At some point in life, we will all experience the death of someone we love. The nature of our relationships impacts our grief process, and the ways in which we mourn. The loss of any loved one is a profound and challenging experience which all people will go through at some point in their lives. Each of these losses will affect us as uniquely as the relationships in question. The death of a spouse or significant other can be one of the hardest losses to experience. Whether such a loss occurs after a relationship of fifty years or five, the experience of losing a life partner brings a deep sense of sadness, pain, and unfairness. Long established plans for retirement, travel, spending more time with family, etc. can be interrupted by a spouse or partner's death due to illness or accident. The world, which may have made sense before the loss, can seem strange and overwhelming afterward.
What then are some of the ways in which we may cope with and process so impacting a loss? While there are no rules for grieving the death of a significant other, becoming aware of reactions common to this form of loss can reduce the sense of isolation often felt by the bereaved.
From “we” to “I”: It may seem strange at first to consider that the use of pronouns can play a role in our grief; however, an awareness that the “we” which has characterized so much of our self-identity has shifted to the “I” which awaits on the other side of loss can be a jarring experience. Simple conversations about day to day concerns may act as grief reminders: Our car is now my car; we are no longer attending the wedding, I am; friends no longer invite us, they invite me. For many people, the shift from “we” to “I” may come after a period of caring for a terminally ill spouse.
Giving oneself permission to think in terms of “I,” to see to personal needs and wants after acting as a caregiver may feel selfish at first. Having grown accustomed to seeing to a spouse's needs, the bereaved may even have difficulty recognizing their own. However, being patient with oneself and allowing the time needed to adjust to this new reality can greatly aid in the process of self-care. Being honest about the impact of this shift in thinking and self-identity can be an important step along the path of accepting the loss of a significant other, and in learning to meet our own needs.
An ongoing connection: Following the death of a spouse or significant other, many very well-meaning family members and friends may make statements such as, “You'll get over it in time” or “You need to learn how to let go.” While their goal is to provide comfort, to the bereaved such statements may imply a sense of leaving their partner behind or forgetting them. For this reason, in grief work, we often discuss working toward a point of accepting a loss with a view toward carrying memories of our loved one forward into the next phase of our life. This is a journey and involves the bereaved engaging with, exploring, and processing their grief feelings.
Remembering the life of a spouse or partner can help us accept a loss while maintaining an ongoing sense of connection to our loved one. Visiting the gravesite, giving to a charity in a spouse's name, creating a memory book or a memorial space on a shelf in the home are all ways in which this may be achieved. Many who have lost a spouse or significant other reports a continued sense of spiritual connection to their loved one. This may involve experiencing a comforting presence, continuing to speak aloud to a loved one's photograph or when visiting the grave site.
Grieving individuals may ask themselves “Am I going crazy for doing or feeling these things?” Such experiences are common and typically provide a feeling of comfort to those having them. Should the bereaved feel distressed or unsure about this, or any aspect of their grief process, grief counseling services may aid in the journey toward acceptance.
Learning to live without a spouse or significant other can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience. Seeking support from family, friends, a sense of spirituality and professional grief services are all important forms of self-care. Grieving is hard, but grieving is also natural, and necessary. Becoming aware that this process isn't static, that it changes over time, and that reaching a point of acceptance is possible can provide much-needed hope to those coping with the loss of a spouse or significant other.