Lily and Jerry were married 43 years when she died at age 68 of cancer. In the weeks and months afterward, Jerry was grief-stricken, barely able to climb out of bed. “It was like someone knocked the sun out of the sky,” he said. Gradually, with help from a loving support system, Jerry adjusted to life as a widower.
April is Bereaved Spouses Awareness Month, dedicated to helping men and women whose spouses passed away. Losing a spouse is an intensely emotional experience. Although logically we know that lives come to an end, facing reality feels overwhelming.
Keep reading for suggestions on finding a support system, self-care, and other helpful suggestions after losing a spouse.
Why Experts Recommend a Support System
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), most people are more resilient than they realize. However, some people – often men more than women – struggle with expressing their emotions.
Everyone grieves at their pace and in their own ways. Sometimes grief becomes so intense that it threatens the surviving spouse’s emotional and physical health.
That’s why it’s beneficial to have a support system that includes adult children, other family members, close friends, and perhaps a grief counselor.
Grief counseling, sometimes called bereavement support, helps widows and widowers deal with the unique loss of a spouse. Individuals learn how to accept this loss and, over time, start a new life.
If your spouse was ill for a long time or you had a problematic relationship, you might have complex feelings after their passing. Guilt, anger, and even betrayal are normal emotions for a bereaved spouse. Meeting regularly with a psychologist, therapist, or grief counselor provides a safe, non-judgemental space to talk.
Complicated grief is prolonged and severe mourning that can result in emotional and physical decline.
Signs of complicated grief include:
- Constant, highly negative emotions
- Inability to find meaning in life without the loved one
- Avoiding places and people that remind them of their spouse
Having a support system, especially one with a trained professional, can identify signs of complicated grief. Some individuals benefit from medication with oversight from a medical professional.
Finding Support Groups for Bereaved Spouses
Along with friends, family members, and grief counselors, there are support groups specifically for people who have lost spouses. Hospice organizations provide bereavement support, even if your spouse wasn’t under their care.
You’ll find support groups online and in person. You might try a few meetings to find one you feel comfortable joining.
Other resources for locating support groups:
Self-care for Bereaved Spouses
Many individuals say that the first days and weeks after losing a loved one are blurred. You might have children or family members stay with you for a while. But when the pace slows and people return to their lives, you face the reality of an empty chair or unused side of the bed.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Mental health professionals stress that everyone proceeds through grief at their own pace.
Taking care of yourself might not feel important, but poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, and isolation only prolong sadness.
Meals & Nutrition
Cooking and eating alone is an adjustment when you’re used to sharing meals with a loved one. Watching TV or listening to music makes the kitchen less quiet. Home-delivered meal kits are proportionate. It might be more enjoyable to cook when there isn’t a pile of leftovers – or select a meal for two and invite a friend to dinner.
Sleeping & Rest
If you shared a bedroom with your spouse, sleeping alone for the first time feels strange and lonely. You might want to listen to sleep-inducing podcasts or soft music. Taking daytime naps might make up for sleepless nights, but take care not to interrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Activities & Exercise
Exercise creates endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers. Consider joining a gym, taking a fitness class, or asking a friend to be your exercise buddy. Even a fifteen-minute walk every morning and evening helps elevate your mood. Regular exercise stimulates your appetite, too, and may help you sleep more soundly.
The National Institute on Aging’s free program, Go4Life, helps people 50+ incorporate exercise and activity in their everyday lives.
Go Outside When Possible
Many people find solace in nature. Whether it’s a trip to a local park, a stroll on a beach, or a hike through a forest, spending time outside offers physical, emotional, and spiritual comfort. Spending a brief time in the sun – 20 minutes or so, with sunscreen – boosts your Vitamin D intake. Studies show a correlation between low levels of this essential element and depression.
Help Yourself by Helping Others
The loss of a spouse often means the loss of a mother or father. Helping your children deal with their passing also gives you an outlet for your feelings. Family members and friends are grieving also. Sharing stories and spending time together helps you and your loved ones.
Adjusting to Life Without Your Life Partner
Adjusting to life without your spouse takes time. Many married couples divide household chores. If your spouse always mowed the lawn, paid the bills, or cooked most meals, you might need to ask friends or family for help.
Living alone is a new and often bewildering situation for older individuals, people in a long-term marriage, or parents of minor children.
Help Is On the Way
The good news is that there are many resources and agencies for surviving spouses. Here are just a few.
- The National Council on Aging has partnerships and programs designed to assist older Americans, from home repairs to tax preparation.
- The AARP Foundation helps connect low-income seniors with nutrition, affordable housing, and social programs.
- Benefits.gov is an excellent resource for bereaved spouses who suddenly become single parents.
Getting Your Affairs in Order
Typically, married couples name each other as their agent for power of attorney, healthcare surrogates, and insurance beneficiaries. Eventually, you should update and revise these documents. Other legal and financial tasks may require attention when you feel strong enough.
You Might Need To:
- Update your will and advance care directive.
- Select a power of attorney agent to act on your behalf if you cannot make medical, legal, or financial decisions in the future.
- Update the beneficiaries of your trust, life insurance, bank accounts, and other assets.
- Switch jointly-owned property into your name.
- Cancel credit cards or accounts in your spouse’s name.
One significant element of getting your affairs in order includes end-of-life plans. You might want to choose the same option as your late spouse. Or, you might want to make different arrangements. For help, or to answer any questions you might have, find a ShareLife provider near you.
Remember, everyone feels and handles grief differently. Creating and leaning on your support system and taking care of yourself is crucial. If you feel you need more help, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional Bereavement Counselor or find grief support near you.