What Is Partner Loss?
Loss of a partner, spouse, or significant other is a painful thing to endure.
The loss of a spouse can impact us profoundly at any times in our lives. On the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, loss of a spouse is rated as the most stressful event. Losing a lifetime companion when elderly can be devastating. The spouse who survives is also likely to be coping with the loss of friends and family members. There are additional issues with their own declining health and the loss of physical abilities; diminished sight, hearing, stamina as well as the loss of independence. The challenges the remaining spouse has to face can be daunting.
The death of a spouse is the ultimate marriage crisis. One day you are married. The next day you are single, alone and grieving. Nothing is forever. The bottom line is that you will need to know how to journey on this rough passage, through a maze of details, decisions, forms to fill out, shock, loneliness, anger, confusion, fear, a broken heart, and depression. However, there can also be acceptance and new beginnings.
“Everyone will someday lose everything they have ever loved or cared for. That’s the truth of life itself … But our grief is not simply about losing a loved one or facing our own mortality. Whether it’s losing a job, a marriage, a dream, or our youth, we all have had our hearts broken. Each of has lost our innocence, and made mistakes, and done harm and been harmed along the way. We all have with our individual stories of the when, where, how, what, and who of our heartbreaks.. Each of our stories is tenderly unique and yet all of us have a story … grief is the human condition; the tie that binds us all together.” David Treadway, Ph.D., “Good Grief: Celebrating the Sorrows of Our Lives.” on PsychologyToday.com (2012)
“Everyone experiences loss differently, and the last thing people need when they are in terrible pain is to feel that they are doing something wrong because they can’t figure out a way to make themselves feel better. Remembering that sometimes nothing helps can stop you from blaming yourself in the middle of your grief.”
Will Schwalbe, “The Loss of a Loved One: How To Get Through It” on HuffingtonPost.com (2013)
Read more about loss, grief and grieving, and coping with grief.
Types of Grief and Loss
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about.
Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives – whether or not it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen, and uncertain.
When a person or family is expecting death, it is normal to begin to anticipate how one will react and cope when that person eventually dies. Many family members will try to envision their life without that person and mentally play out possible scenarios, which may include grief reactions and ways they will mourn and adjust after the death.
Anticipatory mourning includes feelings of loss, concern for the dying person, balancing conflicting demands and preparing for death. Anticipatory mourning is a natural process that enables the family more time to slowly prepare for the reality of the loss. People are often able to complete unfinished “business” with the dying person (for example, saying “good-bye,” “I love you,” or “I forgive you”).
Grief experienced after a sudden, unexpected death is different from anticipatory mourning. Sudden, unexpected loss may exceed the coping abilities of a person, which often results in feelings of being overwhelmed and/or unable to function. Even though one may be able to acknowledge that loss has occurred, the full impact of loss may take much longer to fully comprehend than in the case of an expected loss.
There are times when grief does not progress as expected; the intensity and duration of grief is prolonged and dramatically interferes with a person’s ability to function. Symptoms of depression and anxiety may be prevalent and prolonged. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors and reactions may seem to persist over long periods of time with little change or improvement. In these situations, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional who can assess your individual situation and make recommendations that will help. It is important to seek help; complicated grief does not subside on its own.
What Are Secondary Losses?
Within every partnership, roles are eventually assigned to each partner: cooking, financial planner, social planner. When we lose a partner, we also lose the roles and responsibilities that the partner provided. These are called “secondary losses.”
The bereaved spouse must learn to manage these roles; roles they are not accustomed to being responsible for. Discovering that they can, in fact, perform these jobs may be a big boost for their self-confidence and may help establish a sense of normalcy to life. Often it is setting new patterns and routines that is the most difficult after a loss.
Finally, there will likely be bursts of emotion that come up from time to time, at birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. You may experience loneliness and withdraw from your social life. You may have a return of guilt when you begin dating again. It’s okay and normal to have these feelings.
What Should I Expect When My Partner Dies?
A lot of feelings may surface when you first lose your partner. In fact, you may be entirely overwhelmed by your emotions. That is okay and it will pass. Here are a fraction of the feelings you may feel:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shorter attention span
- Fear of the future without him/her
- Depression, anxiety, stress
- The Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
- Pressure to date and form a new relationship
- Difficulty making decisions
These are often extremely intense in the beginning but lessen with time and acceptance. Notice your emotions, describe and label them, and allow them space. Ignoring your feelings or pushing them away only makes them stronger. There are ways to cope with loss.
Overwhelmed and stricken by grief, the elderly may ignore their own needs. They may have problems with self-care, sleeping, eating, and taking their medication. The result can be the intensification of physical and psychological problems. Their resilience is compromised. This is why we see the remaining spouse could die quickly after their spouse’s death. It is referred to as the “widowhood effect.”
Research found that there is an increase chance of dying for the elderly after a spouses’ death in the first three months following the loss. This is often referred to as the “widowhood effect.” During this time, the chances increase of a cardiovascular event. The survivor may also be susceptible to “broken heart syndrome” or stress induced cardiomyopathy.
The two events are different but can both be lethal.
Stress alters our immune system, at any age.
The grieving elderly are already more likely to have a compromised immune system. This makes them even more susceptible to infectious diseases. If already in poor health, the chances of death tend to increase. It has also been found that widows and widowers tend to exhibit more cognitive decline than those who have not lost a spouse.
The emotions of grief are ageless. The surviving spouse experiences sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety and often despairs. They frequently feel they have lost their purpose in life as well as their love. Another important aspect of losing a spouse is that the survivor has lost their best friend and social contacts. It’s often hard for the elderly to reach out for help even with family members.
As bleak as it all sounds, it appears that the simple act of being involved with the elderly bereaved can literally make the difference between life and death.
Research on resiliency after the loss of a spouse found that the strongest predictors of resiliency were continued engagement in everyday life activities and in social relationships plus anticipation that people would comfort them in times of distress. In the research on cognitive decline in the elderly bereaved, it was found that having a high level of education or at least one living sibling appeared to protect against the decline associated with widowhood. Oddly,, research found that those who received emotional support from relatives had poorer health than those who received support from friends.
It appears that what is most important is some form of social contact.
Coping With A Partner’s Death:
There are a number of ways that we can help the elderly. We can be sure that they have frequent vision and hearing tests so they do not become shut off from the world.
Many bereaved elderly become afraid to leave the house due to these deficits. They often also have a fear of falling. Assisting them in getting a cane or walker is another way of helping them become more mobile. It is important to encourage them to take good care of themselves in mourning. They should get enough sleep, eat right and take their medications. It is also helpful for the elderly to be involved in an activity that provides them with a sense of purpose. Helping them to connect with a social group or charitable organization would help them to feel better about themselves as well as providing social contact. They should be encouraged to participate in some form of physical activity such as, swimming, aquarobic classes, chair yoga or other light exercise.
Just because one half of an elderly couple dies does not mean that the other need follow close behind. Becoming more aware of the challenges they face can help prepare us to help them.
With care and attention, we can reduce their loneliness and extend their lives.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings; overwhelming feelings of sadness, pain, anger, or numbness.
You do not have to be “strong” after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don’t cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
No matter how long you’ve been together with your partner, losing him or her may elicit many different emotions.
There are many feelings a person may feel immediately following the death of his or her partner. They include:
You may feel guilt – Being the spouse left living, feeling as though you haven’t done enough, or that you could have saved your partner. You may feel guilt about conflicts or issues you had with your partner prior to their death.
You may feel anger – For having your partner taken away, for not having him or her wait, or for waiting for that person.
You may feel that you could have prevented his or her death.
You may feel sadness – For the permanence of the loss, for not knowing that she was so depressed she took her own life, for the things you will miss the most.
No matter how your significant other died, the grief you feel is real and can be very daunting. In addition to managing your shocking and overwhelming feelings, there are other responsibilities to manage as well. Often there are legal and financial issues with arranging a funeral. Children and pets may need to be attended to. Family dynamics may become exacerbated causing fights, tension, and stress. This doesn’t make dealing with your loss any easier and, if anything, it causes rifts among the people from whom you need support.
What Is The Widowhood Effect?
The widowhood effect is the increase of a person dying a relatively short time after their long-time spouse or partner has died. This pattern indicates a sharp increase in risk of death for the widower especially in the three months closest thereafter the death of the spouse. This process of losing a spouse and dying shortly after has also been called “dying of a broken heart.”
Becoming a widow is a very detrimental and life changing time in a spouse’s life, that forces them to experiences changes they might not have anticipated for additional time. Responses of grief and grieving due to the death of a spouse increases the surviving spouse developing physical and psychological illnesses.
Losing a long-term spouse can lead to symptoms like depression, anxiety, and feelings of guilt, as a result; due to the stresses in the widower’s the widow’s body becomes increasingly susceptible to new illnesses as well as exacerbate existing illnesses. The mind-body connection is very clear in grief and grieving.
There are many factors that may be affected when one becomes a widow. A widow, or widower tends to have a decline in health. Additionally, the chances of death of the bereaved partner spikes during the first six months – notably after three months – after their partner dies, compared to the following six months.
Grieving spouses are more vulnerable during these few months not only health-wise but socially and physically. During this early period of bereavement, spouses tend to have less interest in their health as well as physical appearance caring less about continuing with medications or adapting healthy behaviors such as eating healthy or exercising. Also, they are likelier to practice risky behaviors and commit suicide.
The Widowhood Effect appears to be far more prevalent in older married couples than in younger married couples, thus, studies that have been conducted in regards to this phenomenon have revolved primarily around observations of older widows. Through many studies conducted over the years, it’s been found that the widowhood effect affects the mortality rates of people with varying levels of severity depending on their genders and religions.
These studies have found that The Widowhood Effect is seen far more often in more seasoned, long-term, elder couples than in recently married couples. Since the topic has only been recently studied within this last decade, and due to the prevalence of older couples being affected, most widows in similar studies are typically over the age of 50
The Widowhood Phenomenon is one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health. There are many factors and theories about the widowhood effect, but in general, a study on a large population sample has suggested rates of death nearly double during the first three months after loss of a spouse, and quickly taper afterward.
As You Grieve:
- Take care of yourself – rest and eat regular meals.
- Reach out and talk to friends and family.
- Grief support and bereavement groups can aid you in healing from your loss.
- Don’t make major life or financial decisions; you may regret them later when you are thinking more clearly.
- See your doctor and/or therapist for a mental health assessment.
- Discuss the loss with your children and be patient while they are grieving.
- Take your time mourning. Remember you must go through the grief process to get to the other side.
It is normal to feel lonely after losing a partner. You have not only lost a person you love, but also the person with whom you shared your life and hobbies. It will likely be hard for you to imagine how you are going to keep up with the kids, the house, or the bills without your partner. It can take some time to find your footing and remember how to enjoy life again. In the meantime, it helps to get involved in regular activities such as:
- Social groups such as book clubs, hiking groups, or bowling leagues
- Attending classes at the gym
- Adopting and caring for a pet
- Enrolling in an educational course
- Setting up a standing date with a friend for a walk or a meal
It is important to note that if you find that you are plagued with constant feelings of guilt or worthlessness, thoughts of suicide, or have a persistent inability to perform tasks at work or home, you may be experiencing clinical depression. Please contact your physician for an evaluation.
If you are in crisis and/or have thoughts of suicide, there is a national hotline where help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-273-8255
Additional Partner Loss Resources:
Bereavement Information and Assistance:
Grief Share offers many support groups for grieving partners
Legacy.com has support and information for spouses who are grieving.
Centering.org offers an extensive list of books as well as literature about grieving.
The Liz Logelin Foundation, an organization offering assistance to those who have lost a spouse, offers this Newly Widowed Checklist.
The Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation offers support to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, with a special emphasis on those who have lost a spouse.
Hello Grief offers chat rooms and articles for various types of grief and loss.
PBS has a very helpful page for families who are grieving with children.
The Hospice Foundation of America has an informational video for those who have lost a partner and resources for locating support groups.
The American Widow Project provides resources for military families who have suffered a loss.
Documentation-Related Information When Your Spouse Dies:
Executor’s Role in Estate and Will Probating
Make a Will online – No matter how old you are, you should have a will. Your wishes need to be laid out and your family shouldn’t have to struggle wondering what your plans for your assets would be. Make a will online. They are very inexpensive but are valuable in case of your death.
Financial Steps to Follow Following the Death of a Spouse (while this site IS old and the information may be outdated, but this is the very best explanation of the financial steps)
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