How to cope with the loss of a partner

Reader's Digest Editors

Sadly, more than half of us will lose our partners by age 65. Here's our ultimate guide to coping with grief over the loss of your other half. 

When Debbie’s husband, John, died of pancreatic cancer at age 48, she and her two children were left with a sense of things unsaid. Death had come faster than any of them had expected, and for months afterwards she searched through John’s papers, pockets, and drawers hoping for some note that said good-bye. There was nothing.

Grief is hard. There is no easy way to move through it. Most of us who lose someone we love will feel bruised right down to our soul. We’ll feel worry, fear, sadness, guilt, anger, frustration, confusion, and loneliness.

Some psychologists say that those feelings are stages through which we move. But the truth is, moving through those stages is circular. We’ll begin to move on, spot a glove or a book left behind, and slip right back into a puddle of despair.

Read more: How to handle finances after the death of a loved one

 

A time of turbulent emotions

grief turbulent emotions

Unfortunately, a consequence of these uncontrollable feelings is something that makes it even harder to handle: Most of us simply don’t sleep.

We lie down, turn out the light, close our eyes—and our minds remain sharply alert. And when we finally slip into unconsciousness, we frequently wake through the night.

Disrupted sleep makes it harder to handle our grief, our lives, and even the day-to-day duties of making the bed or paying the bills. And it may also affect our health. In a study of 4,395 married couples at the University of Glasgow, for example, when one spouse died, the risk of the other spouse dying from anything ranging from heart disease, stroke, and cancer to accidents and violence increased by 27 per cent.

Read more: Things to know about coping with grief

 

Sucker-punched

Grief is most likely to be intense when something—a memory, a smell, a glimpse of mutual friends—unexpectedly catches you off guard.

“The anniversary dates and holidays that are anticipated and dreaded are very often not as bad as you might expect,” says Belleruth Naparstek, M.S., a therapist who lost her husband a couple of years ago. “But the first time you go to the cleaners and find your dead husband’s beautifully pressed shirts on hangers under the transparent plastic bag—that will take the breath out of you.”

When it happens, you’re guaranteed to toss and turn. But Naparstek suggests you don’t even try to avoid these lightning bolts of pain. “It’s better to feel the grief, breathe through it, and know this is what happens,” she says, explaining that it’s the only way to keep moving forward.

 

The biochemistry of grief

grief memories

Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact relationship between grief, sleep, and mortality. Right now all they really know is that grief seems to suppress the immune system and that there’s a huge rise in adrenaline in response to the death of someone you love.

“Adrenaline is the biochemical that causes sleep loss,” explains Cleveland therapist Belleruth Naparstek, M.S., who lost her husband, Art, a couple of years ago. “It’s triggered by intense loss, and in the case of a deceased spouse, also from survivor terror.”

Survivor terror comes from the sudden realisation that you are left with all the things your spouse used to do, she explains. Whatever it was—banking, cooking, investing, shopping—you’re the one who has to pick up the load and carry it. In most cases, you’ll do fine. In others, you’ll have a learning curve. And whether the responsibilities are doable or not, you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to get the time to integrate them into your already existing stack of responsibilities.

That alone can keep anybody charged up and highly adrenalised well into the night.

“Grief can also trigger a lot of circular thinking,” says Naparstek. The how-will-I-pay-the-mortgage thoughts. The how-will-I-raise-the-children thoughts. The what-should-I-have-done-differently thoughts. “Even if there’s no guilt involved,” she says knowingly, “you’re going to be thinking it.”

Trying to figure out how you relate to others after a loss will also keep your adrenaline pumping, she adds. “It’s not just that you’ve lost your place in the community as part of a couple, your own preferences change.” One-on-one girlfriend talks about issues you might have with your spouse are no longer the norm for you.

“Whether people do it to you or you do it to yourself,” she concludes, “there’s a whole realignment of your social network.”

"You spend energy fending off well-wishers, then stay up all night feeling like you’ve been assaulted"

The one thing that really kept Naparstek up, however, was all of the incredibly inappropriate or insensitive things people said. “Dealing with stupid people is huge,” says Naparstek. “Especially within the first year, when you’re feeling particularly skinless. ‘God doesn’t give you anything more than you can handle,’ ” she mimics. "Or 'It’s such a loss to the community.' Even, ‘Look at what you have to be thankful for.’ People who don’t even know you come up, wring their hands, look at you with pity, and make some insensitive remark,” she says in exasperation.

“You just want to smack them. One day I was in the gym reading the New York Times on the treadmill, and someone I knew only marginally came up to me and wanted me to ‘share my feelings.’ ”

Why do they do it? She sighs. “They’re terrified it’s going to happen to them, and they’re projecting their own anxiety. Or they always wanted to be your best friend and this is their opportunity.”

Either way, says the therapist, “you spend the energy fending them off, then stay up all night feeling like you’ve been assaulted.”

 

How can friends help?

Let your friends take some of the responsibility from your shoulders. You will sleep easier just knowing they’re willing to do whatever you need. Here’s some of what you can ask them to do:

  • Listen.
  • Don’t tell you things will get better.
  • Tell you things will get better.
  • Write thank you notes.
  • Answer the phone.
  • Share stories about your partner, especially funny ones.
  • Shuttle you around to banks, lawyers, and the funeral home.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Just sit beside you.

 

Do you need help?

do you need help

For the past several years an unfortunate claim from a psychology student’s paper has been floating around newspapers, magazines, and even some professional journals. It concludes that grief counselling or therapy with a trained therapist prolongs the grieving process and harms rather than helps.

What harms rather than helps is the misinformation. The truth, as acknowledged in reputable medical journals, is that grief counseling does help the bereaved move through the grieving process. And it’s particularly helpful for the 15 per cent of us who, for whatever reason, have gotten stuck in our grief and are unable to move on.

The warning signs that grieving has gone beyond normal bounds and signals you’re in need of a helping hand include:

  • A sense of emptiness
  • Feeling that part of you died along with the deceased
  • “Excessive” yearning for the deceased
  • An absence of grief
  • Delayed grief
  • Conflicted grief
  • Chronic grief
  • Avoiding reminders of the deceased
  • Continually thinking or dreaming of the deceased
  • Using alcohol or drugs to avoid painful feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you experience any of these symptoms, ask your doctor to recommend a local psychologist who is trained to offer grief therapy.