Losing a spouse or significant other is one of the most devastating experiences that a person can face. The intimate and powerful bonds formed with romantic partners are some of the most intense made. They become a source of inspiration and comfort. When a spouse dies it can feel like the end of the world. There may be no one on earth that you are closer to, that you have shared with more intimately, or that knows you better than your spouse. The loss is enormous; the grief can be almost unbearable.

Type of Loss | The circumstances of the spouse’s death will be unique

Although every death is different, there are three broad categories under which the death of a spouse may fall. Each of these has its own special circumstances and own ways of coping with the loss.

  1. First, the death of the spouse can be unexpected. Regardless of age, death by an accident or unforeseen illness is grieved through a special path. In addition to grief, an unexpected death causes feelings of trauma, insecurity and helplessness.
  2. Second, the death can be natural and expected. Aging and illness take its toll over time. Though one is never prepared for loss, some deaths become “anticipated” because of the course of nature. Losing a spouse is becoming more and more common-place. The latest census shows that about 40% of women and 13% of men who are 65 years of age and older are widowed. The increasing population of people over the age of 65 and the improvements of care facilities for the aging are seen to be the primary causes.
  3. Finally, the death can be expected but it can happen at an unexpected age. When a person is in their 70’s and has lived a full life and is diagnosed with cancer, there is a degree of peace and expectation about the upcoming death. But when a young mother in her late 20’s is diagnosed with the same illness, there is a real sense that the person has been cheated of their rich, full life. The outcome of those circumstances is often anger and outrage.

Type of Relationship | Circumstances of the marriage can affect the grieving process

The specific circumstances of the marriage and family will often cause different kind of feelings in the grieving process.

Length of the marriage
The death of a spouse in a marriage that has lasted 30 years is likely to bring about intense feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Spending additional time with friends and family, becoming actively involved in service or charity organizations, and developing outside interests or hobbies can provide help in the adjustment period.

The death of a spouse in a marriage of two or three years may also have intense grief but it may center on completely different feelings. Fears about the future, about raising children alone, or about forgetting the spouse may dictate the feelings and the healing process.

Presence of children
If the marriage produced children, both advantages and challenges will be present in the days following the death of the spouse. If the children are under the age of eighteen, raising the children alone will stretch the patience, parenting skills, time management and finances of the surviving spouse. At the same time, concentrating on parenting will provide purpose and focus at a time when hope may seem lost.

If the children are older and live close by, the presence of family can often be a strength and comfort for the surviving spouse. If the children live far away, trips to their homes can give meaning and purpose to the days and divert attention from memories associated with the deceased partner.

If there were no children, the surviving spouse will be facing a much stronger sense of being alone. Spending time active in groups and organizations, taking up hobbies or causes outside the home, or even bringing a pet into the home can be helpful in adjusting to the different lifestyle.

The first time alone
For some, the death of the spouse brings the first time ever that the individual has lived alone. If the deceased spouse handled the practical things like finances, grocery shopping or taking care of the car, the surviving spouse may feel overwhelmed by the new skills that need to be mastered quickly. Seeking the help of a family member or trusted friend to assist in planning and managing the necessities may be very helpful.

Budgeting and financial planning is often an overwhelming task for those on their own for the first time. This can be especially true if the couple had not made preparations in the event of an untimely death. Seeking the help of a professional in  financial planning could be a way to solve practical problems and avoid the stress of economic insecurity.

Handling of the possessions
“Cleaning out the closets” presents an overwhelming challenge for most widows. Going through things item at a time, making decisions on what to do with them, and reliving the special moments that may be attached to several of the items is one of the most difficult parts of the grieving process. Going through a loved one’s possessions room by room can bring about every grieving emotion from remembering the past to missing the spouse to fearing an unknown future.

Some will find it easier to simply leave everything as it is. They will put off going through the items partially to avoid the pain and indecision, but also with a way of avoiding the reality of the fact that the spouse will not be returning home.

Others find a sense of accomplishment and progress in examining the items and making decisions about what to do with them. Some items might be donated to needy families, some be given to children or others who would appreciate a keepsake from the deceased, and still others to be kept personally to preserve special memories. Though some would choose to go through the items alone, many would find comfort from the presence of a family member or close friend.

Similar Feelings | Many who grieve the death of a spouse share common emotions

During the past decade, social scientists have studied large groups of widows over periods of time and have come to some interesting conclusions.

Expect to bounce about in your grieving process. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others have identified several stages of griefdenial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. More and more studies are showing that with the death of a spouse, the mourner goes back and forth through the stages. A widow might feel anxious one afternoon and almost carefree and cheerful the next day.

Grief will not last forever. New research is showing that for most of us grief is severe – but limited in its duration. Studies at Columbia University are finding that the intense, core symptoms of grief had lasted about six months. Isolated pockets of grief may then be triggered for months after. Common triggers are holidays and anniversaries, special places or events, and certain people.

Expect the loss to be more difficult for men. For years, psychologists worked under the assumptions that grief was more difficult for women to process. A ground-breaking study in 2001 uncovered that although depression is higher in the overall female population, men actually suffer more from the grieving process.

In general, the person grieving should be given ample time to process through the death. Be patient and compassionate with others as they work through pain, suffering, and grief. Don’t be surprised when your emotions are all over the place. Try to focus on the memories. Take time as you go through things and belongings. Find a support system. If you are a spiritual person, look deeply into the hope and reasoning that is taught through your beliefs.

How to Cope | Five things to strengthen recovery

While the most intense grief may subside before the first year is over, feelings of sadness and loss often continue beyond the first year. Here are a handful of things to remember to help you through those difficult days.

  1. Take care of yourself physically. Grief can be hard on our physical well-being. We are often taken out of our daily routine. Make sure that you take your medicine, get balanced meals and get plenty of rest and exercise. If you are having trouble taking care of yourself, it may be time to see your doctor or health care provider.
  2. Talk to caring friends. Let family and friends know of your circumstances and your struggle. Many times friends are anxious to help, but do not want to impose themselves on you during such a difficult time. Help them by letting them know when you are ready to reach out.
  3. Join a support group. Hospitals, community centers and religious organizations often hold regular grief-support meetings.
  4. Remember that the children are grieving as well. Their lives, as well as yours, have been changed dramatically. While you do not have to be a tower of unreasonable strength, the fact the children are depending on you may well provide motivation and character.
  5. Be patient with yourself as you move through the grieving process. It is common to believe that if we are mature, we should move from hurting to healing rather quickly. Some parts of the grieving process may be quick while others will heal only gradually. Because a spouse is one of the most intimate relationships that we have, the grief over their loss will take the most time and effort. Don’t compare your recovery from this loss to any other loss you may have experienced.

The journey toward recovery from the death of a spouse can be overwhelming and often lonely. With knowledge of grief and coping, and with the support of family and friends, your process toward healing will strengthen as you move forward, always remembering the one that you loved.