point is to decide what to do with these items when you are ready and in your own way.
It is little wonder that many counselors advise that when possible, try to avoid significant changes for six months to a year after a major loss. However, some changes are after all, unavoidable. When Anita’s husband died, she had no choice but to seek full-time employment. Other times the advantages of a change may outweigh the disadvantages. Mira had relocated with her husband to Florida. However, she decided to return to her former community when her husband died as this put her closer to family and friends. In her case, a change led to, more rather than less, support.
Sometimes there are interim or partial solutions that can offer time for more serious consideration. James experienced that when his wife died. Work no longer seemed to offer the same challenge and satisfaction so he considered retirement. Instead he decided to take a leave. At the end of that leave, he found himself anxious to return to the routine, structure and stimulation of work.
Remembering Your Spouse
The end of grief is not the end of memory. Words like “closure” actually have little significance in grief. Even in death you continue a bond with your spouse. That bond continues in many ways—in the memories, in the legacies that are left, and the spiritual connections and experiences you have.
Memories are natural, even unavoidable. Think how often a sight or a place, even a taste or a smell, will evoke a remembrance long forgotten. You can no more control what you remember than what you feel. In fact, as the pain of your loss eases, your memories become more vivid. One of the first signs that you are doing well is that now you can recollect and laugh at stories once too painful to recall.
Memories, too, are often comforting. They remind us of the person who died, bringing the individual closer, even if fleetingly. Memories connect you with others who are living. Sharing memories of your spouse with your children may allow them to see other sides of the person and encourage your children to share their own stories. Even funny and amusing stories have their role. They provide a respite to your grief and remind you of the joys evident in relationships. They are the home fires that warm the chill of loss.
Memories can also be a double-edged sword. Some memories may be painful, reminding us of tough and troubling times or difficult relationships. We can be obsessed over certain memories, reviewing time and again, actions or words that we regretted or other actions or words we wished we had done or said. Yet these painful memories also need to be confronted because only when we fully explore them, can we truly understand them and find ways to release these problematic recollections.
There are other ways you continue that bond with your deceased spouse. There may be legacies. For Josephine, her husband carefully monitored the medications she needed to take to control her chronic conditions. Josephine appreciated that assistance as she often became preoccupied with her household chores. Yet when her husband died she kept the list. She did so not only for her health but also because she knew her husband cared about it so much. It was a way to stay connected.
The experiences you may have such as dreams, or sensing someone’s presence, as well as your spiritual beliefs, are other ways that you retain that continuing bond with the person who died. There may be special ways that you wish to evoke memories. Visiting the cemetery, engaging in private family rituals and remembrances, or offering a contribution in memory of the person are all ways that you help maintain that bond. Dorothy, for example, offers a small scholarship award in her husband’s name. Every year she attends an awards assembly in the school where he was once both a teacher and later a principal and awards a prize to a deserving student. This annual event offers Dorothy a time to celebrate the legacy of her husband. Janet offers a contribution each year in memory of Sheila.
Sometimes a loss will shatter your assumptions about the world or your beliefs, however deeply held. Not every loss will do that. Don deeply mourned the death of his wife, but her death did not shake his faith. She died after a fullness of many years, physically frail but mentally intact. She died surrounded by family of many generations.
Some deaths though will shatter our beliefs. You may find it hard to believe that there is any meaning to the universe or any point in life. The circumstances of the death or the extent of suffering may make it hard to believe in a benevolent God. You may feel lonely and abandoned and your faith may seem to offer little comfort.
One of the tasks of grief is to rebuild faith or philosophies that have been challenged by our loss. One of the biggest mistakes you can make during this period is to isolate yourself from your beliefs. You need, instead, to share your struggles within your faith community. This is a time to identify those within your faith communities who can journey with you, who are comfortable in hearing your conflicts and sharing their own. Sometimes you may have to look hard to search and find those people. For those in same-sex relationships, it may be, depending on the area, more difficult to find welcoming spiritual homes, but it is well worth the trouble to find places that can spiritually nurture you if faith is an important value.
When Tom’s wife died, he tried to share his own questions and conflicts with his minister. His minister however, could not seem to relate to Tom’s struggle. Instead, he seemed to offer platitudes and empty reassurances. Tom found that his daughter’s minister was willing to engage in serious discussions about Tom’s concerns. Together they studied and conversed. Tom credits those conversations with deepening his own faith over time.
Maintain your own spiritual discipline, whatever that is. Prayer, meditation, ritual and readings are all ways to connect with your faith traditions. Each spiritual tradition and every philosophy has encountered death and loss. Each has writings that speak to that encounter.
Finally, you may find value in reading the spiritual struggles of others. “Where is God when you really need him—a door slammed in your face?” These dispirited words were written by none other than the author, C.S. Lewis. Lewis, for example, writes of his faith struggles when his wife died in A Grief Observed. Lewis himself was a deeply religious man. Much of his writing reflects his abiding faith. Yet when his beloved wife was dying, even Lewis felt abandoned. His writing not only reminds us that such moments are natural and normal valleys in the journeys of both faith and grief, they also offer insight and suggestions on how to best cope. And they offer hope. After time, C.S. Lewis, with his spirit now restored, was able to admit that his own frantic need had shut the door.
Can You Be Doing Too Well?
Sometimes you may wonder if you are doing too well after a loss. Some people are very resilient after a death—even the death of a spouse. Such people have relatively few manifestations of grief and an ability to function well even after a loss.
Often these resilient grievers share certain characteristics. For example, resilient grievers had fewer losses at the time of their spouse’s death—that is deaths were not piling up on each other. These resilient individuals reported few earlier psychological problems or stressors and had good social support. They had a strong intrinsic spirituality that offered comfort and support. They tended to have time to prepare for the death and had an opportunity to say “goodbye.” The deaths experienced were not perceived to be “preventable,” that is they saw little that they could have done to prevent the loss. Resilient grievers also tended to have an optimistic mindset—a belief that something good could come from even the worst events.
The conclusion to draw here is that you do not need to worry if you are doing better than you think you should be doing. You can be comforted by the positive ways in which you are coping with your losses. Your conduct simply reaffirms that loss touches each person differently.
Grief and Others
As you deal with your own grief, keep in mind that others around you such as your children, also are grieving. Remember that as you care for them, it is critical to take care of yourself. In fact, how well you function in your grief will play a major role in how well your children, especially younger children, adapt to the loss. Remember that everyone grieves in his or her own individual way.
In time, you may be open to developing new relationships. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, you may be especially needy and vulnerable, so it is critical to be cautious. Remember, your children may be at different places in their own grief, so gradually and reassuringly introduce any new relationships.
Whenever your spouse dies, it alters a host of relationships. Your relationships with your children will now be different, as you may have to take on new roles in their lives—in effect, being both mother and father. Relationships with other relatives such as in-laws and even friends, may change as a result of the death. Some relationships may become closer while others drift apart. At a time when you may be emotionally needy, you may grow impatient with old friends. You may want or need more than they are capable of giving. You need to talk and to listen as you discuss your need for their support. Again, you need to be careful lest you withdraw from those who truly care about you.
Be patient with others. Sometimes others may make comments that may not be helpful, like “You’re young—you can marry again,” or “It is a blessing for you that he has died. You had no life caring for him.”
Erin Linn, a bereaved mother, wrote a wonderful book entitled I Know Just How You Feel: Avoiding the Clichés of Grief which wisely suggests asking yourself three questions when such thoughtless comments trouble you. The first question is “Why did it hurt?” Almost always the answer is that such comments invalidate your grief. The second question she suggests is “Why did the person say it?” However careless the comment, most times the other person simply does not know what to say. This question allows you to acknowledge that however clumsy it may seem to you, the comment was meant to be supportive. The final question Linn recommends is “What should I have said?” For example the response to “You’re young—you can marry again” may be something like “I do not know what the future might hold—right now I am deeply mourning my husband.” While it may be too late to respond to the comment, such an answer both prepares and empowers you for the future.
Grief and Work
Some bereaved spouses may need to resume work soon after the funeral for a variety of reasons. It is difficult to grieve in the work environment. The work world is structured, full of responsibilities and expectations. Little allowance is made for the difficulties you may face as you cope with your grief. But grief is a process, a roller coaster of experiences and reactions. There are days when you function well and other times where it is difficult to cope.
It helps to accept your own grief. You cannot simply turn it off when you come to work. Recognize that some days may be more difficult than others. Be flexible. When you experience a rough day, you may not be able to accomplish all that you wished. Recognize that other days will be more productive. Be gentle with yourself.
Be gentle with others as well. Others may not know what to say. It helps if you are clear about your loss. Share your grief with those who offer support. Co-workers, even supervisors, may need guidance as to the ways they can best help. Utilize the resources that work can offer. Human Resources or Employee Assistance Programs may offer information, support, counseling, assistance and referral.
As you grieve, you don’t need to grieve alone. There are many resources to assist you as you mourn. For example, there are numerous self-help books on loss and grief. Some like Lynne Caine’s Widow, are first-person accounts, while others like Therese A. Rando’s How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, are written by psychologists or counselors. Books can reassure you that your reactions are natural and can offer suggestions for coping and sustaining hope.
Support groups are another resource that offers many benefits. Support groups can provide validation. Grief can be so isolating and support groups offer a place to sort out all these reactions and to recognize that they are part of the journey of grief. It is easy to feel isolated and alone when you grieve. You may even wonder “Am I going crazy?” Support groups reaffirm that one is not going crazy, one is simply grieving. In support groups, you are with others who have experienced a similar loss, and they can offer suggestions for coping with the daily difficulties of grief. As you hear stories of how others coped with a particular problem, you may find a solution that might work best for you. Sometimes these problems may be very mundane. For example, Clara, an older widow with asthma, was worried about her air conditioner as summer approached. She asked herself how would she ever lift them—a task that her husband did easily and annually. Her widows group all understood. Each in their own way shared suggestions like hiring someone or asking a relative or friend. It gave Clara the idea to hire a neighborhood youth who cheerfully and promptly set up her air conditioners.
These groups also offer respite. For many, the support group can be an afternoon or night away—a break in the loneliness and the boredom that also can be a part of grief. Some support groups can even be advocates for changing laws and challenging social conventions. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) radically reformed the ways that the justice system looks at driving while intoxicated.
Support groups offer two other gifts. They provide hope. In the midst of your own grief, they provide models that reaffirm that one can survive loss. They reaffirm one more truth as well. In helping others and one another, you help yourself. You may even, in the midst of grief, find new empathy, new understandings, new friends and renewed strength.
Counseling is another source of help. Seeking counseling is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a sign of growth, the maturity to use all the resources that you need as you adapt to your loss. Like support groups, counseling also can offer validation of your grief, suggestions for coping with varied problems, support and hope.
Counseling may be especially helpful in a number of circumstances, particularly when your needs may be such that you require more personal attention and assistance than might be available within a group. Both support groups and counseling can be especially valuable if you are not getting the support you need from others around you. If you are self-destructive or destructive to others, coping with the use of drugs or alcohol, or failing to function in critical roles at work and home, it is best to seek professional assistance.
Often your local funeral home or hospice provider will have information about self-help groups and local grief counselors. In addition, the Association for Death Education and Counseling can also provide the names of certified grief counselors within your area. As with other professionals, you may need to try a few groups or counselors in order to find the resource with whom you are most comfortable and the one that meets your needs.
While the loss of a spouse is an extraordinarily difficult experience, it is important to reaffirm that you can find life— a changed life, but life nevertheless—beyond that loss. Dr. Catherine Sanders, a psychologist and widow who studied spousal bereavement, suggested three questions that can guide you in that journey.
What do you want to take from your old life into your new life? Perhaps there are memories you want to retain or even objects that remind you of the person who died. You may want to recapture the joy and confidence you once had. Perhaps there are relationships that you want to preserve and carry forth.
What do you want to leave behind? As you adapt to a changed life, there may be pieces you do not wish to bring. These may be feelings such as anger or guilt that you still struggle with in your journey through grief. Perhaps there are memories or images that you have yet to explore and to release. There may be relationships that no longer seem significant, meaningful or constructive.
What do you need to add? As you move into a new life, you may need to develop different skills that you now will need to survive alone. You may need to develop new relationships, interests or support.
Even in loss, Sanders stressed there are choices. But ultimately, the choice is whether you will choose to survive, perhaps even, as difficult as it seems now, thrive in this now-changed life.
Catherine Sanders also reaffirmed one critical point—that even in the midst of loss, over time, there is the possibility of growth. Two other psychologists, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, have begun to write about what they call “posttraumatic growth.” Their study of grieving individuals found that many of them, as they struggled with their grief, recognized new insights, developed new skills and greater appreciation of the relationships in their lives. It offers a hopeful reminder that even in the cold and barren winter of our loss, there is always hope for spring.
About the Author
KENNETH J. DOKA, PH.D.
Dr. Kenneth J. Doka is a Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. A prolific author, Dr. Doka has authored or edited over 30 books and over 100 articles and book chapters. Dr. Doka is editor of both Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying and Journeys: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement.
Dr. Doka was elected President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) in 1993. In 1995, he was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Work Group on Dying, Death and Bereavement and served as chair from 1997 to 1999. ADEC presented him with an Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Death Education in 1998. In 2000, Scott and White presented him an award for Outstanding Contributions to Thanatology and Hospice. His alma mater Concordia College presented him with their first Distinguished Alumnus Award. He is a recipient of the Caring Hands Award, as well as the Dr. Robert Fulton CDEB Founder’s Award. In 2006, Dr. Doka was grandfathered in as a Mental Health Counselor under New York State’s first licensure of counselors.