No matter how long you were married or how strong your relationship was, it’s a significant life change when your spouse dies. And along with that change, you might feel a range of emotions. You could feel numb or find yourself overwhelmed by sadness. You might feel guilty that you’re alive while your partner is not. You might be afraid of how you’ll manage your life in the future. You could be angry at your spouse for leaving you behind, and maybe ashamed for feeling that way. Or you might not experience any of these emotions.
Melanie Wolfe, a licensed clinical social worker at Community Hospital in Torrington, WY, said, “When you’re coping with the death of a spouse, the most important thing you can do is give yourself grace. Everyone grieves differently, and most people will have strong emotions. Allowing yourself to feel what you are feeling without judgment is helpful.”
It’s also important to remember that grief doesn’t follow a straight path. It’s not like healing from a physical injury or illness, where you can expect to feel a little bit better every day. When you’re mourning, your mood and emotions can shift day to day—and even hour to hour. For example, you could be shopping for groceries when you spot your spouse’s favorite apples, hear their favorite song or smell the sourdough bread they loved. These memories might bring up sudden, intense emotions.
And grief doesn’t follow a schedule. Even after years have passed, you may find yourself mourning. Holidays might be hard. When family members hit milestones like birthdays, graduations, and weddings, you may struggle with emotions. Even passing a car your spouse used to drive might stir up memories.
Maneuvering through the stages of grief
Most people who are grieving experience six stages of grief:
- Denial—you find it hard to believe that your spouse has died. You may feel numb.
- Anger—you may unintentionally hide your true feelings with anger directed at your spouse or someone or something else.
- Bargaining—you may look for ways to regain control or find yourself thinking “if only” things had gone differently in some way, your spouse might still be alive.
- Sadness—as you come to terms with your spouse’s death and your emotions, you may feel sad.
- Acceptance—you likely won’t feel like you’re “over” the death of your spouse. More likely, you’ll begin to understand how you might move forward in your life without them.
- Finding meaning—you may look to the rest of your life with a new sense of purpose after your spouse’s death. “I think finding meaning is one that people might not expect when experiencing a loss,” Wolfe said.
Everyone grieves differently. You may spend a longer time in some of these stages than in others. You could experience them in a different order. Or you might skip some altogether.
Reaching out for support
Well-meaning friends and family members may say things like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!” But you may not know what you need. When you feel up to it, think through a list of things that might help. That could include:
- Help with tasks your spouse used to handle, such as preparing meals, paying bills or taking care of the yard
- Companionship, such as someone to go to the gym, take a walk, watch a movie or share a meal with you
- Support on days you know will be difficult, such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays
You may also want to connect with a support group. “Many times during a loss, you might feel like you are the only person who has experienced something like this. A support group allows you to feel like you are not alone. You can borrow coping strategies from other people who are going through the same thing,” Wolfe said.
While grief is different for everyone, if you feel your grief lasts for an extended time and interferes with your daily life, you may want to connect with a behavioral health specialist for help.
The bottom line
When your spouse dies, you’ll experience a range of emotions. Knowing what to expect, and where to turn for support, might make the grieving process a little easier. If you’re struggling to deal with your grief, a Banner behavioral health specialist could help.