The death of a spouse or partner can be one of the most devastating events in a person’s life bringing with it it’s own particular difficulties. As a result of this death you may have lost your life’s partner, lover, confidante, father or mother of your children, breadwinner, home-maker and possibly your best friend. You may be forced to make more changes than from any other event you will ever experience.
Even if you maintained a great deal of personal independence within your relationship you can be surprised and frightened to discover just how ‘dependent’ you have been on your partner. Over the years you may have related closely to one another’s fears and joys so that when one dies you feel incomplete. Your life has lost its structure and its purpose. You may be left with many unfulfilled needs – emotional, physical, practical, intellectual and social. It is hard to imagine all the areas of life your spouse once filled until you experience the gaps.
Grieving, in itself, is emotionally and physically exhausting. When you have the additional burden of taking on the roles that were previously performed by your partner, going on living may appear to be just too much. New tasks should be embarked on slowly with as much help as is available. Major decisions should not be taken when vision is clouded by anxiety and panic.
Friends may avoid social contact with you because of embarrassment. You are now a single person. Some may see you as a threat to their relationships. You may feel isolated, no longer part of a group, not invited out, or you may exclude yourself as you feel uncomfortable without your partner. Many surviving partners experience the unwanted sexual advances from those whom they counted among their or their partner’s friends.
The feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming and will probably come to you at your most vulnerable times – at night, weekends and holidays. Plan for this – at night keep the radio on, change your routine. Plan a project or outing for a weekend or holiday. Make contact with another lonely person.
Financial difficulties may arise – especially if your spouse or partner died without making a will. You may not be aware of your financial state and even if matters are in order there is often a delay in getting things sorted out. If there is a reduction in income the effect on your standard of living may cause family problems especially when children’s expectations also have to be adjusted. This can add to feelings of fear, anxiety and anger. Your local Citizens Information Centre may be of help with practical matters.
Sexual loss. The loss of love making which included touch, warmth and sharing a bed with your partner can be very painful. It can be tempting to succumb to sexual advances from another. However, such action based on acute need and deep grief is potentially hazardous. Until you have let go of the past, it is better not to make a commitment to someone new.
If your partner dies in the early years of the marriage / relationship not only do you grieve the loss of a beloved person but also the loss of a new, exciting romantic relationship with the prospect of years of mutual love and companionship. You may also grieve the hope of parenting a child or more children together. You may feel that you are the only one of your generation who has been cheated out of hopes for the future. Young widows and widowers may also be expected to comfort the parents of the dead partner.
If the death occurs in your mid-life years you may have the additional stress of feeling trapped by the total responsibility for all the many needs of teenage children which can also prevent you from expressing your own grief. The agency ‘Parentline’ can be helpful in assisting with parenting problems. At this time you may also feel a loss of identity especially if you have no interests or work outside the home.
For the elderly bereaved – the loss of a life’s partner can cause increased trauma, create health problems and may affect your will to live. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, adult children may smother the surviving parent with care and attention. They do not allow you space to grieve or to make your own decisions. If your family are far away you can feel all alone and may even feel abandoned.
For those in same sex relationships there may be added difficulties. The relationship may have been ignored or denied by the family of one or both partners. This can create added stress for you in the grieving process. As the surviving partner, you may find yourself excluded from decision-making concerning the funeral and burial. You may even be precluded from attending.
Perhaps work colleagues and the wider community may just think that a ‘friend’ has died, but you have lost your life partner and companion and you have to keep your grief hidden. This intensifies all aspects of the grieving process, leading to strong feelings of loneliness, isolation, anger and, at times, frustration. If the death has been from Aids, this can lead to further social isolation. It is important that you can find someone to whom you can unburden your feelings.
Whatever your age when you are bereaved, your feeling and reactions will be influenced by the nature and duration of the relationship. If the relationship had been ambivalent, feelings of relief, regret and guilt can be confusing. It is important, when dealing with these feelings, to be totally honest with yourself. Put words on your feelings, voice them aloud or write them down. It is always helpful to talk about your feelings with someone who will listen in a caring and confidential way. This will help you to discover what you are feeling, why you are feeling like this and what you can do about it. Joining a support group for bereaved people may be helpful.
The Bereavement Counselling Service is there to listen and provide support as you struggle with your grief. In our modern world just surviving can be hard work. It is doubly hard to pull yourself out of an emotional trough but it is not impossible. Each time you cope with a crisis and make a major decision you will feel good about yourself. When you reach a goal you will gain satisfaction and self-assurance through your own competence. With time and effort you will recover to lead a full and rewarding life once again.