widowhood and widowerhood

The death of a spouse or partner is one of life’s most stressful events. The grief can be overwhelming. It is hard to deal with this kind of loss, but here are some ideas that may help.

Practical Matters

In the first days after the death of a loved one, you are normally busy notifying friends and taking care of the details of a death. Lots of people call or stop by to express sympathy. You are most likely be in a state of shock and may find thinking about details easier than thinking about the past or the future.

In the first few weeks after the death, it is important to take care of financial matters.

  • Notify banks, insurance companies, and pension funds.
  • Check for a will, stock certificates, and any other important papers.
  • Contact Social Security to apply for survivors benefits and ask for details on eligibility for Medicare.
  • If your spouse was a veteran, there may be some benefits, so contact the Veterans Administration.
  • Advise all creditors, including issuers of credit cards, that your spouse has died.
  • Some of your loans or perhaps your house may be paid for if there was insurance.
  • Be sure to order enough death certificates. Most financial matters require at least a copy if not an original death certificate.

Make decisions that must be made, but put off major decisions until a later date.

Dealing with Emotions

Your first reaction to the death of a spouse will probably be shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief. In time, the numbness is replaced with pain, sometimes physical pain. You may feel like your heart has been torn out of your body. Your home and all the places you usually go seem full of painful reminders. You keep looking for your lost mate everywhere you go, expecting him or her to come around the corner and tell you it was just a dream.

A couple of weeks after the funeral, people tend to stop calling, relatives go home, and you are left in an empty house with an empty bed. Sadness, fear, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, anger, and guilt are all common reactions to the loss.

For part or most of your life you have been a wife or husband. When you no longer have this role, you can feel lost. Somehow, you must create a new identity, a new purpose for life, new goals, a new sense of “normal.” There are other losses as well. Your partner may have been the primary wage earner, the housekeeper, the car mechanic, the cook, or the one who did the shopping. The thought of all that you have to deal with can be frightening and overwhelming.

Anger is a normal response when your life partner dies, especially if he or she was killed in an accident or an act of violence. You may feel bitter and hostile. It is important to allow others to comfort and support you.

Feeling guilty about the death of a spouse is very common. Your partner may have had a long period of sickness and suffering. You may think of things you could have done differently or better. Being human means that we do not always do everything perfectly. This is especially true when we are under stress. It is important to remember that you did the best you could and to not feel guilty about things that you had no control over. Illness and accidents are things we cannot control.

Feeling lost, angry, and guilty often makes us irrational and sometimes irritable. Other reactions you may experience include:

  • Your sleep patterns may become disturbed. You may find yourself up all night and wanting to sleep all day.
  • You may feel totally exhausted, without the energy to do much of anything.
  • You may lose your appetite and have no interest in cooking, or even eating food that’s already prepared.
  • You may feel nauseous, tense, or just generally not well. You may identify with your deceased partner so much that you may start having symptoms of the illness that caused his or her death.
  • You may drink too much, smoke more than usual, and overuse tranquilizers, pain pills, or sleeping pills.

What helps?

Remember that there is no timeline for your grief. You will heal at your own pace and in your own time. Here are some ideas to help you cope.

  • Eat a healthy diet whether you feel like it or not.
  • Get some form of regular exercise every day, such as walking.
  • Get out of the house several times a week. Run errands, go to dinner, and find ways to spend time with other people.
  • Give yourself permission to laugh, sing, joke, and encourage others. It doesn’t mean that you are not grieving enough or that you have forgotten your spouse. You will not forget.
  • Go back to your usual activities as soon as possible. Keep busy. It helps to have things to do and a normal schedule.
  • See your healthcare provider for a checkup, especially if you have headaches, chest pain, or digestive problems.
  • You may be distracted and more prone to accidents. Be sure to pay attention when you are driving or operating machinery.
  • Count your blessings, not your troubles. Instead of saying, “I miss him or her so much,” say, “He taught me how to have fun,” or “she brought so much beauty to the world.”
  • Don’t make important life decisions for a few months. Resist the urge to sell your house, quit your job, move to another town, move in with your family, give away large sums of money, or retire from your former lifestyle. Make tentative decisions. For example, take a vacation before you decide on a permanent move. You cannot make decisions just for the purpose of trying to help ease the pain of grief. The grief will follow you wherever you go. Moving away won’t change how you feel.
  • It may help to join a grief support program like AARP Widowed Persons Service. Call 1-800-424-3410 or visit the Web site at http://www.aarp.org/families/grief_loss.
  • Most cities have grief support groups that you can join. Looking in the Yellow Pages for hospices may help you find a grief support group. Churches or hospitals may also offer support groups.
  • Some people are overwhelmed by their grief and feel like they cannot cope with their loss. They may drink more, use drugs, or even have suicidal thoughts. If you feel this way, you might want to see a therapist who specializes in grief counseling. Getting help is often the first step toward feeling better.
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