Losing a Spouse

Grief and the Process for Recovery

Death gives meaning to our existence because it reminds us how precious life is. Losing a spouse is one of life’s most traumatic events. Even when death is anticipated, the surviving spouse experiences a predictable gamut of emotions during the grief process. Most people report feeling numb immediately after the death. Almost everyone experiences denial, anger, disbelief, despair, guilt, shock, sadness, memory loss, and confusion though these may not occur in any specific order. Emotions are intensified and moods change rapidly, causing survivors to question their mental stability. These feelings are normal reactions to loss and help survivors to work through their pain. Survivors need to draw on their belief in themselves and to expect that the mourning process will require time.

“One of the greatest losses we see is the loss of companionship, along with the associated loneliness,” says Teresa Bryant, Residence Director for Elmcroft at Hamilton Place. “We have a social worker who helps residents work through this by spending the time to find the dream they may have had earlier in life, something to make them excited about the next day. We ask what they can start now to begin a new chapter. They need something to make life meaningful because they feel it isn’t anymore,” Bryant remarks. “One resident and her husband had been in many bowling leagues. We brought the Wii System in. Though she can no longer lift heavy bowling balls, the Wii got her out of her chair and involved. That system has been one of the most amazing things for older people, because they can do things that they haven’t done for years,” says Bryant. “One gentleman had not played tennis for years. He became a different person once he started to play with Wii.”

Traditions around death may help survivors during the early stages.

grieving and lonely elderly woman

Funeral rites and gatherings with family and friends provide initial support, but mourning is personal and is experienced differently by each person. It may endure for months or even years. It is physical, psychological, and emotional. The surviving spouse must be allowed to cry or to express feelings related to the loss. Obsession with thoughts about the deceased may preoccupy the survivor. Some people develop physical symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite or stomach pain, insomnia, or fatigue. Mourning is very stressful, sometimes causing existing illnesses to worsen or new illnesses to develop. Some people experience panic attacks, severe depression, or suicidal thoughts.

The death may cause a financial crisis requiring major change such as relocation or the need for a caregiver. The surviving spouse may have to return to work or face single parenting. Reactions to the death are colored by the survivor’s relationship to the deceased. Partners may experience acute loss of part of their own identity as wife or husband. Elderly survivors may be devastated by loss of their lifetime of shared experiences, along with the inability to imagine life without the partner. These feelings may be intensified by the death of close friends. If the loss is due to suicide, the survivor may be left with feelings of guilt and shame, perhaps feeling responsible for the death. For these reasons, grief counseling can be very beneficial during the early weeks after death.

“I often meet with prospective residents and family members soon after the loss of a spouse or parent,” says Alicia Bennett, Marketing Director at Hickory Valley Retirement Community. “Often the children contact me and are considering the surviving parent’s best interest. They want to make sure that their loved one is not alone, is eating properly, and is in a safe environment. The surviving spouse may still be in a state of shock, grief, and depression. It is important to remember that people grieve in different ways,” she explains. “Decisions on lifestyle changes need to be well investigated and involve mutual decisions. The surviving spouse may have lost the primary caregiver. The entire family may have to radically adjust their routines to step into the role of caregiver.

For a working family, this task can be draining. It may be that everyone could benefit from the parent relocating to an independent or assisted living community. Residents can often offer comfort and support as many of them may have faced similar losses. Like Hickory Valley Retirement, many communities provide in-house support groups or transportation to outside support groups,” Bennet comments.

Coping with loss of a spouse is a complex process. Suggestions for coping with grief are to:

  • Take care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet and get plenty of rest. Know the dangers of becoming dependent upon medications or substances to mask your feelings.
  • Maintain contact with caring family and friends. Talk with those who understand your loss and will allow you to express your grief.
  • Talk about your grief. Express your feelings to others in order to work your way through the feelings of pain, loss, anger, or loneliness.
  • Seek counseling or support groups. Sharing your loss with others who have had similar experience can be therapeutic and healing.
  • Avoid major life changes. Changes add more stress, especially those such as moving, changing jobs, or remarrying. Experts advise that major changes should be avoided for at least a year or more after the death of a spouse.
  • Be patient and kind to yourself. Grieving the loss of a spouse is stressful and requires time, perhaps months or years to adjust. The loss of a spouse can be devastating. With the support of friends, family and professional counselors, a widowed man or woman can recover and once again find joy in life.

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