When grieving a spouse, listen to your heart.
Everyone’s grief process is unique because the loved one was unique and your relationship with them was unique, so no one way to grieve is possible to describe. However, there are a few general ideas that I have found, based on my personal experience, that helped me and might help you in your own process.
As background I will say that my Bob died in Nov. 2022 after being ill. His passing was relatively quick (a couple of weeks) and I was blessed to be with him all along the way. What I have to share is based on my own experience and observations. I hope they will help others.
I think that the death of a spouse is the hardest loss except for the death of a child. I have lost friends, relatives and parents and this grieving process is different and harder for me than any of those. I also feel that every death amplifies the next one. If you have lost a loved one, the death of a spouse will be greater since it triggers the remembrance of the earlier losses.
So here is what I have learned:
Listen to your heart. It will tell you what is best for you.
Take your time. There are some things that need to be done quickly, such as funeral arrangements, legal documents, etc. But with everything else take your time. Take time to let go, to feel your loss, to learn what is there to learn. Allow yourself to deepen.
Don’t be too eager to get rid of everything. There is an impulse to “clean up” and be finished as if that will also end the pain. But do so with care. Otherwise there will be regrets. Your heart will tell you if you are really ready to get rid of your loved ones possessions. For me, I was ready to get rid of Bob’s books, videos, things like that, but when it came to his thermal underwear it was too personal. As time went by I was able to get rid of some of his clothes but also kept some. I know as more time passes (it has only been three months so far) I will be ready to get rid of more. But I constantly remind myself that I don’t have to get rid of anything until it feels right. I may end up keeping a few things forever.
Be kind to yourself. That doesn’t mean sit and watch sad movies eating bon bons. You may need that a bit but mostly being kind to yourself means taking care of your body and spirit. No matter how hard it feels, be sure to eat at least one nutritious meal every day. Drink your water. Do your best to get enough sleep. Fit in some exercise. Find a time for mediation, prayer or deep thoughts. Honoring the needs of your body will help support your grieving process.
You can feel more than one feeling at a time. Some people feel like any joy will dishonor the loss of their loved one. But in reality, most of those who have passed would want us, those left behind, to live our lives fully and have joy. It is possible to have a deep, sorrowing loss and still find joy and laughter in life at the same time. Taking in those positive moments and letting in the joy and love will help support the healing of the loss.
When you feel your worst, do something kind for some one else. It really helps. You can find your own way to do this. For me it has been through writing this blog and doing crafting and tech projects. Some things I have done included; making a quilt from Bob’s old shirts to give to his mother, making a rag rug from his worn out t-shirts for his sister, making a tote bag from his worn out jeans for his niece, digitizing all my photos of him and putting all of them on a memory stick for his family to have, putting videos of him playing his music on Youtube for all his friends to see, and making a video of his photos and music for his memorial. These are my personal strengths that I could use to remember him and help those he loved. You will find your own ways. Perhaps by volunteering for a food bank, or doing a fundraising run for a cause your loved one liked. Listen to your heart and it will tell you how you can help.
Find ways to remember how your loved one lived. Especially if you were with them at the end or viewed them after death, it is important to change the picture to one of life. It takes away some of the trauma of that final view. For me, I put pictures of Bob all over the house so I could see his living smile all the time. As time went on I took some away but I still have one in the kitchen. I change out the picture ever so often and I look at it many times a day. It also serves as a focal point for me when I want to talk to him.
Watch for little signs from your loved one. Some do dramatic things (my father turned on the vacuum cleaner in the other room to let my mother know he was there) and others are more subtle. Bob and I had a silly joke between us about dinosaurs. A month after he passed, I was walking through the store, looking at the Christmas decorations and there, in the middle of it all, was a stuffed dinosaur. (I bought it.) To me that was a clear sign from Bob. Signs like that are reassuring.
Many people worry about their loved one and what happened to them after they died. Having this worry only compounds the pain of the loss. My personal feeling is that our loved ones go to a place of love and joy and their only worry is how we are doing. You don’t have to agree with this. But what I suggest is that if this is a concern for you, you talk to your religious leader, a grief counselor, an experienced friend or read some of the many books that talk about the afterlife. When my brother lost his wife, he (a non religious person and a scientist) wanted facts to help him understand what had happened to her. He read many books and came to an understanding that made sense to him.
Fuzzy brain is normal. I suggest writing things down and letting lists do your remembering. I found it was sometimes hard to remember who I had told, what I had already done, etc. and so sometimes I did things more than once and sometimes something got left out.
Disbelief is normal. Even after holding Bob while he died I still have moments when I wonder if it was really real and what happened to all the love and life that was in him. If you experience this you aren’t going crazy. It’s part of the process.
It’s okay to get mad. Sometimes there is anger at God for taking the person. Sometimes there is anger at the loved one for going. Getting mad is okay. I believe God is big enough to take it and still love you. I believe your loved one is in a place where they see the big picture and will only feel compassion for your hurt. So go ahead and feel the anger so you can move through it to the other side.
Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears are one sign of the love you feel. While you might not want to make others uncomfortable by weeping and wailing in public, in private it can be a healing force. Some people never cry. It’s their way and is no measure of how much they hurt or loved. Some cry a lot. Listen to your heart and express what you need as freely as you can because that is the way of healing.
Don’t make big decisions right away. Grief makes the brain unreliable!
People who have not experienced this kind of loss will not understand even though they want to. They will say things like “he’s in a better place” when what you want to hear is “ I’m sorry you hurt so much”. So do your best to take in their love and their intention even if the words aren’t what you need.
Do things your way. I’m a big Christmas lover but this year it just didn’t feel right to do Christmas. So I didn’t. I had many who wanted to be with me and help me through the holiday but I wanted to be on my own. So I did. Once again, listen to your heart. It will tell you what you need. What I did do, because it felt right for me, was put Christmas lights on my maple tree. That felt like a celebration of Bob and I have left them up. I plan to take them down some time in March when the buds start coming out on the branches. My neighbors might think I’m goofy but it was what I needed and it gives me joy every time I look out and see the tree. This might not be the way you would honor your loved one but if you listen to your heart you will find the way that works for you. Just be sure to allow yourself to do what ever that is and not worry about what someone else might think.
Life goes on when it seems like the whole world should stop for your loss. It doesn’t . People who really care will still forget and move on with their own lives. Some will also have expectations about when you should “feel better”. Take your own time regardless of what someone else thinks. On one hand some will feel that you need to be sad for a specific length of time. Others feel you should get over it by a certain deadline. The length of time for you to grieve is individual and is no measure of the love you have felt or the loss you feel. So do it your way. Follow your heart.
People do want to help but don’t know how. Reach out to them when there is something that you need and they can help. I haven’t been very good about this. In trying to establish my independence and build my new life I have done pretty much everything myself. But I know that my friends and family would love to help and I have taken them up on it a few times. For me, knowing the support is there when I need it has been enough.
So this is what I have learned so far. I sincerely hope it helps you and yours with your own loss and grieving process.