Grieving the Loss of a Spouse
| March 21st, 2016
“I felt like I could just float away into the sky,” Heather Hewitt told another grieving widow at a children’s support session after Ross, her husband of 18 years, died suddenly in 2009 of Crohn’s related complications.
“That’s because you lost your anchor,” the woman responded gently.
“That description has stuck with me,” says Hewitt. “I didn’t know how to define myself. It’s like you’ve lost an arm or a part of yourself. You’re trying to figure out a new place in the universe.”
Now four years later, Heather is still struggling, with good days and bad. “There is a false expectation that, after a year, things will be better. But although you may not cry outwardly, it’s still a really difficult thing.”
Hewitt is one of close to 1.7 million people in Canada who have lost their spouses, according to 2011 Statistics Canada data – more than three quarters of whom are women. Although Hewitt was younger than most (she was in her mid-forties when her husband died), she has struggled with the same issues that grieving spouses of all ages grapple with: self-definition, “life after,” raising children without a father, and keeping a household functioning and thriving on her own.
Writer Joan Didion documents this unspoken state when one loses a partner – for her a husband of almost 40 years – in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005): “We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
“In our society, death is something we’re not faced with,” says Vancouver-based spiritual counsellor Martina Parusel. “We don’t see people die. Most people die in hospital.” “We don’t talk about death. …It reminds us of our own mortality.”
Some communities embrace death as part of life, says Michele Neff Hernandez, who founded the California-based Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. She refers to the Native American tradition of mourners cutting their hair so that others know they’re grieving: the hair growing back is a “literal translation of the healing process.”
Up Next: How People Grieve
How People Grieve
People who are grieving often describe a series of reactions with no real sequence to their emotions – generally a period of numbness in the first month after, sometimes some relief initially if their loved one has been suffering, and a sharp stabbing quality that lessens with time, but a pain that is enduring.
As Hewitt says, “There is just a really hard time and then an OK moment and then a really hard time… With time, the OK moments get a little longer.”
Invariably there is profound sadness, but also guilt—from being the one to still be alive; anger—often directed to the doctors, and feelings of regret—of moments missed with the person in life. And there is, of course, understandable disbelief.
Montrealer Nancy Brown lost her husband Harvey after 52 years of marriage. At his memorial in December, she says “I turned around [at the end] to look for him, to say, ‘wasn’t that a nice service.’ On some level, you don’t believe it… In many regards, it’s harder as time goes on because you have to say, ‘this is real.’ ”
The funeral is in some ways a reprieve. Like after a birth, it is a time when the grieving are still surrounded by the love and support of family and friends, and by gifts of flowers and casseroles. While grief counsellors, palliative care workers and other therapists are crucial after the more “public grieving” ends, survivors attest to the powerful support of peers who are also grieving. As Neff Hernandez says, professionals may be available for an hour or two a week. But who do you call at 2 am when you can’t sleep?
After Neff Hernandez’s husband was killed while riding his bike, she says what she really wanted was not so much to understand the stages of grief, but to ask others like her a lot of practical questions: whether they slept on same side of the bed, how long they wore their wedding ring, and how did they adjust to buying groceries for one?
While she interviewed 30 widowed women with the intent to write a book, she instead built a community. Since 2008, more than a million people from 157 countries have sought out peer support through her foundation, the largest peer support network exclusively for widowed people in the world.
The “widowed landscape” has changed a lot in the last decade, says Neff Hernandez, referencing the ease with which people can connect with other widows worldwide through social media, forums and other online support. Her foundation includes a Widowed Pen Pal Program for people to connect to other widows or widowers, a weekend gathering at Camp Widow, and a Widowed Village, which is “like Facebook for widowed people” with a chat function operating 24/7.
Peer support doesn’t provide answers, “but hearing other people’s answers helps shape your own,” she explains. It allows you a place “to speak deep dark things.” It’s not uncommon for a widowed person to wish they were dead, Neff Hernandez says, not necessarily because you want to die but because you want to be where your spouse is.
Up Next: Life After a Death
Life After A Death
While there are commonalities to grieving for people losing a partner at any age, the survivor’s age can affect the person’s interest in repartnering with someone new, and issues around children.
Neff Hernandez points out that the new person can’t be threatened by the deceased spouse. “When your grandmother dies, you don’t stop loving her. The same is true of a husband.” Although Neff Hernandez has since remarried, for people like Brown, who is 75, the possibility of losing another spouse or coping with another potential illness is not what she wants. Instead, she seeks out social events to keep her connected. (At one point, she had 13 dinners in a row out with friends.)
As Brown says, “at a certain age, there’s no Noah’s Ark. Marching in twos is not the reality anymore – many people have lost someone, to death or divorce…. I’m not at all anxious to find someone else.”
As for Hewitt, she is now in a new relationship with a man who also lost his spouse – in his case to cancer. Hewitt volunteers as a grief support worker, is on an advisory board at a children’s grief centre, and focuses a lot of energy on her children. She says she is now more at peace with her own mortality since Ross died, knowing how random life is. It’s just one day at a time.
How to support a grieving spouse
- “Talk about the elephant in the room,” says Maclachlan, referring to the death that everyone is thinking about but often too scared to discuss. Sympathize, ask how the person is doing but don’t pry if you sense they don’t feel like elaborating.
- Provide practical support – errands, a massage, shopping, cooking meals, or simply your presence around the house, says counsellor Parusel.
- Offer help that you know you can follow through on, and be as specific as possible. For instance, instead of saying, “You can call me anytime for anything,” you could say, “Can I drop by dinner on Wednesday night?”
- Tell the person how you’re thinking about them, without putting pressure on them to respond.
- Don’t assume that there is a defined time to grieve. While some people may be ready to date a year after losing their partner, others may find the suggestion of a set-up as intrusive.
- “Never be afraid to say the person’s name… If you have a memory about that person, share it,” Neff Hernandez says.
- Even if there are all couples at a party, invite the person to join you. He or she can decide if they want to come. But be sensitive to a lot of conversations about anniversaries, and other couple issues, as those can be painful.
Up Next: The Five Stages of Grief
The Five Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kṻbler-Ross originally proposed the five stages of grieving in her 1969 book On Death and Dying to help patients who were dying cope with death and bereavement. These five stages can be applied to various forms of trauma, and will likely be different for everyone: in terms of the order in which they experienced, and in how long and intensely they’re felt. Not everyone will experience each stage.
In this first stage, people can’t accept the reality of death. This is a normal and very natural defence mechanism for coping with something so traumatic.
People’s feelings of pain and vulnerability associated with a death can also be expressed through anger: this anger may be directed at ourselves, at the person who has died, at the funeral home, the doctor or close friends.
Before the person dies, we may try to bargain for the person’s life: God, if I never get angry again, please let her live.
People may withdraw from others: detaching themselves emotionally can be a form of acceptance.
People can enter a stage of acceptance long before the person dies. This doesn’t mean the person feels OK with the death, but rather, that they acknowledge the reality of it.