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By: Jane Milardo, LMFT

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girl under the sunlightThe loss of a spouse is something we rarely think about when we get married, but the reality is that one day, one must pass away first, and the other will be a widow/er. These words are unlikely to be spoken for quite some time, if ever, as most people don’t want to think about this reality, let alone discuss it with their spouse!

But at some point in time it’s best to discuss it, as by doing so we can appropriately protect our spouse and our family in the event of our death. For example, by purchasing life insurance, assigning each other as our beneficiaries and powers of attorney, and by drawing up wills. Once these things are done, the loss of a spouse is something we then avoid thinking about until that time comes, so we put it on the back burner and go on living our lives. Until, that is, that day comes when we actually have to face the loss of our spouse.

It can be expected, or sudden and unexpected death, and the experiences of grief are very different between the two. They can’t be compared to one another. There are many ways in which one can become a widow/er. If you lost your spouse after a long illness, you may not understand why the person who just lost their spouse in an accident can’t accept what happened. On the other hand, if your spouse suddenly died, you may find the person who lost their spouse after a long fight with cancer to be too calm, when you think they ought to be in shock. The two can’t understand one another, because they have had two very different experiences. Both have suffered a loss, but it’s not the same thing.

Expected Death

If your spouse develops cancer or some other life-threatening condition, you must begin to think about their impending loss, sometimes years before it actually happens! Privately, you worry about the suffering your spouse is going through, how to care for them, how to pay medical and household bills, and how to manage everything while your spouse is sick. Suddenly you’re in charge of it all, and your spouse needs you to be there for them as well.

The illness could go on for years; a slow, progressive worsening of their condition, requiring more and higher levels of care. Meanwhile, you are watching the person you had planned on being with forever slowly fade away. Your role becomes that of a caretaker, and everyone is calling you about your spouses’ condition, from the primary care doctor to the specialists, the pharmacy, the hospital, the insurance company, the visiting nurse, the occupational therapist, the physical therapist, the social worker, and so on. The list seems to go on forever. The calls and letters never seem to stop. With all this on your mind, you may have trouble sleeping, and you might even forget to eat! The last person you’re thinking about is you.

You fear for your spouse, and how it’s going to all end, perhaps going over and over in your mind how you imagine their death will be. Your imagination takes you to the worst case scenarios, and waves of sadness come over you again and again. You cry, then your resolve to do something about it, you try, things get worse despite your efforts, and finally you fall into despair. What you may not realize is this: you’re already grieving the loss of your spouse.

Grieving often begins long before the actual death occurs, particularly if the dying has a condition or illness that results in an excruciatingly slow decline. Since you have no way of knowing when the end will come, you’re always in a state of mental preparedness. You’re always grieving. Your thoughts go from valiant efforts to save them, to miracle cures, to different specialists, but the prognosis is still the same. Anger sweeps over you, and a sense of helplessness envelops you. You can’t believe this is happening and you can’t, you won’t accept it! But as the weeks turn into months, and the months turn into years, you are forced to face the inevitable, and despair comes over you again. Eventually you lose all hope in a different outcome, and you live, it seems, in a continual sadness that feels like a weight you can’t put down.

Difficult as these months and years are, what you need to realize is that once your spouse actually passes away, the weight will be lifted. Sometimes you even feel relieved, and incredibly guilty for even having that thought! It seems totally selfish of you, but it’s not. It’s alright to be relieved that the long journey is over for them, as well as for you. While you feel a profound sense of loss, at the same time you realize that it’s not as hard to bear, knowing that your partner is no longer suffering. When my own father passed away after suffering the effects of heart problems and strokes for six long years, I remember heaving a sigh of relief, and then it occurred to me that I had already grieved! This came as a surprise, until I thought about how long I had already felt saddened, and how long I had prepared myself for this. It was time to let go.

If your loved one passed away after a long illness and you feel relief, even freedom, that doesn’t make you a bad person. You’ve been expecting this for a long time, you’ve been grieving the whole time, and you may be nearly done. This is a common experience for widow/ers who endure long-term suffering along with their loved ones. You also may be more ready to move on than other widow/ers who didn’t go through the same experience. That’s ok too. You may be ready to make new plans for your life, such as move, or even start a new relationship. That doesn’t make you a bad person either. For example, if your spouse died of Alzheimer’s, you may feel as though you actually lost them years ago, even while they were still alive. You’ve actually been on your own a great deal longer than it might seem. All these thoughts and responses are normal, not selfish. Give yourself permission to open yourself up to where you go from here.

Sudden Death

In stark contrast, if you experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of your spouse, you’re unprepared, in shock and disbelief, full of turbulent emotions, or just numb. There’s no way to prepare for this. One day the two of you were planning for your retirement, and the next, all plans have changed. One day you were hopeful for the future, and the next, all bets are off. Your world was turned upside down. Nothing made sense. People were talking to you in the ambulance, at the hospital, or on the phone, but you couldn’t believe your ears. It may have been a heart attack, a stroke, or an auto accident. If your spouse died as a result of foul play or suicide, these are special circumstances that most people never experience, and you’ll need the support of others who know what it’s like. Your doctor or clergyman may be able to direct you. Some causes of sudden death are understandable, and some you may never fully understand.

If your spouse died suddenly and unexpectedly, there is a range of responses you may feel, all of which are normal. Some people block all emotions that are too powerful to bear, and the experience is one of numbness, going through the motions of daily activities but not really feeling present. Other people become paralyzed by the horror of what has happened, and the memories of the event become burned into their mind, repeating themselves over and over again. Anything that is a reminder of the event can trigger the same emotions that occurred when it actually happened, and it’s as though it’s happening over and over again. Nightmares are common, and waking up in a panic can occur. Depression can suddenly take you over, and it seems as though you can’t stop crying. The psychological pain is so acute that you feel it all over your body, your throat may constrict, your head may pound, your chest may hurt like your heart is actually broken. Suddenly, you don’t care about anything, you have no energy for daily life. You could temporarily lose all ability to function. Again, if this has happened to you, know they’re all normal responses to sudden death.

In addition to the plethora of emotions, there is also internal conflict. You may question yourself, wondering if you did everything you could have done. What if you had been there sooner? Why didn’t you see this coming? You should have done something differently to prevent this from happening! Maybe it’s all your fault.

Except, of course, that it’s not your fault. You didn’t know, you couldn’t have known, so you couldn’t have done anything differently or changed the outcome. You were powerless over the event that happened. You think; I should have done this or that. “Should” is a dangerous word. It’s a judgmental word. And who is really in a position to judge? You had no idea this was coming. Obviously, had you known, the outcome may have been different, but since you couldn’t have known, neither could you have changed the outcome. Therefore, there is no reason to beat yourself up about something you had absolutely no control over. You must forgive yourself, and if you can’t forgive, you must work on letting go.

Conclusion

It’s important for us all to realize that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. One person’s response can be entirely different from another’s. There are no rules for what’s normal or not normal. How one feels depends on the type of loss that occurred (expected or unexpected), one’s mental and emotional health, support system (or lack of), faith in a higher power, or absence of faith, the quality of the relationship one had with the deceased, and the confluence of all these factors.

Therefore, it’s best to focus on your own experience and find others who share or understand it, rather than compare yourself favorably or unfavorably with others. We are all entitled to our own feelings, and feelings are neither right nor wrong, they are just feelings. You can’t compare apples to oranges. So allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, without judging yourself, and don’t expect everyone else to feel like you. The most important thing to do is connect, through clergy, a bereavement counselor, or best of all, a bereavement group, because bereavement is a nearly universal experience, and is less painful when there is a sense of connection to others who understand.

The following are resources to help you connect with others who have experienced the sudden and traumatic loss of a spouse:

• connect.legacy.com/inspire/coping-with-sudden-death
• www.suddendeath.org
• Healing After The Suicide of a Loved One by Ann Smolin and John Guinan (Simon and Schuster) – books.simonandschuster.com/Healing-After-the-Suicide-of-a-Loved-One/Ann-Smolin/9780671796600

Resources for those who have experienced a long grief journey can be found at the website of the Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org, as well as at www.agingcare.com/Articles/grieving-before-death-terminally-ill-116037.htm.

If you have questions or comments, email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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