When Your Spouse Has Died

No one plans on being widowed and no one knows how to be a widow. It is not a role any of us have planned for our lives. Sherry Williams White, nurse, writer and grief specialist, helps you understand the feelings and emotions of grief for those who are widowed. In addition, you will learn valuable coping strategies for your grief journey.

by Sherry L. Williams

Is widowed something you did not expect to be? Whether you knew the death was coming or your loved one died unexpectedly, suddenly everything has changed and you are alone. You may discover you are grieving not just the death of your spouse, but the loss of friendships, self esteem and self identity. The death of your spouse may have left you wondering. “Who am I now?”, “What am I going to do?” and “Why do I feel this way?”

The widowed often find themselves isolated and alone very quickly after the funeral. You are living everyone’s nightmare! While friends wish they had some comforting words to share with you, they also fear they may be the next one to join you in your despair.

What is happening to me?

Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss. It is a physical, emotional, social, spiritual and psychological response. It is a complex response that affects every aspect of your life. Love, anger, frustration, loneliness and guilt are all a part of grief.

You may experience sleep irregularities, changes in appetite, upset stomach, heartache, restlessness, crying, irritability or sighing. Grief sometimes comes in waves and can be paralyzing. You may feel numb, frozen inside and exhausted. You may not be able to concentrate or remember things.

Depression or feelings of emptiness may temporarily overwhelm you. You may experience headaches, tightness in the throat or chest, muscle aches or a burning sensation in your stomach. Grief hurts.

Anger and guilt are common emotions. You may feel angry with God, your spouse, your family or others. You may be angry with yourself. The ‘if only’ and ‘I could have’ thoughts can cause tremendous pain and doubt. Feelings of guilt often accompany or follow anger. You may want to withdraw and be left alone.

You may begin to wonder if you are going crazy, but these are normal and natural feelings that accompany grief. It is important to understand that grief is neither a sign of weakness nor a lack of faith. You are grieving because you loved someone and you still do. Grief is the price you pay for love.

How long does grief last?

Grief lasts far longer than anyone expects, particularly you. There are no time frames for grieving, although many of your friends and the people around you expect it to be over very quickly. Grief is individual and everyone will grieve in his or her own way and in his or her own time. There are no right or wrong ways to grieve. There is only your way.

Running away or denying your grief will only prolong the intensity of the pain and may lead to more complicated reactions and other problems, both physically and emotionally. Allow yourself time to grieve in whatever way seems appropriate to you. Do not compare grieving styles.

You will not get over the death of your spouse, but you can learn to live through it. There will always be moments of pain and sorrow as you remember the birthday, the death anniversary and as you mark the passing of events you had planned to share with your spouse. Be prepared for these moments of grief and do not be alarmed as they continue throughout your life. The feelings will be less intense over time and they will not last as long. Remember, you do not stop loving someone because they have died.

What can I do now?

Acknowledge your loss and the changes that have occurred. Your life has changed and you are now someone different. Not better or worse, just different. Acknowledge those changes, not all at once, but gently, quietly, begin to become the person you already are as you seek a new normal.

Share your thoughts and feelings. You may find it helpful to join a support group. Often family members cannot listen to your pain because they are hurting too. Your friends may have difficulty listening because they do not know what to say and everyone wants you not to hurt. Grief takes time and effort. Do not try to speed up the process. Give yourself permission to hurt and to heal. When you allow yourself to experience the pain, you make room for the memories.

Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your diet and get some exercise. Exercise, even if it’s only walking 15 to 20 minutes a day, is the best way to relieve your stress from grief. Do your best to get 6-8 hours of rest or sleep daily. If you feel like you are not sleeping, just put your feet up and relax.

Take your time discarding your spouse’s belongings. You do not have to do anything until you are ready. Do not let others make decisions for you. You might wish to give some special treasures to family members while other things can be boxed and stored until you are ready to release them. Many find comfort in keeping and/or wearing something of their spouses. You will not be the first widowed person to wear your spouse’s bathrobe or curl up with a sweater that still has a faint smell of perfume or aftershave.

Be kind and patient with yourself. Grief can feel overwhelming. It often feels as though you are moving backwards faster than you have been going forward. Grief is a bit like riding a roller coaster. Hang on tight and allow yourself to feel your way through this time. If you are tired, rest. If you are energized, tackle a project. Forgive yourself for living when your loved one did not.

Take care of business as you are able to do so. Some things will need immediate attention while other decisions can wait. Prioritize things and ask for assistance when you need it. Make use of your financial planner, legal advisor, family and friends to help you as you sort through the details of paperwork. Take your time. You do not have to solve every problem in a day.

As you begin to heal, you will be able to laugh again and enjoy life once more. Don’t be disturbed by your first laugh. It does not mean you are forgetting your loved one! It means you are beginning to let the joy of your loved one’s life return. You can laugh and cry at the same time, they both reduce the stress of grief.

Re-establish your connections with your faith. Many people re-evaluate their virtues and values as they look for meaning in life. Find support systems that work best for you. You may reach out to family and friends for support when you need it. Do not allow others to diminish your grief with an ‘ought to’ and ‘should do’ list. Learn to listen to your instincts. You already have a great source of strength within you. Trust yourself and your inner wisdom. Be creative in your coping and bring the love and laughter you shared with your loved one with you. Your loved one died, but the love you shared can never be destroyed. How you live your life from this day forward is the greatest tribute you can give your loved one. Love never goes away.

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