One of the sad truths about aging and longevity is that, in time, many of the people you know and love are going to pass away. Just think of the trauma if every week or month you hear of another friend, colleague, neighbor or family member dying.
When the deceased person happens to be your spouse, the loss is particularly life changing and the grief is like no other. It’s a fact of life we can all rationalize – going in, we know that one will outlive the other – but when you are actually hit with that reality, the sorrow can be disorienting and difficult to process.
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Many seniors in this situation report feelings of numbness, shock and even fear. Some feel a sense of guilt for being the one still alive. At some point, many even feel an irrational anger towards the spouse for leaving.
Rest assured, all of these feelings are normal. There are no hard and fast rules about how you should grieve. There is no correct or incorrect way to mourn. There is no set blueprint or timeline to follow. But there are some things you can anticipate and prepare for, both physically and emotionally.
For example, many people who have lost their life partner experience:
- trouble sleeping
- loss of appetite
- difficulties concentrating
- decision-making atrophy
Of course, all of this makes the process of wrapping up your spouse’s affairs and going on with your own life more difficult. There are often lots of logistical choices to make regarding funeral arrangements for the deceased or legal business with the estate etc. Don’t make any major life changing decisions, such as selling your home, when you’re in the initial stages of grief shock. Ideally you have the support of family or friends to help you through this cold but necessary bureaucracy. Hopefully you have some of these decisions and practicalities worked out before one or the other of you passes away. Granted, it’s not easy to discuss or even think about death, but it is important to be pragmatic about some aspects of this inevitability. It’s the responsible thing to do.
The roller coaster of emotional coping can be challenging, especially during the first year. It can be overwhelming and depressing, even debilitating for some. While you will no doubt miss your partner to some degree always, the intensity of pain will lessen in time. In the early stages, bad days outweigh the good, but that will eventually change.
Grief is not a linear process, so take care of yourself through the ups and downs. Don’t put any expectations on yourself to bounce back and recalibrate to a new normal quickly. Dealing with the death of someone you cared for and integrated your life with is a colossal endeavor. Give yourself the grace, dignity and compassion to come to terms with things in your own space and time, just like you would wish for a friend or family member in a similar situation.
Some people think that not talking about the loss or the loved one is the way to go. Denial like this is rarely effective. Rather than walking on eggshells on the topic of your spouse, it can help to bring him or her up in casual conversation. After all, they were a significant part of your life, and should not be ignored or dismissed. It can be helpful and healing to remember and reminisce, which is distinctive from dwelling or obsessing about the loss. Having friends and family share recollections and uplifting stories is a wonderful way to honor your spouse and to help you work through the mourning process.
Often there’s a whirl of activity around you soon after a partner dies. There may be a memorial service and a caravan of friends dropping off meals to help you through the early weeks. Family steps up to make sure you’re okay. But at some point, people get back to their daily routines. That’s when the grief and loneliness and can really kick in.
If you feel stuck in sadness and unable to cope with day-to-day life without your partner, you should consider grief counseling. Regular talks with a grief counselor or in group therapy can help people learn to accept and manage such a loss. Sharing the process with other widows and widowers going through it can be healing and beneficial. Support groups can often be found through local hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, hospices, religious groups or your doctor. There are even some online forms of bereavement support that can be helpful.
Regular touch-bases can help guide you through holidays and milestones that can be particularly challenging that first year or so. Having someone check in to see if you’re eating or sleeping well, getting enough exercise or having some social interaction can be vital for your recovery.
Accept offers of help or companionship from a support group, a therapist, friends and family when you can. They can get you back to living a fulfilling life sooner than later – just like your departed spouse would want you to.