Sylvia Sensiper, PhD
Losing a spouse can be devastating. Even a terminal illness that seemingly prepares you for the inevitable loss does not really help you deal with the finality of death. Everyone handles this critical life transition differently, and knowing how others have coped may ease some of the pain.
Whether you have lost your spouse just recently, or are thinking what the future may bring, it is helpful to know something about the natural process of grieving. Some people rely on established traditions and close family members to ease the way. Others find that being alone and making changes at a very slow pace allows them to better adjust to life without a partner.
No one can anticipate how you will react, but experts can help you understand the different phases of bereavement and direct you to services that might be helpful. It is also useful to be prepared for the practical matters that you may have to deal with when your spouse dies, and how to approach your new status as a widow or widower.
Approximately 30 years ago, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five emotional stages experienced by dying people; these same steps are commonplace among the bereaved, as well. While Kubler-Ross articulated the steps as a process of denial,
anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, there is no guarantee that one phase will gently pass into another. Because emotions are very volatile, you might cycle through these phases a number of times, you might skip a phase and cycle back to it, or you might even have additional kinds of reactions.
How long you extend your period of bereavement is a very individual decision, and depends on your emotional reactions and your personal beliefs and ideas. Here, five widows and widowers talk about their experiences with grief:
Shortly after her husband passed away, Joscelyn Carrington seemed to have accepted her loss and moved on with her life. She packed up her house and moved to a smaller condominium, distributing her husband's treasured possessions among close relatives so that his memory could live on.
"My religious training taught me to celebrate life rather than wallow in my problems," she says. "I had many good years with Tom, and I thank God for that."
But even though she appeared to be reconciled, she found herself lonely and self-absorbed, and it took more than four years for her to finally accept Tom's death. "Fortunately, my three grown children live nearby with their families," she says, "and they were able to counsel me through some of my difficult days."
Ken Mullin's children urged him to come and live with them after his wife's death, but he was reluctant to leave the house in which they had lived for forty years. Finding another way to get through his own personal period of grief, he kept Julie's sewing room intact for many months before re-arranging the furniture into a study for himself.
"Staying put and leaving things the way they were helped me move through my grief more easily," he says. "It was not like I had any delusions that she would return. I just wanted some aspect of her presence around for a while."
Agnes Dannett was married for 30 years before her husband passed away 15 years ago, but she has had no interest in remarrying.
"I have my volunteer work and my extended family to take care of," she says. "A couple of gentleman friends have taken me out, but I still feel married to Jim."
Joan Carpenter has remarried and is planning a trip to Hawaii with her new husband.
"My husband would have wanted me to grieve for him, but he also would have wanted me to get on with life and enjoy myself," says Joan. "I will always remember him, but I still want to live a full life."
Priscilla Tannen was 60 when she lost her husband of 30 years, and she found the difficult change to be liberating once she got over her overwhelming grief.
"I have always wanted the opportunity to travel and now I have lots of time and few obligations," she says. "I do not really want to be tied down to another person's schedule or desires and needs. I have created a new me and I really like my life the way it is."
An emotional response to death can also be accompanied by physical reactions and behavioral changes. Shortly after the loss of a loved one, the remaining partner might feel numb or short of breath, or be disoriented and listless. After the initial shock wears off, some people have reported chest pains, fatigue, and a lack of resistance to illness, combined with a hypersensitive and over-reactive state of mind.
It is important to realize that the grieving process is a natural one and that your reactions are most likely a normal response to an inescapable life change. Take advantage of community organizations that offer programs for the recently widowed, reach out to family and friends, and consult a medical expert if you feel you need additional help or if the reactions associated with the death are impeding your normal life activities.
Even though you are feeling significant emotional upheaval, you may also have to deal with the execution of a will, funeral arrangements, and other details surrounding the death of your spouse. Try to discuss some of these issues with your partner in advance, thereby taking some of the stress out of the situation before it happens. On the other hand, some people have found that being thrown into "crisis mode" and immersing themselves in the traditions and obligations surrounding a funeral keeps them from dwelling on death.
Here are some things to remember:
Overcoming loss is a very personal issue, but understanding the wide range of responses helps to acknowledge that you are not alone. Involve yourself with others in your community, get appropriate medical attention if you need it, and stay involved with your family. This can make the difference between your happiness and a life of extended grief. Life without your spouse is certainly different, but definitely not over.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
Mental Health America
Mental Health Canada
AARP final details: a guide for survivors. American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) website. Available at:
AARP: special section on grief and loss. American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) website. Available at:
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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