After suffering the death of a spouse, we are likely consumed by emotional darkness, feeling that recovery and joy may be impossible. When, each morning, the moment that consciousness returns and we are again overwhelmed by the reality of the loss, it’s overwhelming. For many, coping with the death of a spouse is the ultimate stressor.

As time passes, the intense pain for most people will lessen. The good days will start to outweigh the bad. Laughing at a joke, enjoying a visit with a friend and reflecting upon wonderful memories will happen again. It’s all about treating yourself with care and working through the challenges at your own pace.  

Go easy on yourself

When in mourning, you experience grief, sorrow and loss. You may feel numb, shocked, confused, heartbroken, anxious and fearful. You may feel guilty for still being alive, or relieved that your spouse is no longer suffering. Perhaps anger at your partner for leaving you. You may cry a lot, or you may not. There are no rules for mourning – no right or wrong. Allowing yourself to freely experience these emotions promotes healing. Grieve at your own pace and give yourself permission to take “as long as it takes” to recover.

If possible, let big life decisions – like changes to your living arrangement or career – wait, until you’re ready.

Seek a support system

Reach out to caring people who are willing to accompany you through your grief. Consider joining a support group. There are many forms of support available until you can manage your grief on your own. You may be inclined to turn inward, but family, friends, and a counselor can be a great support. Compassionate friends and family are grieving too, and some may find comfort in sharing memories about your spouse.  

The benefits of grief counselling

One-on-one therapy sessions with a grief counsellor (in person or online) can help in learning to accept death and, in time, to starting a new life. There are also support groups where grieving people help each other. Your healthcare provider, hospice or funeral home can assist in locating a suitable bereavement group.

Allow yourself to talk about the death; your feelings of loneliness and what you miss about your partner. Although sharing your grief with others is a good way to heal, if you’d prefer to start the journey on your own, consider journaling your feelings without holding back.

Take good care of yourself

Grieving can take a toll physically and a life-changing loss of a spouse could even make you ill. Eat well, exercise and try to ensure you’re getting enough sleep. These basic activities may feel tough to jumpstart again, but they’ll serve you well as you continue on your journey. Accept offers from friends and family to cook together and share a meal, or to take a walk.

Respect what your body is telling you and treat yourself as you would a good friend. Do things that make you feel better: listen to music, sleep in, read a book, plan to cook something you’ve always wanted to try.

It may seem difficult at first, but let others know if you’re having trouble with daily activities like showering, dressing, or preparing meals for yourself.

Complicated grief and finding help

For some people, mourning can go on for so long that it becomes unhealthy. This can be a sign of complicated grief. See your doctor if sadness keeps you from carrying out everyday activities, or leaves you unable to move forward with your own life.

Complicated grief is a condition that affects an estimated 7% of people who have lost a loved one. Those who are experiencing it may need additional help to overcome the grief.

Make plans and be active

Disengaging and withdrawing socially is a natural reaction to a devastating loss. It’s human nature to self-protect, cocoon and create a safe space in which to deal with loss and begin healing.

Common emotions during this process include feeling anxious about seeing people, interacting socially and encountering grief triggers. You may feel unsafe going out alone, particularly after years of being with your spouse. Perhaps engaging in activities feels like a betrayal to your lost loved one, or as though you’re “moving on”.

There’s a fine line between temporarily disengaging and more harmful long-term social withdrawal. The truth is, the more grieving people engage with life, the more opportunity they will have to process their emotions, connect, receive support and experience positive feelings.

We’re not suggesting a complete return to normal activities, particularly during times of social distancing. It’s about selecting and planning one or two meaningful engagements. Dedicate each day of the week to chatting to a particular family member or a friend, for a few minutes or hours, either in person or online. Offer to babysit your grandchild, niece or nephew – or read them a book online. Consider adopting a pet, many people find that pets provide comfort and companionship in times of struggle.

Celebrate your memories

Talk about your loved one; encourage friends and family to share fond memories. Delight in past experiences, free of guilt or sorrow. Honour the life you shared by cherishing your stories. Look at photos without tears or anguish. Enjoy the experiences and smile.

Grieving takes time and moving forward takes an enormous effort. Roller coaster emotions are to be expected. But it is possible to create a new and fulfilling life for yourself whilst still cherishing the memories of your loved one; to be well and go on to lead a full, happy and meaningful life.

Despite not thinking it possible at the start, the steps you take to help yourself will pay off in the most meaningful of ways.