The death of a spouse is among the greatest sources of grief. We not only lose the person who may be closest to us, we lose the person who most likely helped us function in the world and on whom we depended to help us through life’s traumas. The loss of a spouse might leave us feeling more alone and helpless than we ever have felt before.
Naturally there are feelings of sadness, but surviving spouses have other feelings as well…
A sense of unreality. In the weeks after a spouse’s death, it is hard to accept the fact that the person with whom we have shared our life is gone. Many surviving spouses catch themselves momentarily forgetting that their partner has died. It might cross their minds to call the spouse to say they are going to be late… or to buy his/her favorite food at the market.
Difficulty concentrating. It is common for surviving spouses to experience a sense of disorganization and difficulty concentrating in the weeks or months after the death. They might feel lethargic and uninterested in going out or doing anything at all.
Anger. Surviving spouses sometimes are surprised to discover they feel angry, even, at the departed spouse for dying.
Relief. In some cases, a spouse’s death brings feelings of relief, particularly if the spouse who passed away had been suffering or had come to require huge amounts of care.
Guilt. When surviving spouses feel anger or relief, they often feel guilty about these feelings. Some surviving spouses also feel guilty because they imagine that they could have treated their partner better during the marriage.
Some books about loss discuss the grieving process as if one stage of grief leads predictably to the next. In reality, grief does not always progress according to a preset pattern. Some surviving spouses find that life begins to return to normal within a few months, while for others, it takes years. The grieving process tends to take a long time when…
Each spouse had a clearly defined role in the marriage, and the surviving spouse must develop new skills to perform the tasks that the departed partner once handled.
The spouse’s death involved extended or significant suffering. Seeing a spouse in agony can cause posttraumatic stress. Professional counseling can help surviving spouses cope with this.
The death is sudden or unexpected. In this situation, the surviving spouse must come to terms with the loss of a partner as well as the shattering of illusions that the world is safe.
There is no “correct” amount of time to grieve the death of a spouse. Grief usually eases as time passes. You feel more hopeful and more like yourself six months after the death than you did three months after… and even better three months after that. (Of course, there will be good days and bad days throughout.) If this is not the case, it might be time to seek counseling.
There is no way to avoid the grief you will feel following the loss of your spouse — it would not even be healthy to try to avoid it. There are, however, some ways to keep the grieving process moving in the right direction…
Acknowledge the range of your feelings. Some widows and widowers try to ignore any emotions they feel after their spouses’ deaths, aside from grief and sadness. They think it isn’t reasonable to feel anger, relief or guilt. If you deny yourself the right to experience these emotions, you will find it difficult to deal with your grief as well.
Example: A woman was mired in grief five years after the death of her husband. She was unwilling to admit to herself that she was angry with him for being financially irresponsible. Only when she came to terms with this anger was she able to move beyond her grief.
Put your feelings into words. Talking about loss can help you cope. Speak with a friend or a counselor — or join a bereavement support group. A hospital, hospice or religious organization often can help you find a group in your area.
If you prefer not to share your feelings verbally, write them in a journal or in an unsent letter to the departed spouse.
Remain connected with friends. It is normal to want privacy following the death of a spouse — but don’t remain isolated longer than you must. As soon as you feel you could manage to go out and spend time with friends, do so — do not wait until you actually want to go out. Spending time with other people gives you an opportunity to focus on something other than your loss, reducing the odds that you will be pulled into the downward spiral of depression.
If you do not feel ready to resume close relationships, pick activities that let you interact with other people but that keep the chitchat to a minimum, such as playing tennis or going to a movie.
Balance activity and free time. Exercise, join clubs, do volunteer work or engage in other activities that get you out of the house and get your mind off your loss as soon as you feel able to do so. Do not become so busy that you have no free time to reflect, however. Try to find at least a few minutes of unscheduled time each day when you can relax, either at home or outside taking a walk.
Get enough sleep. Schedule enough sleep time that you wake feeling rested. That might mean more than eight hours a night at first. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor. Sleep deprivation makes any kind of emotional healing that much more difficult.
Give yourself what your spouse would have given you. Surviving spouses sometimes feel cheated out of long-planned vacations and promised gifts when their partners pass away. Giving these gifts to yourself can help you overcome these emotions. Example: Take that long-planned trip to Europe with a close friend.
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Phyllis Kosminsky, PhD, a clinical social worker specializing in grief, loss and trauma at the Darien, Connecticut-based Center for Hope/Family Centers, a nonprofit organization. She also is in private practice in Pleasantville, New York, and Norwalk, Connecticut. She is author of Getting Back to Life When Grief Won’t Heal (McGraw-Hill). www.familycenters.org.