Everything changes after the loss of a spouse or partner. For many, this was the person we spent most of our time with. This is who we made our plans with…the one who shared our worries. Every part of our past, present, and future revolved around this person, and to be without them is harder, sadder, and lonelier than we ever could have guessed.
And here’s the thing…not only is it harder than we could have thought; the people we spend time don’t always seem to recognize the depth and duration of this loss. This can be felt any time someone tries to cheer us up, smooth it over, or make it better. Our loved ones are well intentioned, there’s no doubt, but here is what most grievers who have lost a spouse would want those around them to understand:
- It’s a couples world and socializing after the loss of a spouse is never the same. This comes up just about every time I facilitate a group for widow and widowers. We don’t even notice how much of a couples world it is until we’re no longer part of it. Going out to dinner, going to the movies, taking a vacation. Sure, some people will do these things on their own, but for most these activities were reserved for their spouse or partner. And unfortunately being part of a bigger group or going to a party isn’t necessarily any easier. The problem isn’t just the griever who may feel awkward in a setting that is mostly couples. The friends themselves may hesitate (or all out avoid) inviting the griever along for fear that this newly single person will feel out of place. And for most widows and widowers I speak to, nothing feels worse than that.
- Even a very caring network of support can’t replace this one thing we had: a shared and equally vested interest in the outcome of each other’s lives. A widow pointed this out to me, and boy was she right. “My friends are great,” she said, “when I share a worry about my daughter or grandson, they’ll nod and show compassion and concern. But here’s the thing…in the end, whatever happens just won’t affect them the same way it would affect me. The only person who could share the weight of these concerns was my husband”. Since then, I’ve used this example. Imagine a restaurant opens. It’s a wonderful restaurant, with a lot of loyal and happy customers. But then there’s a fire, and suddenly the restaurant is no longer there. The patrons of that restaurant will miss eating there, and will feel saddened at its loss. But eventually, they will find another place to eat. The owner, however, will never be the same. Because every part of the owner’s life and livelihood, and every part of their security and dreams and hopes went into that restaurant. And in the case of the loss of a spouse, the fact is that only our spouse or partner will feel the same investment and care in our life that we do.
- Following the loss of a spouse or partner, I feel like only half of a whole. A lot of couples will refer to their spouse or significant other as their “better half”. While it’s usually meant to be a sweet compliment, the truth is that most marriages (even the imperfect ones!) operate and function as two people joining their lives together as one. After the loss of a spouse most widows and widowers will report feeling that not only is their other half missing, but that they themselves feel incomplete. This union can become such a part of our identity that without it, we don’t feel like a complete or whole person anymore. So we’re not only missing our spouse…we’re missing ourselves too.
- Every part of my day and routine is now changed and altered, especially when it’s time to go to sleep. There’s no doubt that a parent who has lost a child, or a daughter who was the full time caregiver for a parent will feel this same void and change in routine. But there are some differences with the loss of a spouse (and it’s important to note that none of them are being highlighted to say that one type of loss is harder than another- they’re just different). Household chores, sharing finances, making plans…all of these things can make it hard to get through the day after the loss of a spouse. But the promise of escape from these stresses that sleep may otherwise provide is something else a widow or widower may lose. Because unless a couple had already become accustomed to sleeping in separate beds (because of long term illness or nursing home placement, for example) a person who is dealing with the loss of a spouse or partner is going to be feeling this very significant change at the end of each day too. “Do I leave the light on the way he used to? I never liked it, but now it feels weird if I don’t.” “Do I stay on my side of the bed, or do I move to the middle?” “Even with the lights out and my eyes closed I can still feel the emptiness of the bed…” “How strange it feels to go to bed without having someone to say goodnight to- ending the day without a goodnight feels like leaving a period off a sentence”
- My spouse/partner filled more than just one role in my life. Losing even “just” one person in our life is hard enough. But following the loss of a spouse or partner, a griever will feel like they’ve lost many important people: their friend, their lover, their peer, their co-parent, their confidant, their business partner, their travel companion, their date…meaning that this loss doesn’t mean the loss of “just” one person. This loss will create a vacancy in many roles that one very important person had previously filled. And no one person is going to be able to take the place of all the roles a spouse or partner filled.
A list like this can be hard to create, but for the griever it can be even harder to read. So what is the point, really, in illustrating or highlighting all that a widow or widower has lost?
I’ll go back to the widow from the #2 point on our list, the woman who described the feeling of shared investment that she had lost when her husband died. She told me that the slow recognition of this fact was actually a huge turning point for her. Because when she started to take a look at all the reasons that she was struggling and all the reasons she missed her husband it revealed something even more important: all the things they had shared together. And lying underneath the sadness and yearning for what she had, was a realization of the blessings that their union and time together had created.
If you’re struggling with the loss of a spouse, talking to others who are also going through it can help. While our experiences of grief are unique, there is still so much of this journey that grievers will find they have in common. You’ll find them here at: www.griefincommon.com.