When you lose a spouseWritten by Wendy Kittlitz
Losses are not rated on a continuum, but for those who have been blessed with a loving, healthy marriage, losing a spouse is perhaps the deepest loss of all.
Jordan’s wife had a chronic underlying illness, yet no one expected it to take her life just 20 years into their marriage.
Cora’s husband was larger than life – loved by all and cherished by his wife and family. Everyone was stunned when he suddenly died one day, not the least of whom was his devastated wife.
Daryl’s wife of over 30 years was diagnosed with cancer and they fought together bravely for almost two years before the Lord took her home.
Nearly 25 years ago, my friend and her recently widowed dad sat in my kitchen. I have not forgotten his determined assertion: “I have decided to make it my work to intentionally grieve the loss of my wife.” I was so impressed by his courage and his purposefulness. The grief was quite overwhelming at times, he acknowledged, but he determinedly spent time journaling, talking, processing, remembering and intentionally walking through the pain of his very deep loss. They’d had a very loving relationship and he deeply missed her. After a significant time spent doing the work of grieving, he emerged ready to find love again and went on to remarry and have a long and satisfying second marriage.
No two people’s grief experience is the same, but I believe there is an initial task that all grievers need to do if they want to process loss in a healthy way:
Tell your story, repeatedly, to safe people. Safe people are those who will let you just tell your story without judging it or trying to fix it.
Telling your story is unique to you – what happened? How did you feel? What did he/she say or do? Who else was part of the story? How did you feel about what others did or did not do, or say or not say? Each detail matters and telling and retelling it is a way to process what has occurred. Each retelling lifts a tiny bit of the burden. It changes nothing externally, but it changes how you sit with the experience.
As you do the hard work of grieving, here are a few more important things to remember:
There is no “right” timeline for grieving. Take the time you need and proceed at your own pace. Resist those who would suggest that you should be “over it” by now. Every individual and every relationship are different. Honour that. In many respects, the closer you and your spouse were, likely the longer you may need to fully grieve their loss – this is natural and deeply honouring of the bond you shared.
Expect a range of emotions – that is normal. Anger, sadness, depression, loneliness, despair, blaming, the list goes on. Tears are necessary as you feel the intense pain of loss. Don’t be afraid of them or apologize for them. Some days you will smile and laugh and feel almost normal again. Sit with the feelings but don’t get overwhelmed by them. Writing can be very helpful as you process. Speaking with a trusted friend, a pastor or even a counsellor can also help when you are beginning to feel overwhelmed.
Take care of your health. You might be surprised by the physical manifestations of grief. Fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, greater vulnerability to germs and loss of energy are all symptoms commonly experienced. Make a point of trying your best to take good care of yourself. Slow down, eat good food, nap, exercise, take your vitamins, take time off work if you need it.
There will be triggers you can anticipate but there will be others you will not. Your loved one’s birthday, a special holiday or even the anniversary of their loss will be tough days. Think ahead by asking yourself, “Would I prefer to be alone or with others?” “Is there something special I/we could do to remember?” “Is there a special place I’d like to go to spend this day?” Plan when you can, not to distract yourself but to make the day meaningful, even if it’s hard. Other triggers will occur unexpectedly – a song, a casual comment, a place, a memory that appears out of nowhere. This can happen even years after the loss. Notice it, sit with the feelings, shed some tears or take time to remember.
Find or build a support system. You will need others. Some, like family, will be deeply sharing your pain, but remember that you are each processing differently, so make space for each other. But you will also need people a step further away, like a friend, spiritual leader, counsellor and/or support groups. We highly recommend a program called GriefShare which is offered through many local churches. A video curriculum coupled with discussions often led by people who have been in your shoes provide some compassionate companionship on your journey.
Hold on to hope. A researcher at Harvard University found that people coping with challenging life events usually did better than they anticipated they would. While it may not feel like it in the early days, you will find a way through this pain. Dr. H. Norman Wright says that people who deal best with trauma do so because:
- They see the event as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.
- They’re optimistic.
- They connect with people.
- They use their spiritual resources.
Immediately after the death of a spouse, remarrying is most often the last thing on people’s minds, but just a quick word about this. It is reported that 60 per cent of men who are widowed and 20 per cent of women will remarry after losing their spouse. Doing the hard work of grief, whether or not you think that will be part of your story, will be a significant investment in a possible new relationship.
Finally, find comfort in God’s promises:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
If you are struggling with the grief of losing your spouse and would like to speak with someone, contact our care team today to schedule a free, one-time phone consultation with one of our in-house counsellors. Call 1.800.661.9800 Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Wendy Kittlitz is the vice-president of counselling and care ministries for Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox