Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse

Grief: What’s Normal, What’s Not – and 13 Tips to Get Through It

Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse

There’s no easy way to part with those we love. Wherever there is attachment and loss, there is the pull of grief.

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“While death ends a life, it does not end the relationship,” says Amy Greene, MDiv, DMin., Director of the Center for Spiritual Care at Cleveland Clinic.

“Adjusting to the new reality takes time and does not follow a totally predictable pattern (in spite of what many people will tell you),” she says.

It’s unique to each person

Grieving is a process as unique as every individual who experiences it.

At times, emotions may get tucked under a rather out-of-body feeling. At other times, you may feel your insides squeeze with loss. One day, you may feel throwing something that would shatter. Another day, you could feel a strange sense of peace.

This is why, Ms. Greene says, it’s so important to be patient with yourself. You have your own unique way of handling things.

Often, the caring and well-intentioned people around you lack understanding about grief, and about the natural process of grieving.

They might say, “Keep busy.” But often, this simply postpones a necessary emotional upheaval, a process we all have to go through.

“We live in a culture that wants to quickly move past grief, as though it were an obstacle,” Ms. Greene says. “We just want to be ‘over it.’ But the truth is, it’s normal for someone who is grieving to feel off-kilter for a very long time.”

Do your best to be patient with those around you whose intentions may be kind but who sometimes speak without enough forethought about what a bereaved person is really feeling.

“Unless a person is trained in grief counseling, they may find it challenging to understand the phases of grieving,” Ms. Greene says.

The difference between grief and depression

It is a myth that “time heals everything” or that you must “move on” within a certain number of months (or even years). Grief can last a long time.

This why it is important to find professionals and/or support groups (preferably both, according to Ms. Greene) that can help you continue to monitor what is “normal” grief.

“This can help you take precautions as well as get the help you need and deserve if your grief becomes more complicated,” Ms. Greene says.

People may mistake the very normal phases of grieving for something unhealthy.

“After a deep loss, it’s normal to struggle to eat or sleep. Often, people don’t drink enough water. They may not want the sleeping pills. They just go through this intense sadness, which is normal in the first few months,” Ms. Greene says.

At this stage, people around you may become overly concerned. But after decades of marriage or after losing a child or someone dear to you, learning to live without them in your life can’t happen quickly. It is a process.

This is different from depression, which does happen, too.

This can occur if a grieving person gets into an unhealthy spiral of lack of sleep or unhealthy eating and drinking habits, or lack of exercise — especially if these habits continue more than a few weeks. People are especially at risk for depression if they don’t take good physical care of themselves as well as if they become too isolated.

To combat this, Ms. Greene suggests joining a support group moderated by a trained grief counselor.

“I’ve seen how much this can be a reprieve; grievers can see an example of others who have coped and are getting through the toughest parts.”

“It helps many people realize, ‘I’m not alone.’ They see that grief is a human thing we all share,” Ms. Greene says.

Tips for dealing with grief

While there’s no simple formula for getting through a deep loss, Ms. Greene offers the following tips:

  1. Accept some loneliness. Loneliness is completely normal, but it is important not to get too isolated. Reach out to people and support groups who are comfortable with grief — who can let you move through the process at your own pace.
  2. Choose good company. Look for friends, old and new, who know how grief feels and who can let you be “alone but not alone” when you just need company and who won’t place any further burdens or expectations on you.
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Try not to judge yourself for not “doing better” or “keeping it together.” It will get easier over time to feel your normal self.
  4. Get extra rest. Physical and emotional exhaustion is common. You will need more rest than usual.
  5. Embrace all emotions. Realize that feelings come whether we it or not. All we can do is let them move through, waves in the ocean or clouds in the sky. It is neither weak nor abnormal to feel these waves. There are many approaches under the category of “mindfulness” that can help with emotional self-regulation. It’s also important to know when to seek professional help.
  6. Set a regular sleep schedule. Make it a goal to go to bed and awaken at the same time each day. Give yourself a good amount of time to rest, but be on guard for sleeping too much as a way to avoid the hard work of grieving.
  7. Move your body. Get up and walk or move around, preferably outside, at least a little each day.
  8. Talk to your doctor. Tell your primary care doctor you are bereaved so he or she can help you keep an on eye on healthy habits.
  9. Keep structure in your day. This means groom and dress, even if you are not leaving the house. Also, eat small, regular meals, even if you are not hungry.
  10. Set goals. Set small, reachable, short-term goals so that you don’t get overwhelmed.
  11. Make a list of daily activities. This can help while you are grieving because forgetfulness is common.
  12. Be cautious. Do not make any major decisions or changes in home or work right after you are bereaved.
  13. Take care of your inner needs. Find time, whether through a spiritual practice or a creative outlet, to connect to things that give you inspiration and help you maintain your sense of meaning and purpose. You could keep a journal, write a song, poem or letter to your loved one.


Mourning the Death of a Spouse

Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse

When your spouse dies, your world changes. You are in mourning—feeling grief and sorrow at the loss. You may feel numb, shocked, and fearful.

You may feel guilty for being the one who is still alive. At some point, you may even feel angry at your spouse for leaving you. All of these feelings are normal.

There are no rules about how you should feel. There is no right or wrong way to mourn.

When you grieve, you can feel both physical and emotional pain. People who are grieving often cry easily and can have:

In addition to dealing with feelings of loss, you also may need to put your own life back together. This can be hard work. Some people feel better sooner than they expect. Others may take longer.

Grieving the loss of a loved one can be especially hard during COVID-19. Due to physical distancing guidelines, visiting a loved one at his or her end-of-life and attending a funeral service may not be possible.

It can also affect the ability of friends and family to come together in person and grieve in typical ways.

The CDC offers information about actions you can take to help cope with loss and additional funeral guidance during COVID-19.

As time passes, you may still miss your spouse. But for most people, the intense pain will lessen. There will be good and bad days. You will know you are feeling better when there are more good days than bad. You may feel guilty for laughing at a joke or enjoying a visit with a friend. It is important to understand that can be a common feeling.

Finding a Support System

There are many ways to grieve and to learn to accept loss. Try not to ignore your grief. Support may be available until you can manage your grief on your own. It is especially important to get help with your loss if you feel overwhelmed or very depressed by it.

Family and compassionate friends can be a great support. They are grieving, too, and some people find that sharing memories is one way to help each other. Feel free to share stories about the one who is gone.

Sometimes, people hesitate to bring up the loss or mention the dead person's name because they worry this can be hurtful. But people may find it helpful to talk directly about their loss.

You are all coping with the death of someone you cared for.

Shortly after Charlie’s husband Doug died, his friends started coming over with dinners and memories to share. They would sit around Charlie’s dining table for hours remembering Doug’s humor and kindness.

Soon, Doug’s friends were joining them with their own recollections. It was so much old times that it almost seemed Doug had just stepped the room.

Those evenings together helped Charlie, as well as the others, start to heal after their loss.

For some people, mourning can go on so long that it becomes unhealthy. This can be a sign of serious depression and anxiety. Talk with your doctor if sadness keeps you from carrying on with your day-to-day life. Support may be available until you can manage the grief on your own.

How Grief Counseling Can Help

Sometimes people find grief counseling makes it easier to work through their sorrow. Regular talk therapy with a grief counselor or therapist can help people learn to accept a death and, in time, start a new life.

There are also support groups where grieving people help each other. These groups can be specialized—parents who have lost children or people who have lost spouses, for example—or they can be for anyone learning to manage grief. Check with religious groups, local hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, or your doctor to find support groups in your area.

An essential part of hospice is providing grief counseling, called bereavement support, to the family of someone who was under their care. You can also ask hospice workers for bereavement support, even if hospice was not used before the death.

Remember to take good care of yourself. You might know that grief affects how you feel emotionally, but you may not realize that it can also have physical effects.

The stress of the death and your grief could even make you sick. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and get back to doing things you used to enjoy, going to the movies, walking, or reading.

Accept offers of help or companionship from friends and family. It’s good for you and for them.

If you have children, remember that they are grieving, too. It will take time for the whole family to adjust to life without your spouse. You may find that your relationship with your children and their relationships with each other have changed. Open, honest communication is important.

Mourning takes time. It’s common to have roller coaster emotions for a while.

Try to delay major life decisions until you are feeling better. You don’t want to decide to make a big change, selling your home or leaving your job, when you are grieving and perhaps not thinking clearly.

Taking Care of Yourself While Grieving

In the beginning, you may find that taking care of details and keeping busy helps. For a while, family and friends may be around to assist you. But, there comes a time when you will have to face the change in your life.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself. Grief can be hard on your health. Exercise regularly, eat healthy food, and get enough sleep. Bad habits, such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking, can put your health at risk.
  • Try to eat right. Some widowed people lose interest in cooking and eating. It may help to have lunch with friends. Sometimes, eating at home alone feels too quiet. Turning on the radio or TV during meals can help. For information on nutrition and cooking for one, look for helpful books at your local library or bookstore or online.
  • Talk with caring friends. Let family and friends know when you want to talk about your spouse. They may be grieving too and may welcome the chance to share memories. When possible, accept their offers of help and company.
  • Visit with members of your religious community. Many people who are grieving find comfort in their faith. Praying, talking with others of your faith, reading religious or spiritual texts, or listening to uplifting music also may bring comfort.
  • See your doctor. Keep up with visits to your healthcare provider. If it has been awhile, schedule a physical and bring your doctor up to date on any pre-existing medical conditions and any new health issues that may be of concern. Let your healthcare provider know if you are having trouble taking care of your everyday activities, getting dressed or fixing meals.

What Are the Signs of Complicated Grief?

Complicated grief is a condition that occurs in about 7% of people who have recently lost a close loved one.

People with this condition may be unable to comprehend the loss, experience intense, prolonged grief, and have trouble resuming their own life.

Signs of complicated grief may include overly negative emotions, dramatically restricting your life to try to avoid places you went with the deceased, and being unable to find meaning or a purpose in life.

Complicated grief can be a serious condition and those who have it may need additional help to overcome the loss. Support groups, professionals, and close loved ones can help comfort and support someone with this condition.

Does Everyone Feel the Same Way After a Death?

Men and women share many of the same feelings when a spouse dies. Both may deal with the pain of loss, and both may worry about the future. But, there also can be differences.

Many married couples divide up their household tasks. One person may pay bills and handle car repairs. The other person may cook meals and mow the lawn. Splitting up jobs often works well until there is only one person who has to do it all. Learning to manage new tasks — from chores to household repairs to finances — takes time, but it can be done.

Being alone can increase concerns about safety. It’s a good idea to make sure there are working locks on the doors and windows. If you need help, ask your family or friends.

Facing the future without a husband or wife can be scary. Many people have never lived alone. Those who are both widowed and retired may feel very lonely and become depressed. Talk with your doctor about how you are feeling.

Make Plans and Be Active

After years of being part of a couple, it can be upsetting to be alone. Many people find it helps to have things to do every day. Whether you are still working or are retired, write down your weekly plans. You might:

Credit: Victoria Ruun

  • Take a walk with a friend.
  • Visit the library.
  • Volunteer.
  • Try an exercise class.
  • Join a singing group.
  • Join a bowling league.
  • Offer to watch your grandchildren.
  • Consider adopting a pet.
  • Take a class at a nearby senior center, college, or recreation center.
  • Stay in touch with family and friends, either in person or online.

When you feel stronger, you should think about getting your legal and financial affairs in order. For example, you might need to:

  • Write a new will and update your advance care planning.
  • Look into a durable power of attorney for legal matters and health care, in case you are unable to make your own medical decisions in the future.
  • Put joint property (such as a house or car) in your name.
  • Check on changes you might need to make to your health insurance as well as to your life, car, and homeowner’s insurance.
  • Sign up for Medicare by your 65th birthday.
  • Make a list of bills you will need to pay in the next few months, for instance, state and federal taxes and your rent or mortgage.

When you are ready, go through your husband’s or wife’s clothes and other personal items. It may be hard to give away these belongings.

Instead of parting with everything at once, you might make three piles: one to keep, one to give away, and one “not sure.” Ask your children or others to help.

Think about setting aside items a special piece of clothing, watch, favorite book, or picture to give to your children or grandchildren as personal reminders of your spouse.

Going Out After the Death of a Spouse

Having a social life on your own can be tough. It may be hard to think about going to parties or other social events by yourself. It can be hard to think about coming home alone. You may be anxious about dating. Many people miss the feeling of closeness that marriage brings. After time, some are ready to have a social life again.

Here are some things to remember:

  • Go at a comfortable pace. There’s no rush.
  • It’s okay to make the first move when it comes to planning things to do.
  • Try group activities. Invite friends for a potluck dinner or go to a senior center.
  • With married friends, think about informal outings walks, picnics, or movies rather than couple’s events that remind you of the past.
  • Find an activity you . You may have fun and meet people who to do the same thing.
  • You can develop meaningful relationships with friends and family members of all ages.
  • Many people find that pets provide comforting companionship.
  • Get help from your family, friends, or professionals if you need it.
  • Be open to new experiences.
  • Take time to adjust to life without your spouse.

Read about this topic in Spanish. Lea sobre este tema en español.


Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse — Natasha Dedijer-Turner

Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse

It is never easy to lose someone we care deeply for and it is especially hard when it is your spouse or partner. When I think of grief I am often reminded of a quote by Vicki Harrison:

Grief is the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.

Grief is a complicated process and differs for everyone. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. There is no time limit or minimum or maximum period of time to grieve. Some believe that our grief shrinks, or diminishes over time so that it becomes easier to bear.

Others feel that we grow around our grief, making space for it and accommodating it in our life following the loss. Whichever perspective we adopt, processing our loved one’s loss is a process and one that isn’t always linear.

Feelings and moods may vary dramatically daily and we may experience confusing or even contradictory emotions.

Survivor’s grief

Sometimes we can experience something called “survivor’s grief”. Survivor’s grief can stall us in the grieving process, preventing us from moving through the stages and keeping us stuck in our grief longer than we may want or expect.

We may feel we need the suffering because we are the surviving spouse and we are here, they are gone. This can cause us to be stuck in the depths of despair, powerless to move forward yet unable to return.

Survivor’s grief can be especially prevalent if our loved one died young or at an age that we do not consider average or “normal”. In these instances our grief may be accompanied by a sense of anger or disbelief over the injustice of their death.

This can further complicate the grief process. Our grief may also manifest in physical ways. Often when we experience survivor grief we experience:

  • Weight loss and changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or stomach upset

Grief may differ for men

Grief for men can be especially tricky given the public messages men receive. Boys and men are told to “man up,” hide their feelings so as not to embarrass themselves and those around them and act as though nothing has changed.

Men and women, boys and girls all experience the same emotions, they are just socialized to express them differently. While women are taught to grieve publicly, even to rely on a support system to aid them in their grief, men are taught to grieve silently and internally.

A national survey by the University of Kentucky asked men about how they grieved the loss of their fathers. They found that the men primarily chose to grieve their fathers through actions-by participating in their father’s hobbies, or physically expressing anger.

Anger is a common reaction to loss but it becomes problematic when it is expressed instead of sadness rather than in tandem with sadness.

So how do we support the men in our lives who are grieving or how do we grieve as men? First of all it is important to remember that everyone grieves at some point, it is an inevitable part of being a human being. Doing so in a healthy and productive manner can facilitate greater emotional resilience as well and further our connection to others. There are a few simple things we can do:

Free ourselves from expectations

There is no instruction manual for grief and there is no timeline. Grief is universal in that everyone experiences it and no one is immune to it. Allowing ourselves space to grieve in whatever manner feels comfortable is okay. If we ignore our grief or sublimate it, it will ly resurface in unhealthy and more egregious ways.

Be intentional about honoring our loved one

When we grieve we mourn the loss of our loved one. We miss their presence in our lives, the opportunity to interact with them and sometimes those things we left unsaid or unfinished.

Setting aside time to be with our loved one is key.

Whether we do that by writing a letter to them, having a conversation or carrying a remembrance of them, honoring them and our connection to them helps us put some order to the loss.

Take small steps

Grieving is a process and as with any process we cannot rush it. It can be overwhelming and sometimes making it through the day can be a victory. We shouldn’t overcommit or busy ourselves with distractions. Making space for things we enjoy and allowing ourselves time to rest and process can be helpful and can ease us back into our routines.

Reach out

Often when we are grieving we feel alone in our sadness. We may feel our grief is a burden to others or that they don’t understand what we are going through. Support is key to the grieving process. Surrounding ourselves with people who are comfortable with our grief can help minimize our loneliness and prevent us from feeling more profound sadness.

The issues discussed in this blog should not take the place of professional counseling, nor should the opinions expressed constitute a clinical assessment, evaluation or treatment. The opinions expressed in this column are for the sole purpose of educating consumers on various counseling issues. Consumers seeking professional help may contact Natasha Dedijer-Turner for a list of appropriate referral sources


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