Death of Your Life's Partner Finding Your Footing After Loss
By Judy Strong
An older couple, let's call them Ed and Marilyn, were deep into a relaxed and enjoyable retired life when illness threatened their security. Changes in Marilyn’s behavior had been noticeable over a few month’s time, and a dizzy spell and subsequent fall landed them in the emergency room. It was discovered that Marilyn had a brain tumor and the prognosis was not good. Surgery would give Marilyn some extra time, but she had less than a year to live. Her remaining months were spent at home in hospice care, with her devoted husband making her as comfortable as possible.
After Marilyn died, Ed found himself barely able to function within or outside their home. Family was not near, and friends and neighbors had ceased visiting on a regular basis. The quality of Ed’s life plummeted and it was months before he mustered the courage to seek out a grief group for help.
Within a long-term relationship lies the indelible imprint of dependent living. Not a helplessness, but a sense of reliance on someone who has been at your side for many years. That someone knows you as well as you know yourself. He/she can finish your sentences, anticipate your needs, and predict your choices in basic matters. Your better half knows you so well, in fact, that she can speak for you on almost any subject, and often does.
When death claims the life of one partner in such a relationship, much more than a person’s life is lost; the nucleus of the other’s life is permanently changed. The two lives had become so intertwined that one simply can’t live without the other. The deep sense of loneliness is unbearable for the survivor, and regaining your footing seems an insurmountable task.
In addition to the emotional upheaval of loss and loneliness, other problems become apparent to the newly bereaved. Cognitive abilities are compromised, making it difficult to think clearly about practical issues. Physical maladies also can occur, causing a general tiredness and genuine aches and pains. And the everyday demands of early grief, that includes notifying people, planning a service, and handling legal and financial matters, takes its toll on mind and body. Ed coped as best he could with his situation, but found he couldn’t sleep, he began to lose weight, and rarely left the house, feeling no need to socialize.
There are solutions for these common, yet difficult problems that people face. They are simple in nature, but can be hard to implement.
While suffering the early pain of loss and sadness, the bereaved are also faced with a society that wants them to grieve and move forward too quickly. Though friends and neighbors care, they have busy lives and, after a few weeks, no longer call as often or stop by to visit.
An effective and loving remedy to the isolation and loneliness requires only a small commitment of time by a few persons. Offering ongoing comfort and support over the next few months would make a significant difference in the mourning process. Listening, affirming feelings, and initiating social outings give the griever an opportunity to stay connected to life, while gradually letting go of their loved one.
An article in Nursing, Jul92,Vol. 22 Issue 7, “When a Spouse Dies,” by Richard E. Waltman, M.D. states that “Our society doesn’t let older persons grieve adequately and doesn’t help them handle the ongoing strong feelings they have about their departed mate.”
In fact, we’re uncomfortable with all things related to death, dying, and bereavement. However, all will benefit if we begin to take a positive look at the subject, and exercise patience and kindness. For someone in Ed’s situation, seeking out a friend, a counselor, or a small grief group, will serve to give him an opportunity for expression, and connect him with those who understand sadness and loss. Being assured there are no parameters on the mourning process relieves him of the sense of urgency to “get on with his life.” For those wishing to help, getting out of our own comfort zone will lead to better pain management for survivors, and a more realistic view for those saying goodbye and moving forward. The healing process is nurtured by those who ask about the deceased person and help them to remember, not forget.
The end of a long-term relationship also brings with it everyday problems that may be eased or solved by extended family members, if they are close by. For Ed, living alone brought more problems and stress to contend with. He now had to do all the domestic chores his spouse had done, including house cleaning, meals, and laundry. There were financial and legal issues, and decisions about what to keep and what to give away. Trying to maintain his sense of balance was increasing his anguish, as Ed tried to keep up with the demands of the household, and at the same time, cope with his emotions. Asking for help is not easy, especially for men, but the time comes when an extra pair of hands is necessary. If there is no one to pitch in, hiring someone is a reasonable choice, whether it be a cleaning service, or inquiring about a reliable teenager. Whereas women generally approach learning new skills optimistically, following loss, studies show that men dislike even the thought of domestic chores. (Housing Studies; Nov,2009,Vol. 24 Issue 6, p737-753).
Men and women respond differently to grief issues, women generally being better able to connect with people and manage the everyday responsibilities. They also are more likely to have friends who are single. However, they may have difficulty handling the legal and financial matters that arise following a death.
Men may feel awkward in social situations because their wives usually planned their activities, and invited friends to the home. The man who is retired from his life’s work and has lost his long-time partner is at loose ends and doesn’t know where to begin. For either of these persons, bereavement will be a painful process, and should be given the time that it needs.
Being open about your needs and feelings, connecting with people who are receptive, getting help when you need it, and seeking support from others who are grieving, will help to put your feet on solid ground. With hope and confidence you can begin to live the new life that emerges.