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Getting Back to Life After the Death of a Spouse 
 
Phyllis Kosminsky, PhD
Center for Hope
 
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. 
 
Mixed Emotions
 
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.
 
Grieving
 
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. 
 
Coping 
 
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