The Death Of A Spouse
Questions about the conflicting feelings and emotional pain associated with the death of a spouse rank as the second most common of inquiries we receive at The Grief Recovery Institute, after the death of a child. This is a relationship that exists on many levels. In this article, we will explore those many levels and why so many of the actions grievers take to deal with the emotional pain of this loss do little in helping with recovery. We will also explore actions that can be taken to allow you to again better remember and celebrate the positive elements of this relationship lost. We will look at a number of different marriage situations, as part of this article, but there is no way that we can mention every possibility. Please understand that if you do not see an example of your exact situation, it does not mean that the suggestions we offer for recovery will not apply. The steps to recovery from a loss are universal, but the application is ultimately defined by your specific relationship.
The vast majority of the time, when people commit to marriage, it is because they plan to spend the rest of their lives together. Except in those situations where there is a significant difference in the ages of the couple involved, they rarely think about what it might be like when the other dies. Even in this situation, that is often not something given a great deal of thought. The possibility that one will eventually be left alone is generally not something that is even considered as part of that commitment. It is understandable that when that does happen, the feelings of grief can be confusing and overwhelming.
There is no single way to describe a marriage. Each marriage, and the many relationships involved, are unique to that individual couple. Before we can examine the impact of a death, we need to look at just some of the possible different types of marriages that exist.
It may be the case that you met at a relatively young age and that your marriage lasted over a period of decades, rather than years alone. This might have been a marriage that involved children, grandchildren, and perhaps more generations of extended family. In such a situation, you may have had very defined roles regarding generating income and child rearing, or you may have shared many of these duties equally.
It is also possible that you had a marriage of similar length, but never had children and spent your time together as a couple, rather than with extended family. In this situation, the absence of children might have been by choice, or due to biological issues.
Perhaps yours was a marriage of years, rather than decades. It is possible that you still have young children in your home or that you planned on having children, but it had yet to happen.
In some marriages, one or both of the members had children from a previous relationship, which adds additional complications after a death.
In some situations, both members of the couple are fully aware of their financial situation, while in others, the only one with complete knowledge is the one who has died. You may find yourself financially comfortable or it may be the situation that you have great deal of debt that you are now facing alone. In some marriages, the surviving spouse is totally unaware that their partner had taken out loans or amassed credit card debt.
The death may have been due to an accident, or it may have been due to a short-term illness or a chronic health issue. In this latter case, you may have been placed in the position of being a caregiver as well. For some, this loss may be due to your spouse taking their own life, which can lead to a great deal of second guessing of every conversation.
Yours may very well have been a loving relationship with few, if any, marital issues. Others have ridden a roller coaster in their relationships with periodic highs and lows. Still, others lived through marriages fraught with strife. (In this last situation there may be almost a sense of relief, which you find troubling as you deal with the loss.)
Some couples not only live together, but work side by side in business as well, which means that the death of one may leave the other to run the business alone.
These are but a very few of the multitude of different situations that may be part of a marriage. You may find that one or more of these describes your situation, or yours may be a marriage that included other relationship elements. Needless to say, there are an enormous variety of ways that this loss may have impacted you, based on your unique relationship and situation. No matter your particular situation, the fact that you are reading this article implies that you are experiencing emotional pain following the death of your spouse.
Loss Specific Support Groups
A common thought for many is that the only way to move through the loss of a spouse is by joining a support group that is specific to your loss. Based on just a few of the scenarios we have presented, you can see that every relationship and marriage is different unto itself. While all of the members of such a group may have lost their mate, it is highly likely that you have little else in common.
If you have joined such a group and found that it did not meet all of your personal needs related to your loss, you are not alone. That does not mean that there is something wrong with you. It simply means that you are grieving your very personal relationship and that others, despite having a similar loss, are likewise grieving their own situation. Over the years, we have found that some people may feel discounted in such groups when the discussion revolves around who is hurting the most, based on the each individuals’ perception of the issues they face.
This is not to say that this is the case with every group designed for those that lost a spouse! A properly moderated and focused group can offer a great deal of support in day-to-day living. The challenge may arise if the group does not offer a viable plan for taking action regarding the ongoing emotional pain of the loss itself.
Before we can talk about taking action, it is important to understand why grief is so very challenging, no matter the loss.
What do we learn about handling our grief?
Most of the tools we try to use to deal with the emotional pain of loss were established in our belief system at a very young age. Few, if any us, had a parent who sat down with us as a child, explained grief, and how to effectively handle it. Most of us learned from listening to how our elders dealt with loss issues as they happened. Most of these losses were very different than dealing with the loss of a life partner, but the information that we learned still became the template for how we would handle all of the losses that we faced for the rest of our lives. We never realized, as we were learning these things, that most of them really had very little value when it came to successfully dealing with emotional pain.
We have covered the “myths” that we learn on dealing with emotional loss in several articles in the past. Among the most common are:
Don’t Feel Bad
Replace The Loss
Grief Takes Time
You can look at some of these past articles by clicking here. If you follow “rules”, as a griever, it makes it much easier for others to be around you in social situations, simply because you are not expressing your feelings. Sadly, you are not dealing with your emotional pain on any level, but just suppressing it to the point that it eats away at you from the inside.
It is important that we spend a few minutes looking at a couple of these “myths” and how they can deeply impact those who have lost a spouse.
“Replace The Loss”
The very last thing of the mind of most people who lose their spouse is immediately finding a new one! When my sister-in-law died, her husband was appalled when his friends tried setting him up on dates just a few months after her death. “Don’t they understand that I have lost the love of my life?” he asked me. “How could I even consider this?” His friends saw that he was sad, and just wanted him to be happy again. They equated his finding a new love as the key to again finding happiness. There are multiple websites related to this possibility!
A study, some years ago, found that a remarkably high percentage of widowers are in a new relationship or married within 12 months of the death of their spouse. That same study found that an even higher percentage of these relationships were failing or had major issues within the next 12 months. Without even realizing this, many of these men were falling back on the instilled behavior pattern that to successfully deal with a loss, you must replace it.
No matter how much you might miss the wonderful elements your marriage brought to your life, whether in love, companionship, and/or financial security, you cannot simply replace that loss and expect happiness as a result. Again, you must complete the unfinished business in the relationship lost before you can ever hope to find true happiness in another one, if indeed there ever is another such relationship. (We are not encouraging or discouraging remarriage. Our focus is on dealing with the grief that comes with the loss. The point we are making is that to begin another successful relationship without first dealing with the grief of your loss can be problematic.)
People rarely tell you that you need to grieve alone to better deal with your emotional pain. That does not mean that this action is not the one you end up following.
Sometimes, this isolation is inadvertently forced on you by others. People stop calling to check on you, often because they are at a loss on how to help. Events will happen to which you do not receive an invitation. They may think that you will feel your loss even more acutely if it is a “couples” gathering, and you are there alone.
Sometimes it is just easier to avoid others, rather than dealing with more input. You may choose to grieve alone as a form of self-protection.
When people tell you that you must be strong, they usually add that you must be strong for someone else. You are advised to “be strong” for your children, your parents, or any number of other people. Sometimes we take being strong to the point of actually lying! Has it ever happened that someone asked you how you were doing and you told them “fine” when that was anything but the truth? Sometimes that is easier than dealing with the many suggestions they have to offer on how to feel better. Perhaps the best definition I ever heard for FINE was, “feelings inside not expressed!”
If, by any chance, you are being strong for your children, you need to think of the message you are passing on to them. If your children are very young, they are learning those same things you may have learned when you were growing up. They may take away the message that the display of sad or unhappy emotions is not appropriate. You will pass on better information if you explain that there are times when you are very sad as well, and that it is not their fault. You may find it very helpful to obtain a copy of “When Children Grieve” to help you better help them in dealing with this loss. If your children are older, tell them the truth about your pain and assure them that you will take positive recovery action to get through it. Do not just tell them this, but take the action outlined later in this article, as well.
The example many follow, as a way to deal with loss, was falsely reported!
The model that many people unconsciously fall back on, as the “perfect example” on how to deal with the death of a spouse, is that of Jaqueline Kennedy, following the death of her husband, the president. Whether you lived through this death, or only heard about it much later, the press frequently spoke of the “wonderful example” she was setting for the country with her calm reserve and lack of outward displays of emotion. They complemented her on “being strong for the nation”. While it may have been reported as a good example, it was not the real truth. The message, as reported, was that the outward display of sadness was anything but appropriate. What was not reported, until many years later, was that she was anything but unemotional behind closed doors and once the cameras had been turned off. She had been told that she had to be strong for others. In truth, she was desperately grieving her loss, but did not feel she was allowed to express it.
Please do not stop reading now!
It may sound like there is nothing in your personal library of grief solutions that can be of any value. What we are doing to this point is showing you why you may not feel better in how you are dealing with the loss of your spouse. Please do not feel that there is no hope.
Once we have learned something, right or wrong, we tend to keep doing the same things over and over with the hope that they will work. That is the nature of our brain and the belief system that has been instilled since birth. To make changes that will better assist you in moving through this grieving experience, you have to see why what you are doing is not working. There is hope yet to come in this article!
Your Body Will Tell You It is Not Happy
Your body was designed as a processing center for dealing with your emotions. If, however, you keep these emotions suppressed or take no positive action to face them, your body has to take on the role of an emotional storage center. Since this this was not part of its design, it sends you signals to let you know that there is a problem.
Many grievers experience headaches, sleep issues, confusion with simple tasks, and even forgetfulness. Some develop ulcers or heart palpitations as a result of suppressing their feelings. There are many numbers of ways that your body may try to communicate that something is wrong.
Often, in an effort to feel better, we try “Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviors” – STERBs
We have covered this subject in the past, as well.
STERBs are any action you might take to feel better, if just for a short time. For some, it is eating, while for others it is avoiding food, since there is an empty space at the table. Some will find that they consume more alcohol than in the past. Others will become dependent on medication (legal or illegal) to mask their pain. For some it is gaming (at home or at a casino) or exercise, while others find “retail therapy” to be their passion. This list is as long as your imagination!
The wonderful thing about STERBs is that they work, for as long as you continue to do them. When you stop doing your STERBs, the pain is still there. Constant participation in some STERBs can actually lead to addictive behavior that adds additional grief to your life.
For some people, their STERB is in trying to help others with their loss. There are many well-meaning widows and widowers who start support groups for others in the same situation. Even though they are having difficulties in coping with their own loss, they think that the key to helping themselves is in trying to help others. While the thought is noble, if you cannot help yourself with your own emotional pain, you are certainly in no position to successfully assist others. At best, you can only create a setting where others can share their pain as well, without any of you taking meaningful recovery action.
Others have started charities to help prevent future deaths from the same cause that took the life of their spouse. Many of these charities have funded meaningful research, which has helped save lives. This is a wonderful thing! It is the opportunity to make a difference for others, but does it truly “recover” you from the emotional pain of your individual loss? While it may give you the real sense that this death was not “in vain”, and that the story of your loss has helped prevent others, it still does not get to the root of your personal pain and give you the true benefits of recovery. That takes work on a personal level directed at the unfinished emotional business in your personal relationship. It is about figuring out what you wish had been different, better, or more, and addressing that in a meaningful way.
Grief is normal!
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to any change in your life. We said this before, but it deserves repeating.
How you express and display your grief will depend on your personal misinformation and the STERBs that you choose to use. Each person grieves differently, depending on these factors and their personal relationship. Sometimes members of the same family question how others are dealing with the loss. You may wonder if they are grieving at all when you look at how they are handling day-to-day life. In reality, they may be “being strong” for you and hiding their feelings, just as you may have hidden some of your own.
Once you can begin to understand this concept, you are in a better position to take action. You cannot truly begin to help those around you until you have taken action for yourself!
There really is help out there for you! You have the opportunity to once again enjoy your fond memories!
For many people dealing with the death of a spouse, they find themselves so overwhelmed by that moment of loss, that they can no longer fully think about all of the other elements of that relationship. That pain overshadows the joyful elements of that relationship, however long it was.
An overriding element of grief is directly related to the unfinished business in the relationship lost. The things you wish might have been different, better, or more in that relationship. The unmet hopes and dreams for the future that will now be a vastly different future to what you imagined. It is about the undelivered communications of an emotional nature. (If, by chance, yours was not a happy marriage, you will be able to let go of that pain as well.)
Some people are afraid that when someone suggests recovering from a loss, it somehow means forgetting your spouse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recovery is about being able to enjoy all of the memories of that relationship and letting go of those elements that cause you extended emotional pain.
I have had many people tell me, during my years in working with widows and widowers, that their continued misery is only appropriate as a way of expressing the devastation of losing someone so very special. If your misery prevents you from being able to share all of the joy that person brought to your life, that legacy of love becomes lost, not only to others, but to you as well. That is why it is really a necessity for you to take action!
The Grief Recovery Method is designed to help you let go of the emotional pain associated with your personal loss and to allow you to better enjoy your fond memories. It is a step-by-step process of walking through the entire relationship to identify those things you might have wished had been different and better, while at the same time giving you the opportunity to put voice to those dreams and expectations for the future that is not the one you had planned. It is structured to allow this to happen without analysis, criticism, or judgement, thereby making it safe to say what needs to be said.
The Grief Recovery Handbook: A step-by-step guide to recovery
This book offers you a guided journey through the steps you need to take to deal with your personal unfinished business and emotional pain. It is not the story of one person’s pain or an intellectual study of grief, but a step-by-step guide to taking action centered on you and your own very personal relationship with the one you loved.
This book and the program start at the beginning, with what you learned about coping with loss as a child. It offers you the chance to step back and look at your STERBs. It guides you through figuring out all those items of unfinished business in your very personal relationship and walks you through the actions you need to take to move beyond the emotional pain of the loss. It is not about therapy, but rather an educational program that adapts to your specific situation. It takes you from being stuck in those painful memories of the death to being able to revel in all the joy that the relationship brought into your life. If you and your spouse walked a “rocky road” at any point during their life, it allows you to let go of that emotional pain as well.
The beauty of this book and the tools you will learn to use is that they can be applied to other losses as well. If you have found that other relationships in your life have been negatively impacted as well by this death, or any other loss you may have experienced, you will now have the knowledge and tools to let go of that pain as well.
A few closing notes.
If you have found that things that were once important no longer matter, it is time to take action. If you are tired of being overwhelmed by your emotional pain, it is time to take action. If you find yourself lost and confused, it is time to take action. If it troubles you when a reminder of your loved one leads you to fall apart without warning, it is time to take action.
The Grief Recovery Method made an enormous difference in how I have dealt with all of the many losses in my life. I have personally seen hundreds of widows and widowers find success in doing this work, so that they can once again enjoy their memories and look ahead to the future.