Intimately sharing experiences with a significant other as we travel through life, enmeshing body and soul, sharing our feelings, ups and downs, raising children and possibly even grandchildren – for not just years, but decades – is an intense and profound experience. Understandably, when that companion dies, the consequences are dramatic and life changing.
Mourning the death of a spouse can be overwhelming. Without your life partner by your side, the world becomes a different place. While mourning, the grieving person is overcome with feelings of grief and sorrow; they can also feel numb, shocked and fearful about the future.
Grief is painful – both physically and emotionally – as anyone who has suffered ‘a broken heart’ can attest. The grieving process can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life and physical health. While grieving, individuals commonly experience:
- insomnia or poor sleep patterns
- extreme fatigue
- decreased appetite
- poor concentration
- inability to make decisions
- a lack of motivation to participate in everyday activities
Along with grieving, some individuals have to put considerable effort into getting their life back on track again. They may need to move to a new home, change legal or financial affairs, close down a business, or deal with any number of other changes resulting from the loss of a partner. This can be a stressful time, adding to both fatigue and anxiety.
In time, for most, the feelings of grief and despair will ease, with subtle positive changes becoming noticeable. There may be more good days than bad, and small things that bring a smile again. Having others around at this time can help this process, as others can point out these small milestones as they appear. For some, the grieving feels like it will be eternal. When the grief is constant and unchanging, it can become serious and develop into a depressive disorder. If someone you know is spiralling down this path, it’s essential to get help from a medical or counselling professional.
Getting through the grieving process
Keeping busy helps with grieving, as does staying connected with others. Typically, at the time of the death of a spouse and soon after, the person in mourning is surrounded by friends and loved ones to lift their spirits and keep the deep reality of their grief at bay. In time though, this level of support slips away, and the individual is left alone to work through this difficult process.
Here are some tips for getting through this difficult time:
- Look after your health
Grief can be debilitating to one’s health, as basic functions such as eating and sleeping become difficult. A concerted effort should be made to eat properly, get plenty of sleep and find time to exercise. If it is difficult for you to organise meals or dress yourself properly every day, help may be available. Care should be taken so that bad habits such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking don’t develop.
- Keep talking
As well as staying social, talking to close friends and family members (or carers and counsellors) should be encouraged. Choose people you know you can trust and that will be prepared to listen to your real thoughts and feelings.
- Avoid making major life changes
During this time, try to avoid making any major changes. While some changes may be necessary in the early stages, others, like selling a house, changing wills, making major purchases or quitting important associations or memberships should all be put on hold until the emotional turmoil settles.
- Stay in close contact with your doctor or grief counsellor
Medical supervision is important at this time so that medication can be monitored, general health can be discussed, and the grieving person’s ability to cope is assessed. Arguably, the death of a spouse is one of the most intensely difficult and life changing events, so taking advantage of clinical support available should be encouraged. The doctor or grief counsellor may prescribe medications, including antidepressants or medication to give short-term assistance with sleeping.
- Remember that others may be grieving, too
For those with children, it’s important to remember that they will be going through the grieving process too, and may need time to adjust. Family dynamics may need to change for a while, as family members grieve for their lost loved one in their own ways, and at their own pace.
- Give it time
Mourning takes time, so don’t expect things to happen overnight. It’s normal for the grieving process to feel like a roller coaster for a while after a loved one has passed away.
After being in a close relationship for decades, the adjustment to single life can be complex and lonely. A key part of transitioning through this process successfully is planning ahead. There are various things an individual can do to move his or her life in a positive new direction. Some suggestions include:
- regularly exercise or walk with a friend
- join a singing group
- join a bowling club
- adopt a cat or dog
- start a new hobby
- think about volunteering for an organisation or taking a part-time job
- join a book club
- do some travel with a family member, a friend or travel group
The death of a spouse can be devastating, heartbreaking and above all, difficult. It’s important that the surviving partner realises this, but also be prepared for some happy and normal times, once the grieving process is done. The best healer for grief is time. But with the support and love of friends and family, adherence to good health practices and planning ahead, some of the inevitable pain can be lessened. As one door closes, as painful as it has been to experience, other doors slowly open, giving hope, joy and meaning to life once again.
Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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