Many health professionals gauge the death of a spouse as one of the most traumatic events a person will face in their lifetime. Yet, the impact of grief is not something for which one can prepare, even when the death is anticipated.
NOT UNDERSTANDING WHAT SHE IS GOING THROUGH
Despite the fact that death is inevitable for each and every one of us, an enormous amount of misinformation exists about grief. Expectations of others often cause more pain, by making a widow feel that there is something wrong with her. Yet, with awareness comes understanding and compassion.
Those who have never experienced the loss of a spouse often incorrectly believe that grief should be over by the end of a year. However, there is not a “correct” way to respond to loss; we each grieve in our own personal and unique way.
SOME OF THE THINGS YOU MAY OBSERVE HAPPENING TO HER
- During stressful events catecholamines suppress activity in areas of the brain that affect short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, behavior and rational thought, making simple tasks difficult. Overwhelmed and exhausted from all the changes to her life her normal coping abilities may be overtaxed and she may have difficulty remembering how to get to the grocery store. Sleep difficulties, appetite changes and a lack of physical well-being are common. It is not unusual to feel depleted psychologically, socially, physically, and financially. Although unable to think clearly, she must immediately begin making important financial and legal decisions which can be impossible to reverse later on.
- The death of her husband is different from any experience she has ever known. His death brings to an end the hopes, plans, dreams, and goals they had shared; the loss of her relationship as a wife, her role as best friend, confidant, cook, co-parent, travel companion along with the security that he’d always be there for her. This can lead to spiritual distress.
- The circumstance of her husband’s death often has a profound influence on her grief and mourning, which are reflected in her behaviors and physical health. A sudden death with no opportunity to say good-bye may leave her feeling disbelief, guilt or abandonment. She may obsessively review events that led up to his passing in an attempt to determine responsibility, if she believes that her husband’s death was preventable.
- Having little interest in things that she enjoyed in the past, she may now respond differently than she did before.
- She is compelled to put on a brave act at work, after being put on probation for her job performance, yet, upon arriving home she collapses in a sobbing heap inside the front door .
In addition to sadness she may experience distress, helplessness and fear. Understanding, kindness and support are ways to help her as she walks through this extremely painful process. Providing hope and encouragement celebrates God’s love and grace for us all.
The period of time and the experiences she goes through, as she grasps the reality and adapts to the absence of her husband, is called mourning. In shock, she doesn’t know what is needed when first asked. As she becomes aware of what help she desperately needs she won’t ask as she doesn’t want to be a burden on others.
“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention.” – Kahlil Gibran
“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” – Scott Adams
- She needs to talk about him; to laugh and enjoy memories of this important part of her life. Sharing memories with her, that she can hold in her heart, can provide comfort that he has not been forgotten. Celebrating his life on the anniversary of his passing, can turn a sad day into something to look forward to, as family and friends gather for something such as a balloon release or planting a memory tree. Valentine’s Day is also a wonderful opportunity to do something for her to remind her that she is not alone.
- A warm hug. Research shows human touch has wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits for people of all age groups. Touch lessens pain, lowers blood glucose and improves both pulmonary and immune function.
- It is important that she eats nourishing foods. Due to lack of finances or no longer having someone with whom to share a meal, she may not eat nutritious foods, which can lead to malnutrition. A deficiency in vitamins and minerals can masquerade in a number of different ways, for example a deficiency in either vitamin B12 or vitamin D3, is associated with falls and many other conditions that people assume are simply a sign of aging. Signs of a B12 deficiency might show up as one or more of the following: cataracts, macular degeneration, essential tremors, cognitive impairment, chronic fatigue syndrome, sleep disturbances, suppressed immune system, psychiatric illness (clinical depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders which may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal) to neurologic problems such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson’s disease. (Note that to be effective, B12 requires folate, not to be confused with folic acid.)
OTHER LOSSES SHE MAY EXPERIENCE
Grief is the feeling when reaching out to someone who has always been there, to discover the person is gone. While grieving the loss of her husband she experiences additional losses, each bringing its own grief and need for mourning.
LOSS OF FRIENDS Intensifying her grief is the unexpected loss of long time friends. In the midst of a crying jag when friends call, she may not answer the phone. Assuming that she doesn’t want to be bothered, calls eventually stop and friends and family no longer offer the support as they had earlier. She is no longer included in couples activities and avoided by those who don’t know what to say or do. Studies show that a widow loses 75% of those she believed were friends. Depression and loneliness make grief worse.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” – Mother Teresa
LOSS OF INCOME Grief is often compounded by financial decline. In many cases, if the widow’s husband had a pension, it stops with his passing. Often Social Security is the couples main (or only) source of income, yet one benefit goes away at the death of one of them. Since there is no minimum Social Security amount, a funeral can be financially devastating when there is no life insurance. A death notice in the paper may be an expense she can’t afford, leaving many, who might have offered a kind word in comfort, unaware of her loss. She may experience the loss of her home because she cannot afford to live there anymore.
A leak from the garbage disposal and a call to the plumber can be devastating. Gasoline to go to the doctor or church, a book of postage stamps to pay bills or a small gift for a grandchild’s birthday is a hardship, when struggling to make ends meet. An invitation to a potluck may be declined, when there isn’t extra money to buy a cake mix. Shamed and embarrassed she will do her best to keep you from knowing how bad things are.
HOW THESE LOSSES AFFECT HER
Attempting to navigate this sad journey alone, the deep emotional pain of feeling forgotten is devastating. Loss of friends, her identity as someone’s wife and a lack of finances, along with the stigma of being labeled a “widow” has a profound effect on her sense of self-esteem. Experiencing the pain of being forgotten and isolated with no community to rely on, believing that she is the only one in her situation, often a widow will feel like a misfit. Not knowing what to do with her life now, she may simply withdraw; moving from heading up volunteer committees at church and singing in the choir, to sitting on a back pew and eventually slipping out the door. At times, she may wonder if there is any point of going on.
Only someone who has experienced the loss of a spouse can understand the depth and breadth of the acute grief her heart is going through as she is forced to adjust to life without him. Other widows understand what a widow can’t verbalize and can provide reassurance with concerns such as:
- There is no correct (or incorrect) way to grieve, as each of us grieve in our own unique way. She should not compare her experiences with those of others because a widow’s grief is very different from others who have also loved and lost him.
- Grief often lasts longer than a year, yet no matter how long it takes, grieving is essential to the healing process. Attempting to present a brave facade, by suppressing emotion, can have long-term destructive consequences that manifest as physical symptoms.
- If, during his illness, she had prayed for respite and relief, wanting his suffering to be over, she may feel guilt if she doesn’t understand that it is completely normal, as no one wants to see a loved one suffer.
- Certain experiences, events, and occasions (i.e. a graduation, or a grandchild) will resurrect memories or feelings and his absence will trigger grief, because there is no closure where the heart and mind are involved.
- Displaying a photograph of her late husband is absolutely acceptable.
- The first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first wedding anniversary, the first Valentine’s Day, etc without him can be difficult. The couples wedding anniversary and holidays are extremely hard, with Valentine’s Day one of the most painful, as advertisements everywhere are a constant reminder that her sweetheart is gone.
- A “widows only” group is different from other “grief groups” and more helpful as widows will open up to others going down the same path.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 (NIV)
©Tulsage 2016 _______________________________________________________________________________________
Be sure to read What The Widowed Won’t Tell You But Wish You Knew
More about widows and widowers.
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