The death of a spouse is a major life-event. Not only does it induce painful emotions, but also brings uncertainty about your future and how to cope without your partner. However, you’re not alone in this experience. Although it’s a tough process, your grief will pass, and you can find new meaning in your life moving forward.
Whether you’re struggling with or avoiding your grief, it will inevitably catch up to you. However, there are healthy ways to cope with the loss of your spouse. Acknowledging your grief, leaning on your supports, tending to your wellbeing, and engaging in new endeavors can all be helpful throughout this process. Keep in mind: just as healing takes time, so does discovering the things that can facilitate your recovery.
Here are 13 tips for dealing with the death of a spouse:
1. Acknowledge & Allow Your Grief
Avoiding your grief can be a temporary means of coping with the loss of your spouse, but ignoring it could make things worse. Eventually, your intense sorrow will resurface, perhaps even stronger. That is why facing your grief is an essential component to your healing and restoration process. While it may be challenging to acknowledge your feelings of anguish and emptiness, this basic step can encourage you to intentionally work through your discomfort and begin your journey of recovery.
2. Talk About It
Talking about your grief can be difficult, yet it can taper off some of your emotional burden. Initially, you may not feel like it or even know what to say. You could also find yourself in a spot in which you have no other choice but to talk to your children about death. Nevertheless, coming up with the words can get easier, and you’ll be able to discuss your grief openly. This may be done with a close friend, in a group of people also experiencing grief, or in a professional setting like grief therapy. Expressing yourself freely with people who care and in a place that feels safe can help you make sense of your loss, and perhaps view it from a different angle.
3. Allow Yourself to Mourn in Your Own Way
It is important that you let yourself feel the mixed emotions brought on by your spouse’s death, while also honoring your grief and their memory. Consider creating grief rituals, forming new traditions, or finding ways to deal with grief during the holidays and other difficult times like death anniversaries in advance. Cry if you need to, light a candle in your spouse’s name, look at pictures (when you’re ready), or talk about funny moments from when your spouse was alive. There is no specific way to mourn, because your experience is unique to you. What’s most important is that you’re able to channel your anguish and grief-related distress in a healthy and meaningful way.
4. Rely on Your Loved Ones for Support
Identify areas in your life that demand attention, and reach out to a close friend or relative who you know you can rely on and is best suited for the tasks. Your loved ones can be a great source of support during moments in which you need encouragement, or simply don’t have the physical or emotional energy to make decisions, problem-solve, or tend to daily responsibilities.
Some examples of this include:
- Venting with a relative who’s an empathetic listener
- Relying on a family friend who’s willing or knows someone to assist in making funeral arrangements, going over legal and financial paperwork, etc.
- Accepting meals from those who offer
- Allowing a loved one to help or recommend a person who can take care of household chores
5. Set Realistic Expectations
Understanding what you are capable of and what your limitations are can be helpful. You may need all your strength to focus on what’s right in front of you, and that is okay. It is equally as important that you recognize any unhealthy outlets, and know when to distance yourself from those who aren’t helpful or are harming your emotional healing.
6. Take Care of Yourself While Grieving Your Spouse
Grief is bound to impact your emotional and physical health. Thus, it is vital that you find the appropriate forms of self-care. Focus on activities and habits that will maintain and/or nurture your overall wellbeing, such as eating nutritiously, engaging in regular physical activity, getting plenty of sleep, and practicing mindfulness or meditation. Be sure to keep up with doctor’s appointments, too. Taking care of your entire wellness can provide you with the necessary strength to cope with your grief and start recovering.
7. Journal Your Grief
Journaling is typically recommended as an effective tool to ease grief and express it externally. Although it may feel challenging to revisit your trauma and loss, the act of journaling can serve as a purging method to release your emotions. This will further allow you to process your grief and assist you in reducing the intensity of your distress. If you are not sure where to begin, try using grief journaling prompts.
8. Share Your Story
When you experience the loss of a spouse, you’re also losing a part of yourself and your once anticipated future. Storytelling allows you to reflect on your life with your spouse and help you maintain a connection with them. Many people have found expressive writing to be cathartic. They may even go as far as writing essays, memoirs, or books. Plastering your story on paper gives you the space to healthily grieve as you relive special moments and maintain a bond with your loved one, even after death.6,8
Engaging in volunteer work can enhance our mental health and overall happiness. What’s more, volunteering may be rewarding when you get involved with a cause close to your heart, or are helping others who are grieving, too. Thus, you may experience a new sense of purpose by engaging with something beyond yourself. Furthermore, this offers an opening to a healthy pathway to distract yourself from your own suffering.
10. Let Major Decisions Wait If You Can
When that person is gone it can be a time of shock and you can feel overwhelmed and uncertain about how to cope and what to do next. After such a huge loss people should refrain from making any major life choices or big decisions. When people are grieving it is a highly emotional time, often with interrupted sleep and routines, which can negatively impact judgment and clear thinking. Grief experts recommend you wait six months to a year before you make major decisions if possible. This gives you time to begin to try to adjust, heal, and get a sense of what the “new normal” in your life is going to begin to look like. You don’t want to make impulsive choices when you are working through your grief. This is a common mistake that is made and may cause regrets in hindsight.
11. Make Plans & Be Active When You’re Ready
A recent study looked at the importance of physical activity as a means of helping with grief. They concluded that activity was able to provide benefits to people who are grieving a loss, especially if they’re outdoor activities, team events, or promote mindfulness and relaxation.9 This study confirms that, when you feel ready, it’s important to resume some level of activity as a means of coping with your grief.
Here are examples of things to do to promote your physical and mental health when you feel ready:
- Take a walk alone or with a close friend or family member
- Visit a beautiful, peaceful place like a garden or some place in nature
- Do yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises
- Go for a bike ride
- Attend an exercise class you have participated in
- If you do team sports like tennis, bowling, or pickleball, return to one of their events
12. Update Your Legal & Financial Paperwork
Many couples choose to divide responsibilities and roles. It is important to understand your legal and financial status after the death of a spouse, especially if the spouse who died was in charge of these areas of your life. There also may be time frames associated with organizing some of your records, like filing for life insurance.
Reach out to your lawyer and financial planner to discuss topics like how to update records, real estate, stocks and bonds, and bank accounts that were jointly owned. You may need help organizing and gathering your paperwork. You must understand your financial status, short and long term income, and expenses. This is a challenging task and can feel overwhelming, but try to tackle it as soon as you can, relying on expert help as needed.
13. Get a Pet
Studies show that pets can make people happier by decreasing the production of a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is responsible for elevating stress levels that often occur when grieving. Research shows that pets increase hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, all elevating happiness. Pets also help lower blood pressure because they make people feel good.
Here are other ways pets can help to cope with grief:
- Pets like dogs and cats can offer unconditional love and comfort. They are always available for a hug or cuddle.
- Pets require care which means it will offer some structure to your day in terms of feeding them and cleaning up after them. Dogs need to go for walks, necessitating moments of exercise and socialization.
- Our pets provide companionship, reducing loneliness.
- Pets give you something positive to focus on other than yourself.
- Caring for your pets can give you a sense of purpose each day.
Dealing With Complicated Grief After Losing a Spouse
Complicated grief resembles normal grief, except someone who develops this condition experiences grief more severely and persistently. Individuals with complicated grief suffer so deeply that they can get “stuck,” leaving them unable to process their loss and resume their lives. Complicated grief is also associated with high rates of suicidal thoughts, health-related issues like cancer and heart problems, and substance or alcohol use, among other challenges.4,5,6,7
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense, prolonged grief, sorrow, and longing
- Inability to find meaning or life purpose after a loss
- Feeling excessive negative emotions like sorrow, anger, or bitterness
- Extreme disbelief or confusion about the death
- Identity/role confusion, or feeling as though a part of oneself has died
- Avoiding anything related to the deceased
- Trouble reintegrating into ongoing life and/or social interests
- Emotional numbness
- Intense loneliness and disconnected from others
How Counseling Can Help You Grieve Your Spouse
You may be having difficulty processing the loss of your spouse, and feel completely devastated. At this point, reaching out for emotional support or professional help can assist you in coping and possibly prevent your grief from turning into something more serious. This is especially so if you have a history of a mental health condition or are at risk of developing one.2,3,5,7
Some therapy and supportive options to deal with the loss of a spouse include:2,3,5,7
- Individual therapy: In-person or online psychotherapy can help you address grief issues. These professionals utilize a variety of evidenced based techniques, one of such is cognitive restructuring. This teaches the person how to identify maladaptive grief-related thoughts and beliefs, so these can be reframed. The goal is to encourage acceptance of the loss, reduce avoidance, and develop more adaptive responses.
- Complicated grief treatment: This structured method consists of three phases focusing on adapting to a loss and resolving grief. This specialized therapy is beneficial for those undergoing more severe and complex grief concerns. It encourages people to face their loss, while offering effective strategies to restore overall functioning.
- Faith-based counseling: This form of therapy is typically provided by a professional who is educated in theology, as well as psychology. It follows the usual therapeutic model, while also incorporating religious or spiritual interventions in treatment. Pastoral counseling may be good for grievers who are seeking spiritual advice or religiosity in their psychotherapy.
- Grief counseling: Grief counseling may also be found through less formal settings that center around grief/loss education and fostering emotional support. This type of bereavement support can be facilitated through a peer group (of people who have suffered a similar loss), a pastoral counselor, or other professional who hasn’t completed formal studies in behavioral health.
- Support Groups: Whether in-person or on-line, a bereavement group can provide social connection and help you feel less alone. These can be facilitated by a professional as a part of group therapy, or by peers in a casual setting. What’s key is that you feel comfortable in this atmosphere, and that it endorses healthy ways to cope with your loss without judgment.
Finding a Therapist
If you are ready to take this step, browsing through an online directory where you can find the right therapist can be a great place to start, or you could ask your primary care provider or a trusted loved one for a referral. You can also consider other types of support that may not be offered by a credentialed specialist, but can enable you to effectively work through your loss and lessen the intensity of your anguish, like a grief support group.
Facing a life-changing event like the loss of your spouse is devastating. How you experience your grief is very personal and it’s okay to cope with this at your own pace. While it’s normal to struggle through your bereavement, there are healthy ways to recover. If you’re grappling with grief, remember to practice self-care and seek social and professional support.