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Nurturing Yourself in Widowhood as You Grieve The Loss of Your Spouse

by Patty Howell

Because I knew a lot about how to process my feelings and was willing to walk into them and experience them, rather than try to push them away, I figured that grieving over my husband’s death would be very painful at first — even excruciating — yet ease up after a moderate length of time.

Not so much.

I didn’t quantify in my mind how long I thought I’d be actively grieving, but when it didn’t let up at all after six weeks, I was surprised.

Six weeks doesn’t sound like that much in general, but having 42 unrelenting days of pain is a lot. Yet, there were no signs of it diminishing.

Then, an entry during week 11 in my diary reads:

“I’m thinking this might be my darkest hour. I just plain feel depressed, sad, and sorry for myself. I’m not interested in work and don’t feel happy about anything. Just down. No light at the end of the tunnel. Sad, sad, sad. Really feeling sorry for myself. Crying a lot. Eleven weeks and one day = awful.”

Several weeks later, my diary entry continues:

“It will be five months on Friday. I still miss him every day… Crying now as I write this. How I wish I could see him and touch him again. It’s so much to lose him. It is such a big loss.”

And, again the same kind of entry several months later:

“Tonight, 11 months down the road… I just feel depressed. Depressed that my life will never feel happy again. The funzies I’m trying to cobble together just don’t add up to very much at all… it just doesn’t compare with the love that Ralph and I shared… Doesn’t compare at all!”

Suffice to say, the grief didn’t let up anywhere nearly as quickly as I had hoped it would.

So, I started to ponder the value of grieving, since the fact that I was experiencing it this heavily must somehow be exactly what I needed to be doing.

I started to see some actual value in grief.

The first realization I had was that this was my way of being able to communicate with my beloved husband.

He and I had been in constant communication for more than 40 years, and it was painful to have this connection severed.

When I cried out, “Oh, Ralph! I miss you so much!” it was a way to connect with him. That connection was important to me.

Many widows and widowers report that they continue to have these “conversations” with their deceased spouses for years after their deaths — telling their spouse the latest news, discussing daily problems, etc. — as a means of experiencing a continuation of the connection together.

I appreciate the value of this.

Grief safeguards the memory of your beloved.

Another value of grief, I suspect, is that it embeds that beloved person in your brain as a safeguard to your memory.

You go over in your mind all that this person meant to you, and this leaves rich neural networks that give you access to those memories.

I haven’t seen scientific evidence about this “benefit” of grief, but I think it’s an interesting and likely theory.

Giving your spouse “their due” by grieving.

Another value of grief is that it helps the griever feel they’re giving this important person their due. What kind of a person would I think myself to be if I was married for 40 years and then quickly “got over” losing him?

If I grieve very hard and do it for a long time, it helps me feel good about myself — that I’m the kind of person who grieves “appropriately” for my beloved husband, not someone who just brushes herself off and gets over it.

The self-esteem connection in bereavement.

This realization, which may or may not be a factor in everyone’s grief, helped me to see that some of my grief over Ralph’s death was linked to my own self-esteem.

It made me realize that I’m someone who had to go through a great deal of pain to deal with his death. That I’m not a callous person. That I’m sensitive and caring; that I’m worthy.

I think it’s apparent that this component of my grief was tied more to my self-esteem than to the wrenching loss.

So, perhaps there’s a self-esteem component that everyone has to deal with in being able to get over their pain at the death of a loved one.

You can’t roll back the grieving about your loved one until you feel you can do so with a full sense of integrity.

Another component of grief is the concept of “yearning.”

A study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” found that older people mourning a death by natural causes experience yearning or pining for their lost loved one as the most dominant emotion, not disbelief, sadness, or depression.

While the sequences and duration of emotional reactions to loss vary greatly across human beings, yearning emerges as an important dynamic.

Searching for the departed through healing activities.

A grief center even reported that when a loved one dies, the griever yearns to “find” that which is lost, “so they engage in the psychological task of searching… They are hoping (against all odds, of course) that they will ‘find’ what has been lost.”

So, grievers visit the cemetery, look at old photo albums, and visit places they’ve gone to in the past with their departed loved one.

One of the things I did was listen over and over again to recordings of Ralph’s lovely singing voice, doing so with tears streaming down my face.

How grateful I am that I have these recordings! But they don’t bring him back: I only get to experience a representation of him, not the living, breathing person I used to be able to interact with.

Arriving at the door of acceptance.

Through this yearning and searching, we make some contact with the person who is so precious to us, but we don’t find our loved one.

Yearning is difficult to experience. We human beings really, really want what we yearn for, and when we cannot have it, it’s painful to be denied.

From this denial, I came to understand the phrase “I lost my husband” as that is truly what it is.

When your spouse dies, you experience loss, and you yearn for that loss to be returned to you. And it’s not ever going to be.

When you realize that and the yearning ceases, you are at the door of acceptance. It’s a sad place to be.

But at the same time, it’s a sign of progress.

The best thing to remember is that no matter where you are in mourning, be kind to yourself as you experience this grief. You will get through this, one day at a time.

Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C, is a marriage educator, family coach, and president of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that teaches relationship skills. For more information on how she can help you, visit her website here.