When a Spouse Dies: Coping with the Loss of Your Partner
By Ken Doka, Ph. D.
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.
This article may assist. Although it cannot change the reality of what you may be facing, hopefully it will allow you to understand the reactions you are experiencing and offer counsel on how you might cope with the inevitable reactions that you experience and the changes that occur. By understanding your grief, it may be less frightening.
What to expect as you grieve your spouse
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—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.
How has the death affected your own lifestyle and habits?
- Are you eating and sleeping well?
- Are you getting adequate exercise?
- 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.
- Other pleasurable activities.
This is a stressful, vulnerable time. 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—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.
- Those closest to you.
- The person who died.
- God for allowing that loss.
While anger is a normal reaction as you grieve, it can be problematic if it turns into blaming or driving others away and thus deprives you of support—separating you from those you most need in your journey through grief.
Sometimes the anger can be directed inward—at yourself. Guilt too is 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 even feel guilty that you are doing too poorly—or 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 – to ask yourself if others would see you as guilty.
Jealousy, anxiety and fear
You may feel jealous of others who still have their spouse. Jealousy may not only surprise but also disturb. At other times, you may be gripped by a great anxiety and fear—wondering how you will survive alone.
More positive feelings
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 caregiving responsibilities have now ended. You may feel a renewed appreciation of the role that person played in your life. These emotions are normal, too; 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 ways 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 not uncommon. You even may 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.
- You may be more lethargic and apathetic.
- You even may 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.
- 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 often 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 so 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.
Your grief is unique to you.
These are all ways that you may journey with 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.
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 are 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—more in subdued pastels and onlookers 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 of 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 almost 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
Young widows and widowers may face many different complications. The loss may shatter your world—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 and widowers
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 your own 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.
Never formally married
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.
There may be other factors as well. Each relationship is different. Differing situations and circumstances do not make a loss easier or harder. They do 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 grief roller coaster
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—you may expect holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to be difficult. Others may hit you by surprise.
Grief and triumph
Margaret Stroebe and Hans Schut, 2 researchers from the Netherlands, describe grief as a “dual process”—mourning a loss even as you adjust to a new life. For example, while you may be suffering through the loneliness of life without your spouse, you may also be triumphing in the accomplishment of a long-term goal. When you grieve, you bounce back and forth between these dual demands of past and present, of loss and restoration.
There is no timetable to grief.
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.
It is not accurate to say that everyone’s grief will last for a year or even 2. 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.
Your spouse's funeral or memorial service
Funerals can be highly therapeutic for many reasons. They are a “rite of passage”—a dignified way that persons 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 mourners are remembering.
- 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, and changes in the funeral industry have made it possible to personalize the service to truly honor your spouse. Your funeral director and clergy can assist in making the funeral more meaningful.
- Speak to your funeral director about ways to incorporate your family photos and your spouse’s favorite objects, sports teams or hobbies. 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.
- Speak with your clergy. Naturally, clergy and faith communities may differ in what opportunities for participation exist and what they allow within the funeral service.
- 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—perhaps as pallbearers or ushers?
- Is there an opportunity for a eulogy—for a member of the family or a friend to say some words about the deceased?
Beyond the funeral
Even beyond the funeral there may be opportunities for rituals that memorialize and remember your spouse.
- Every Father’s Day, for example, you could lay flowers by your husband’s memorial stone.
- Or 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. For instance, hanging a memorial ornament on the tree each Christmas.
Rituals like these can offer an important message to your children, family members and friends that it is important to remember and acceptable to speak of your spouse during the holiday season. They also validate the grief that might be intense during the holiday. In short, both the funeral and other rituals can become powerful aides as you journey with your grief.
The tasks of grief
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, and the tasks of grief are like that as well.
Engaging in any set of tasks can be difficult and tiring. Grief is no different. Just as you need time off from any work, so you need respite from the tasks of grief. You need not 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 part of grief.
Acknowledging the reality of losing your husband or wife
When your husband or wife first died, 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 shopping.
- 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 comment.
- Your routines may have involved being with the person, dropping him off or picking her up from somewhere.
- Even as you shop for groceries, you may have in mind what that person likes and what you should purchase for the individual.
In short when your spouse dies, every aspect of our life now feels different.
From shock to reality
In the beginning, the shock of the loss may insulate you from the new reality of what has happened and is still happening. But 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 in the grocery store for the once requested item.
Exploring and expressing your emotions
As stated earlier, 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.
You often may find it useful to examine your emotions.
- What are the circumstances and times that trigger these emotions?
- How are you dealing with these feelings?
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. For example, if your wife died of lung cancer, you may feel guilty thinking, “I should have made her stop smoking.” But, upon examination, you remember the many ways you sought to assist her in breaking the addiction, realizing that smoking was her 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.
Dealing with grief reactions
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:
- Punching a pillow.
- Screaming at an empty chair.
- Directing your anger to enact change.
But there also are destructive ways to deal with anger that should be avoided or minimized:
- Lashing out at those around you.
- Driving others away and limiting your support.
As you explore your emotions, 2 troubling themes may emerge.
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.
- 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 graveside, others may write a note in a journal or a letter to their deceased spouse, or complete a small ritual.
Prepare for expected emotionally difficult times
Undoubtedly, feelings can come at unexpected times. Yet, certain days, such as holidays, birthdays, special occasions such as anniversaries or even the anniversary of the death, are generally hard. You need not 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.
Reach out for help
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, and 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 instance, your spouse may have handled all of your finances and now you must take over the responsibility.
- Other changes may be subtler. Eating a meal or watching television may now no longer seem the same.
Secondary losses and secondary gains
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.
Name the changes
One of the critical tasks of grief, then, is adjusting to a life without your spouse—a life that is now changed. It helps to name those changes. This does 2 things.
- It validates—reminding you of the many ways that life has changed.
- It allows you to problem solve—to figure out what you can have control of and which changes you may simply have to accept.
For instance, in many cases the death of a spouse can have a negative impact on your friendships. If your friends cease to call you, maybe perhaps they are unsure what to say, be sure to discuss with them your concerns. Whether they hear your concerns and work through their own discomfort, finding their way back into your life, or not—you have gained some sense of control.
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. Perhaps you and your spouse had a certain night each week that you reserved as “time together.” You may need to now fill that night with activities to ease the pain of your loss.
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?
Take care of yourself.
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.
Don’t change too quickly.
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 so very personal legacies.
The point is to decide what to do with these items when you are ready and in your own way.
Some changes are unavoidable or outweigh the disadvantages.
It is little wonder that many counselors advise that, when possible, try to avoid significant changes for 6 months to a year after a major loss. However some changes are, after all, unavoidable. For instance, you may need to seek full-time employment after the death of your spouse.
Other times, the advantages of a change may outweigh the disadvantages. For instance, moving may provide you with more support as opposed to less.
Sometimes, there are interim or partial solutions that can offer time for more serious consideration. For instance, if you now find yourself unhappy at work, rather than retiring or quitting, consider taking a temporary leave of absence, allowing you time to make a full decision.
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, in 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 if even fleetingly. They also connect you with others who are living. Sharing memories of your spouse with your children, for example, 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. In addition, they remind you of the joys evident in relationships. They are the home fires that warm the chill of loss.
Memories, though, can be a double-edged sword. Some memories may be painful—reminding us of tough and troubling times or difficult relationships. Then, too, we can be obsessed by 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. Only when we fully explore them can we truly understand them and find ways to release these problematic recollections.
A continued bond with your wife or husband
There are other ways you continue that bond with your deceased spouse. There may be legacies. You may wish to keep a memento of something that was important to them—a list, a jotted love note, etc.
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.
Sometimes a loss will shatter your assumptions about the world or your beliefs—however deeply held. Others may solidify them.
When your beliefs are shattered
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. Your faith may seem to offer little comfort.
Share your struggles
One of the tasks of grief, then, 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 out and find those people. If your own minister does not seem to relate or is not willing to discuss your issues with doubt or unbelief, perhaps you could try speaking to a family member’s minister.
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.
Explore others’ struggles
Finally, you may find value in reading of 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 no other than the author C.S. Lewis. Lewis 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 that such moments are natural and normal valleys in the journeys of both faith and grief, they offer insight and suggestions on how to best cope. And they offer hope. C.S. Lewis, after time, 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.
Resilient grievers often share certain characteristics.
- 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 need not 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 even 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, too, 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, too, 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, in-laws, 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.
Dealing with negative comments
Be patient with others. Sometimes others may make comments that may not be helpful. “You’re young—you can marry again.” “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.” She wisely suggests asking yourself 3 questions when such thoughtless comments trouble you.
- “Why did it hurt?” Almost always the answer is that such comments invalidate your grief.
- “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 support.
- “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. Yet, 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 need not grieve alone. There are many resources to assist you as you mourn.
For example, in the past years, there are numerous self-help books on loss and grief.
- Lynne Caine’s “Widow”
- Therese A. Rando’s “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies”
- Some are first person accounts, others are written by psychologists and 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 much. Support groups can offer validation. Grief can be so isolating. Support groups offer a place to sort out all these reactions—to recognize that they are part of the journey of grief. For example, it is easy to feel isolated and alone when you grieve. You may even wonder, “Am I going crazy?” Support groups reaffirm that you are not going crazy—you are simply grieving.
In support groups you are with others who have experienced a similar loss. Support groups offer suggestions for coping with all the daily difficulties of grief. As you hear the 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, but sharing them with others can be relief and solutions.
Support groups can also be:
- A 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.
- Advocates—changing laws, challenging social conventions. Think for example, how Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) radically reformed the ways that the justice system looks at driving while intoxicated.
- Providers of hope. In the midst of your own grief, they provide models that reaffirm that one can survive loss.
- A way to help yourself. In helping others—one another—you help yourself. You may, even in the midst of grief, find new empathy, new understandings, even new friends and renewed strengths.
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.
It is best to seek professional assistance if you are:
- Self-destructive or destructive of others.
- Coping with the use of drugs or alcohol.
- Failing to function in critical roles at work and home.
Often your funeral home or local hospice will have information about self-help groups and local grief counselors. In addition, the Association for Death Education and Counseling also can 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.
Finding life again
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 3 questions that can guide you in that journey.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Survive and thrive
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.
About the author
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’s has written 24 books, published over 100 articles and book chapters and is editor of a journal and newsletter on the subjects of grief and death.
Dr. Doka was elected president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling 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 1997-1999. The Association for Death Education and Counseling 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. In 2006 Dr. Doka was grandfathered in as a Mental Health Counselor under New York state’s first licensure of counselors.
Dr. Doka has keynoted conferences throughout North America as well as Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He participates in the annual Hospice Foundation of America Teleconference and has appeared on CNN and Nightline. In addition he has served as a consultant to medical, nursing, funeral service and hospice organizations as well as businesses and educational and social service agencies. Dr. Doka is an ordained Lutheran minister.