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.
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
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.
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.
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
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