HOW TO RECOVER FROM THE DEATH OF A PARTNER
by Annie Gurton, Imago Relationship Therapist from Sydney’s Northern Beaches
Death of your partner is up there with the most traumatic things that could ever happen to you. It is devastating, and getting life back on track can take a long time. How fast often depends on how strong your friendships and community are, and how much you are aware of what is happening for you.
Grief and loss are a normal part of human experience. There are several stages to the process, and although these may happen differently for everyone, the process needs to be completed in its own time which is unpredictable. There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a partner, and no prescribed length although prolonged or utterly overwhelming grief for a long time is sometimes categorised as a mental health condition. Some people see unresolved grieving as a sign of the depth of the love, but hanging on to sorrowful feelings or failing to restore your own life after some time is no way to show your loss and sadness.
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Managing your own grief can be really challenging, but the loss is a reality that must be faced. A counsellor can offer you a candle to help you on the dark and mysterious path on which none of us come to this life fully equipped to travel. Keeping a grip on oneself requires courage, but it is necessary to be able to live unafraid through the dark period immediately following the loss, and in the years afterwards.
As well as courage, healthy grieving requires awareness, openness, and self support and support from others. For many people the loss of a partner may be the first time they have experienced grief and its power can be unexpected. When you are in the grip of it, you can believe you will never get through it and feel normal again. You are likely to feel unbelievably desolate and completely uninterested in other aspects of life. In the first few weeks it can be impossible to carry out normal tasks and the strength of others is required to carry you through. Slowly you will find that you can start to retake control of many aspects of your life but still you will need help and support from family and friends. Hopefully they are understanding and able to give this, but some people find it hard and may ignore you, not refer to your partner or offer unhelpful and glib advice. Often people just don’t know what to do, so try and excuse anyone who is crass – they may not know how to behave any better.
In the days immediately after the death there are practical things to be done and you will be kept busy. There are the funeral arrangements and distant friends and relatives to notify, and your personal obituary to write. This can be a chance to reflect and share on the good times, and can be helpful in the grieving process. Don’t try and hold back the tears or other emotional reactions. It is often helpful to go through personal effects, distribute some personal items and hold onto those which are precious. The important thing is not to deny the death or that the life that has ended, in fact I often recommend to clients that they start a shrine in memory of their deceased partner which will offer strength through the grieving process.
It is the weeks and months after the death and funeral that are really hard. This is when the reality really sets in, and there is often much spontaneous crying at unexpected moments; this is normal. Slowly, slowly, nature takes over and the loss becomes a little more manageable until one day you will realise that you haven’t thought of your loved one for the last day.
Whenever we are affected by a death we tend to make decisions or resolutions about our own lives. Often these are made at a time of stress and can profoundly affect our future. You may say, ‘I will never love again,’ or promise that ‘next time I’ll be more …’ or you may decide to move to a new town and make a ‘fresh start’ because there are constant memories of the lost partner. However sincere or well-intentioned these statements are, its probably best to wait some months before carrying them through. When we make decisions when we are stressed and vulnerable, our judgement is often impaired. It is better to just focus on positive thoughts and happy memories to create a helpful environment and mental flexibility. It is too easy to get stuck in a mindset such as ‘I’ll never find such a love again’ which can hold back your healing. Although it seems like a respectful memorial to our dead loved one, and in the intensity of the pain immediately after the loss loving again seems unlikely, making such as resolution can hold you back from finding happiness again.
Here are some suggestions for healthy grieving:
1. ALLOW YOURSELF TO GRIEVE. Crying, and persistent and overwhelming sad, sad thoughts are normal. So is pain in your heart, and an inability to think of anything except your loss. I believe that having a shrine to your dead partner which includes photographs and items that remind you of them and happy times can be helpful – go to it everyday and sit there for a while. After a few weeks start to reduce the number of days each week that you use the shrine, until it is once a week. After the first year you might want to only go to the shrine once a month, and then not at all. This is all healthy.
2. FIND YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM. Identify those people who are most helpful and those who are unable to give you what you need. Reaching out to others and accepting support is often difficult, particularly when you hurt so much. But the most compassionate self-action you can take at this difficult time is to find caring friends and relatives who will provide the understanding you need. Seek out those persons who will ‘walk with,’ not ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’ you in your journey through grief. Find out if there is a support group in your area that you might want to attend. There is no substitute for learning from other persons who have experienced the death of their spouse.
3. AVOID PEOPLE WHO ARE CRITICAL OR WHO TRY TO STEAL YOUR GRIEF FROM YOU. They may tell you ‘time heals’ or ‘you will get over it’ or ‘keep your chin up.’ While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. Find those people who encourage you to be yourself and acknowledge your feelings-both happy and sad. You have a right to express your grief; no one has the right to take it away.
4. TALK OUT YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. Don’t try to repress anything, but express your grief openly. It is when you share your grief that healing takes place. Discuss your feelings of loss and loneliness, and the things you miss about your spouse. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your grief or think that because it may be uncomfortable for others that you might have to hide it. When you share your grief outside yourself, healing occurs. Allow yourself to talk about the circumstances of the death, your feelings of loss and loneliness, and the special things you miss about your spouse. Talk about the type of person your husband or wife was, activities that you enjoyed together, and memories that bring both laughter and tears. Speak from your heart, not from your head – it is a normal part of the grief journey and doesn’t mean you are ‘losing control’ or going crazy’.
5. BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF DURING HOLIDAYS, ANNIVERSARIES AND SPECIAL OCCASIONS. You will probably find that some days make you miss your spouse more than others. Days, events, and places that held special meaning for you as a couple may be particularly difficult for you to go through. These events and places emphasise the absence of your loved one and can reawaken painful emotions that may trigger more intense grief that leaves you feeling drained. Don’t try to take away the hurt – try to learn from these feelings, and use your support group to get through.
Although the death of a spouse can be the most overwhelming emotional experience so far in your life, it can be a point of growth and change. If you have experienced previous loss then you may have more resilience to cope with it this time, and you will know that eventually you will overcome it. You may start writing, or start a project in memory of the dead person which ends up benefitting others.