Navigating Grief: Coping with the Loss of a Spouse
Losing a spouse is a profoundly emotional experience that cannot be explained by words alone. Everything speeds up and slows down all at once. The heart pulls away from the body, but you still feel your pulse trying to gain traction.
Whether you’ve been anticipating the loss of a spouse or are grieving unexpectedly, the emotions that follow can be heavy and complex.
For many, losing a husband or wife equates to losing a best friend, confidant, and the greatest part of every day. Twenty years after saying ‘I Do’ feels like only five; soon, fifty years feels like ‘just yesterday.’ When you thought love couldn’t delve any deeper, it did. And then it did again, and again. So when you suddenly have to take on the day without the comfort of your other half, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed, scared, and uncertain.
If you’ve lost a dear spouse this year, or several years ago, remember that the grieving process can come in waves, can bring varying levels of sorrow, and may cause past feelings to resurface. But in time, you’ll also feel a blanket of beauty and peace.
Here, we walk through the stages of grief and explore methods for coping with the good days and the not-so-good ones, too.
The Many Faces of Grief
Many stages of grief unfold after losing a spouse, some easier than others to navigate, but all symbolic, all fundamental to where you may need to visit to move forward. This process can be heart-wrenching in so many ways; but giving yourself the time and space to navigate your thoughts and emotions is so very important for the mind, body, and spirit. It’s difficult to be vulnerable during this time but doing so will have a positive effect on your healing and well-being.
There’s no way to say for sure how long the grieving process will last but typically symptoms will lessen over time. After one year, symptoms should be noticeably improved, bringing about a clearer headspace while engaged in daily life.
Common responses to losing a spouse may include:
- Feeling numb and detached
- Guilt or shame
- Deep sadness
- Difficulty carrying out everyday tasks
- Disrupted appetite and sleep cycle
A Path to Acceptance
The seven-stage grieving process is often referred to when discussing loss. These stages include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and lastly, acceptance.
Since the grieving process is not always a linear journey, the stages of grief serve only as a tool, not to define or limit how you should or shouldn’t be affected by a loss.
A universal framework like such offers the ability to familiarize oneself with the grieving cycle and better express one’s grief. This can help you feel more in tune with your emotions on the path to acceptance and more apt to view grief and loss as part of a collective human experience.
Ways to Cope
Allowing your emotions to flow freely during a time of incredible vulnerability can be uncomfortable, but also therapeutic and restorative. Be gentle with yourself; focusing on self-care can be one of the best ways to stay in tune with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Coping techniques that may be helpful:
- Talking with others who can relate to your experience
- Journaling down thoughts, favorite memories, and aspirations
- Spending quality time with family and friends, doing activities you enjoy
- Staying up to date with annual doctor visits and routine tests
- Maintaining healthy habits (receiving adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise, and time outdoors)
- Engaging in small acts of kindness or volunteering for a cause that’s important to you
- Contacting your PCP or insurance company to discuss bereavement resources or referrals for counseling
- Honoring the memory of your spouse in a way that feels right and close to you
Signs of Complicated Grief
If symptoms of grief don’t improve and are severe enough to disrupt one or many areas of your life, you may be experiencing complicated, or “prolonged” grief.
According to Szuhany, Malgaroli, Miron, & Simon (2021), for an estimated 7%-10% of adults, feelings of severe grief persist and cause significant disruption in their life (as cited in APA, 2022).
To fall into this group, the loss of a loved one would have to have occured at least a year prior and would’ve had to produce at least three of the symptoms below, nearly every day, for at least the last month (APA, 2022).
Symptoms of prolonged grief include:
- Having a marked sense of disbelief regarding the loss
- Disruption of one’s own identity
- Avoidance of reminders that the person has passed
- Intense emotional pain (such as anger, bitterness, and sorrow) related to the passing
- Difficulty returning to a previous state of functioning before the loss (such as problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, and planning for the future)
- Emotional numbness (absence or marked reduction of emotional experience)
- A feeling of hopelessness or that life is meaningless
- Feeling alone or detached from others
Without appropriate treatment, complications of prolonged grief can affect you physically, mentally, and socially, resulting in:
- higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health concerns;
- increased risk for health problems such as heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure;
- long-term difficulties with work, relationships, and everyday functioning;
- sleep disruptions, changes in body weight, and substance misuse (Mayo Clinic, 2022).
Support is Available
You don’t have to navigate the loss of your spouse alone. There is support available including bereavement counseling, in-person and online support groups, as well as self-help books, articles, and videos. Specialized groups for those grieving a spouse or partner are also available. Resources may also be given through your doctor’s office, local library, a nearby hospital, a place of worship, and community outreach programs.
Seeking treatment for grief that is severe and debilitating can help someone heal from their loss and to begin to reshape their life. The aim is not to leave behind the memory of a loved one, but rather to honor their memory in a way that’s conducive to one’s well-being.
Reshaping Your Life
It’s natural to feel displaced and uncertain of how to return to your prior state of functioning, or something close to it, after losing a spouse. Things that were once second nature may feel unfamiliar and challenging. But prioritizing your health and wellness during this time is so very important.
Even if you can only find the energy to complete a few tasks each day or each week, begin with your basic needs first (getting enough sleep, receiving quality nutrition, maintaining good hygiene, and living in a safe and clean environment). Once you are consistent there, schedule a lunch with friends or engage in light exercise a few times a week. You’ll know what feels right to you and what’s enjoyable.
Some steps you may take when reshaping or recentering your life:
- Focus on the relationship with your inner self
- Do activities you enjoy or start a new hobby
- Stay connected with those important to you
- Release shame or guilt surrounding your loss
- Consider your living arrangement (if you’d like to live closer to family, down-size, tour an assisted living)
- Ensure your safety and security (any need for security systems, life-alert, updating of financial and healthcare documents i.e., emergency contact, healthcare proxy, living will, or power-of-attorney, and creating a safety plan with a trusted friend, family member/neighbor)
- Open yourself up to new experiences and the receipt of joy
Wherever you are on this journey, remember that tomorrow will bring new brilliant moments to savor. Give yourself the grace to see them.
Navigating the loss of a spouse can feel scary and overwhelming. But know you don’t have to do this alone. Some days you may wake up feeling grateful for the time you shared. On other days you may feel anger, guilt, or uncertainty about how to process such life changes. This fluctuation in emotions is normal and should stabilize with time. Be gentle with yourself during this transitional period. Above all else, take care of yourself. Finding a way to honor your spouse’s memory and reflecting on the moments that bring you peace and joy are ways to keep their eternal spirit with you.
Here at Lee Alexander & Co., we create personalized memorial jewelry that embodies the memory of your beloved spouse, representing the eternal bond you share.
If you’re ready to start your journey to find the perfect memorial jewelry for your spouse, contact us. We want nothing more than to help you cherish the memory of your loved one and to carry their spirit with you throughout your beautiful journey ahead.
American Psychiatric Association. (2022, May). Prolonged grief disorder. Psychiatry.org - Prolonged Grief Disorder. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/prolonged-grief-disorder#
American Psychological Association. (2023, January 6). How to cope with traumatic stress. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/stress
BetterHelp. (2023, February 3). The 7 stages of grief and how death affects you. BetterHelp. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/grief/the-7-stages-of-grief-and-how-they-affect-you/
The Columbia Center for Complicated Grief. The Center for Prolonged Grief. (2022, November 15). Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://prolongedgrief.columbia.edu/professionals/complicated-grief-professionals/overview/
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2016, October 19). What is grief? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/patient-visitor-guide/support-groups/what-is-grief
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2022, December 13). Complicated grief. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374
The National Council on Aging. (2021, August 24). Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.ncoa.org/article/the-widowhood-effect-how-to-survive-the-loss-of-a-spouse/
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Mourning the death of a spouse. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/mourning-death-spouse