The decision to write my first entry on this topic is in honor of my friend whose spouse is in the process of dying; being cared for by his loving wife and Hospice staff in Georgia.
Consider how many years most of us spend with our parents (around 18) and how many more we typically spend with a spouse. A spouse is our greatest confidant, one who knows our intimate secrets- the best and worst in us. Even after difficult times in marriage, individuals will often define their spouse as their best friend; their closest companion.
Now, imagine what it feels like to loose your spouse, to experience their sudden death or decline in health (especially after being the primary caregiver). Spouses are often left to make final decisions regarding burial, while dealing with their own emotions and the need to comfort their adult children (or step-children) and other family members.
Not only must a spouse deal with the tremendous loss of their closest companion, but they now must readjust their entire lives; their daily routine, roles in parenting and grand-parenting, managing of finances, relationships with friends, neighbors, and others. It may be necessary for the spouse to sell the family home, change jobs, or even relocate.
It is easy to understand how the death of a spouse can create a gamut of emotions- from denial, anxiety and anger, to depression. The first emotion often experienced is numbness and shock. During this phase, many decisions have to be made and the check list begins. Adult children are thankfully present to assist with necessary tasks and offer comfort to their parent.
True mourning is often experienced weeks after the outpouring of support has faded. During this time, the surviving spouse may experience a multitude of different- even scary experiences. For example, a spouse may have new health problems, or preexisting health issues may worsen. There is even a health condition termed “broken heart syndrome” where a spouse who has just lost a loved one may experience chest pains and thinks he or she is having a heart attack. Part of the heart temporarily enlarges, causing it to pump improperly. This heart condition is thought to occur from stress.
Someone who would once be described as a socialite may turn inward and become housebound. A spouse may have thoughts of suicide or even attempt suicide. Natural death can also occur to the remaining spouse; this is especially true if he or she provided intimate daily care to the deceased.
Most of the emotions listed hence forth, have been negative. Is it possible that a spouse might experience relief after the death of a spouse? It is difficult to understand, but yes, it is possible. What if the marriage was dysfunctional or abusive? What if the spouse who died was in poor health for years and was a chronic source of stress?
Is it possible that a spouse copes well after the death of their spouse? Yes, this is possible as well. It has been shown that older couples who define their marriage as satisfying often cope extremely well. This is because they look back at their marriage with contentment and believe that life is fair and that death is a natural part of life.
For many spouses, chronic grief is common; lasting up to 18 months, but then subsiding. Depression is also fairly common.
What can a surviving spouse do to cope?
- Maintain close relationships with family, friends, and others
- Avoid major life changes for one year to reduce added stress (For example: changing jobs, selling the house, relocating, or getting remarried)
- Maintain good health by getting plenty of rest, eating healthy foods (avoiding fast food) and have a routine for exercise (For example: walk the dog or join a local YMCA)
- Re-education (For example: how to manage finances if this wasn’t a typical role in marriage)
- Obtain professional grief counseling if needed
What if the spouse who is deceased was the caregiver? In this situation, not only do the adult children loose a parent, they must make immediate arrangements to care for the remaining parent (often placing him or her in an assisted living or nursing home). This of course, creates additional stress for the family.
On a personal note, I remember when my grandfather died. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and died only months later. I don’t recall a great deal about how my grandmother reacted (I was young and my grandmother lived in another state).
I do remember she kept a light blue summer weight pajama shirt of Papa’s hanging on the hook behind their bedroom door. It was there for a very long time. She couldn’t bear to remove it because that’s where he left it. After his death, when I visited her, she would often begin to cry and look at me and say, “I still miss him”. I remember saying, “its okay”.
Mourning is unique and takes time, maybe years. Be empathetic, be patient, and seek professional help when needed.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4808252.stm (BBC news: Spousal death ‘not so upsetting’, March 16, 2006)