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Coping With Partner Loss

Death, regardless of the details, is capable of devastating those it leaves behind.  Brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, or father – all losses are significant.  Although commonalities exist amongst people who have experienced a certain type of loss, individual grief is as unique as the person experiencing it and their relationship with the person who died.

While we are hesitant to categorize and careful not to compare, we do acknowledge that there’s merit in recognizing commonalities.  Shared experiences tell us, if nothing else, that we are not the only ones. And if other people have had struggles similar to our own, then maybe our grief isn’t as crazy as it sometimes seems.

Please also see grief, grief and grieving, partner loss, and loss for more information.

There are a number of reasons why grieving the death of a spouse, fiancé, girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other is difficult.

Also, we are going to use the term ‘partner’ and ‘significant other’ for the purposes of this article because they apply broadly, that’s our thought process and we’re sticking to it.

Losing someone you love, someone you’ve spent a good deal of your life with is very painful. There are a number of shocking emotions that bubble to the surface – anger, guilt, shock. Sometimes, the sadness you feel over the loss of your husband or wife can overwhelm you and make you feel as though you are drowning.

As hard as this is, these are normal reactions to the loss of a husband, wife or partner.

So what happens when it’s YOU who loses your partner? Or someone you love?

Why Is Partner Loss So Challenging To Grieve?

There are very few easy deaths for loved ones to have to grieve, partner loss (among the death of a child) is one of the hardest deaths to cope with. Here are but few reasons why losing a partner to death is so very complicated.

They Were Your Best Friend

People who have lost others, such as dear friends, find this loss hard to grieve. Most people consider their partner as their best friends, which compounds the loss. You not only lose your spouse, but you also lose your confidant, the person who knows you best.

They Were Your Person

When something dreadful or awesome happened, who’d you call? Just day to day stuff, non-emergent calls? Most people opt to call their person; their partner. They may have been the person who understood letting you be upset, then knew how to calm you down. They’re the one’s who knew almost everything about you – favorite food, favorite shows, favorite everything. Likes and dislikes, no one knew you better. You may forget some days after their death that they’re gone and find yourself trying to call them.

They Were Your Co-Parent

When most people think about losing a partner, they’re thinking about an elderly couple. Obviously, this is not always the case. and there may be Parenting is hard; being a single parent is harder; being the single parent of grieving children is one of the hardest.  When your co-parent has died, all responsibility falls on you to keep your children safe, clothed, and loved.

They Gave You Unconditional Love

Whether or not you agreed on every thing, love is accepting. Your partner knew your deepest, darkest secrets, how crazy you were, how flawed, but they loved you anyway. When you’ve become used to unconditional love, it can feel cold and dark when that unconditional love is gone.

They Were the Only Person Who Truly Knew You

Perhaps your partner knew how you took your coffee and how you liked your eggs.  Maybe they knew your weaknesses and fears; where you came from; and what you’ve been through. It can be comforting to be ‘known’, but this kind of ‘knowing’ is not easy to come by and takes a long time to build.

They Paid Attention to Your Needs and Well-Being

Everyone is selfish some of the time, but overall, your partner looked out for your needs and tried everything to keep you happy and health. After expeireicing having someone like this, losing it can be very scary and isolating.

They Gave You Comfort And Physical Needs

Everyone needs to be comforted. This is universal. Having someone always there to comfort and physically hold you is a wonderful thing, however once it is gone, it may seem like you’re isolated and alone. Your partner may have known what to do, but no one else does.

Missing the Little Things

It’s only natural to grieve and miss the sweet little things your partner once did. At the same time, you may actually miss all the things that drove you crazy about him or her.

Living With Unresolved Guilt and Regret

It’s normal to feel guilt and regret about t things that happened in their relationship with the deceased, even if it occurred years before the person died.  Perhaps you wish you had treated your partner better, perhaps they never forgave you for something, maybe you regret something you said, maybe you regret not saying enough, or maybe you feel guilty for the fact that you survived and they died.  The battlefield of loss is fertile ground for the coulda’s, woulda’s, and shoulda’s that are typically seen in grief.

Your House Is Empty

After cohabiting with a person for many years, coming home to complete and utter silence can be awful. Most people would do just about anything to hear their partner’s “noses” around the house – their messiness, snoring, talking, singing, video games being played. Your bed will be half-empty at all times, making you feel majorly lonely.

You See Your Kids Miss Out On A Lot

Every time a milestone happens – father/daughter dances; mother/daughter sleepovers; proms; weddings; drivers licenses – you have to live with the knowledge that your child’s excitement may be somewhat tempered by grief over the absence of one of their parents.

Secondary Losses

Most partnerships include a division of labor: one cooks, one cleans, one takes the garbage out, one balances the checkbook. The chores that you’ve not been in charge of are now in your purview. You may have to re-learn how to do something you’ve never done before. There are endless logistics to this: you may need to get a job, childcare may be difficult to secure, paperwork from a death is incredibly complex, and you may even not feel like yourself any more. Balancing life after a partner death comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility

Being on Your Own is Hard

It’s hard to go from having a partner in life, to doing everything on your own.  It’s not that you can’t cope with life on your own, but you got used to the security and comfort of having someone at your side.

You Mourn All The Things Your Significant Other Will Miss

You may grieve for everything your partner will miss (has missed) out on.  Special moments, having children, having grand-babies, retirement – and other things your significant other would have loved .

You Mourn The Things You’ll Miss Out On, Too

After someone dies, it is normal to grieve the past as well as your hopes and dreams for the future.  After your loved one has died, you will mourn for all the things you had dreamed of sharing with them.

Pressure to Do Right By Them

If you’re the next of kin for your dead partner, the responsibility to make decisions is your job. Maybe you’d discussed end-of-life care, DNRS, estates, belongings, and funeral arrangements. Maybe you hadn’t, so you simply have to guess. In the best cases, the extended family agrees with you and supports you, but there are also people who fight you to do what”s right by your partner. Regret over decisions made at the end of a person’s life can make struggling with grief even more complex.

Special Days and Anniversary Reactions

Of course you’ll miss spending those “special days” with your significant other. This may be coupled with an anniversary reaction that triggers your grief and feelings of loss.

\You worry about being truly alone

You were supposed to grow old with your partner, and perhaps you worry that you will spend the rest of your life alone or lonely now that they have died.

Death Threatens Who You Are

Are you a wife?  A husband?  A widow? A widower?  After years together, being someone’s partner was a huge part of who you are. On your own, don’t be surprised if your identity changes.

Relationships Between Family and Friends Changes

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, people grow distant and they lose touch. There are a million reasons why, but sometimes losing a partner cuts your support system in half.

You Have To Live The REST of Your Life Without Them

And without them, this feels like a really really long time.

 You’re single again

Having been partnered off for years, you are now the single person in the room. It’s an isolating feeling.

Third Wheel

Many people who have other married friends have partners that are still alive. Going out with these friends can make you feel awkward and uncomfortable.

You Now Worry About Being Completely Alone

You were supposed to grow old with your partner, and often you may worry that you will spend the rest of your life alone or lonely now that they have died.

Dating After Death

Oftentimes, before you’ve even felt any desire to date again, well-meaning friends will push you to get back out there. If you’re not ready, tell them so.

On the other hand, there will be people who judge you for dating again (so soon?) after your partner dies. It’s a sticky situation for sure.

Your New Partner

Dating someone deeply in mourning can be incredibly hard. Your new partner may not understand why, if you’re dating him or her, aren’t you over your dead partner. It takes an incredibly amazing new partner to understand this:

  • Death doesn’t END a relationship or feelings about the dead partner
  • Make every effort to let the deceased’s memory into their life
  • You can love a person in the present, while continuing to cherish a significant other who has died

How To Help Yourself Heal From The Loss of a Partner:

Losing someone who has been a part of your life for many years or decades can rock you to the core, your grief overwhelming you. Going from a twosome to a single is beyond painful, and it may be hard to learn to cope with this loss.

Physically, one of the most important things to do is to continue to take care of yourself – take your medications, see the doctor, and make sure you’re eating and drinking properly.

Take the time you need to grieve the loss of your partner. There is no time-table on grief and no set schedule in which you should be “over” it.

The more significant the loss (and the loss of a husband, wife, or partner is very significant), the harder the grieving process may be.

Remember, everyone grieves differently. Just because someone you know didn’t feel the same way you do doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong – grief is different for everyone.

Do your best to not play the “what-if” game. There is a lot of self-imposed guilt in those scenarios.

Ignoring the pain will not make the grieving process go any faster. It’s really important to face up to that ugly grief and let it out.

You don’t have to be strong. It’s okay to be weak. Losing a partner is a major life change, and the grief can be very consuming.

It’s okay if you don’t cry – not everyone cries to express their grief. You grieve in your own way in your own time.

Don’t let anyone else pressure you to “get over it.”

It’s common for other people (and yourself) to misunderstand how long it takes to adjust to a new life. It’s common to take far longer than a year or two, and that’s okay.

Lean on your family and friends, even if your pride hates it. This is the time to let people know what you need from them.

Join a support group for other people who have lost spouses. Grief is a lonely time – being surrounded by people who know how you are feeling can go a long way toward combating loneliness.

Talk to a grief counselor or therapist. Often times, someone trained in working with bereaved individuals can help you come up with new coping strategies for working through your grief.

Take care of yourself – physically. Get enough sleep, eat properly, and exercise. The mind and body have a powerful connection, and it’s important to take care of your body while your mind sorts through the grief.

Express your feelings in a tangible way. Write letters to your deceased spouse. Create a memory book. Put old photos in an album that you can look at.

Plan for grief milestones – birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays hold a special emotional significance. Expect that these milestones will be extra hard the first years without your partner.

Never, EVER allow someone to tell you how you should be acting, behaving, or feeling. If they try, cut them off until such time as you can explain why what they said or did was not acceptable.

How To Help A Loved One Who Has Lost A Partner:

When someone we dearly love loses a husband, a wife, or a partner, it is a shock to everyone around them. It can be almost impossible to know how to help someone who has lost a partner. Here are some tips for helping your loved one work through their grief over the loss of their partner.

Beware the Widowhood Effect: the first 3-6 months after your loved one’s loss are critical for their very own existence. Many people who have lost a partner have died between 3 to 6 months after the loss of their partner. It’s generally believed to be a combination of psychical and psychiatric complaints brought on by all the emotions of your loved one that result in a reduced immune system (among other issues) that can lead to death. Social contact has proven to be something that helps a loved one continue to survive the Widowhood Effect.

This makes visiting and checking in on your bereaved loved one as often as possible and encouraging him or her to get back out into the world.

It’s common to misunderstand how long it takes an bereaved individual to adjust to a new life. Some may adjust more easily than others. Stay close to your friend as his or her life changes – it’s a long battle.

Be present for your loved one – they have just suffered a major loss.

Listen non-judgmentally and compassionately. Your kindness will never be forgotten.

Remind yourself that grief is as unique as the person experiencing it – there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief simply is.

If you’re close to your loved one, assist with funeral planning. There’s a lot that goes into planning a funeral and reception, and these tasks are both devastating and require a lot of work.

Stay with your loved one if they would like and help to answer the door, the phone, or emails that may arrive.

Help your friend to organize any paperwork, medical bills, and other things associated with partner loss. That way, bills are paid on time, and your friend doesn’t feel he or she has one more thing to deal with.

Reach out to your friend. Call. Keep calling. Send text messages. Email. Do this frequently, even if they do not respond. Sometimes it’s all they can do to survive. But know that hearing from you can make a world of difference.

Continue reaching out, long after the funeral has ended. Support, by then, has probably dropped off, and it’s likely that your friend is really beginning to feel the loss of his or her partner.

Remember anniversary dates and help your loved one during these awful times. Birthdays, anniversaries, the day of the loved one’s death – these are all days that will be a lot harder on your loved one. Help by remembering to call, send a card, visit, or otherwise be there for your friend.

Cook frozen meals that your loved one can easily heat up. Many grieving people forget to eat, so having something around that’s easily prepare-able can make a huge difference.

Offer practical help – do a load of laundry while you’re visiting. Pick up some groceries at the store. Offer to run errands or accompany your loved one on errands.

Grief makes it very hard to do even the simplest things – sometimes having someone else around can give them the strength to brave the store or pharmacy.

Losing a partner, especially if it’s been a spouse of many years, will make them feel more alone than they ever have. If possible, spend some time just being with your friend. It’s hard going from being a twosome to a single.

Offer to go to weddings, funerals, and other situations in which their partner’s absence won’t feel as devastating.

Have a weekly dinner arranged to go out (or stay in) with your friend to give them something to look forward to.

So many of us want to “fix” the situation for our loved one, but it’s impossible. We cannot fix our friend, we cannot replace their partner – what we can be is a friend. Be there to love them and support them.

Be patient with your loved one. The range of emotions that grief puts us through runs from depression and anger to guilt and sadness. Patience is necessary and important.

Let them talk about all of the ugly emotions they might be feeling – allow them to do so in such a way that they do not feel as though you are judging them.

There may be legal issues involved if the deceased has a complicated family situation (overbearing in-laws, stepchildren, ex-spouse). Offer to help your friend navigate the waters of how to grieve while dealing with the emotions of others closely involved.

Your loved one, especially if you still have a partner, may not want to discuss their loss with you. It’s almost impossible to know the unique pain of losing a partner unless you have been there yourself.

If your loved one grieving his or her partner does not feel comfortable discussing the loss of their spouse, suggest local support groups for bereaved individuals.

Remember: you don’t have to have been a close friend of the family to go to the funeral and wake. It’s appreciated to see that many people are also mourning the passing of their partner.

Remember that the pain of losing a partner will never heal.

Take any signs of depression very seriously. Here is a page about depression for your reference.

Take any talk of suicide very seriously. This is a life-threatening emergency. Read up on suicide prevention here.

If your loved one speaks of suicide, call 911. Do not hesitate.

What to Say When Someone Has Lost A Partner:

Acknowledge the death by saying, “I just heard that your husband (or wife) died. I am here if you want to talk about him (or her).”

Express concern, “I’m so very sorry that you lost your wife (or husband).”

Be genuine without hiding your feelings, “I wish I knew what to say, but please know how much I care.”

Offer support, “Please tell me what I can do for you.”

Ask questions, “How are you feeling?” without assuming you know how the grieving person feels.

How NOT To Help Someone Who Has Lost A Partner:

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a partner. While we’ve talked about what TO say to someone who has lost their husband or wife, we haven’t discussed what NOT to say. Here are some suggestions for what NOT to say to someone who has lost a partner.

Do not expect that your loved one will “get over” their loss on a set time-table. Grief and grieving is unique to each person.

Don’t change the subject if the deceased individual comes up in conversation. It may be uncomfortable for you to talk about, but the person who is grieving wants to feel as though their husband or wife is not forgotten.

Don’t use “he” or “she” in conversation while referring to the deceased. Use their name.

As everyone grieves in their own way, don’t chastise your loved one for being “too happy too soon” or “wallowing.”

Should your loved one begin to date “too soon” after the loss of their spouse, remember that it’s neither your place to judge or understand coping mechanisms.

As always, avoid platitudes. Special mention goes to “He or she is in a better place.” It’s dismissive of the tremendous loss, and without knowing the religious background of your grief-stricken loved one, it may not be something they actually believe.

Don’t say, “I know just how you feel.” Unless you, too, have lost a partner, you do not know how they feel. That comment can cause a lot of anger as it feels dismissive of the loss.

Don’t make assumptions about your grieving friend based upon how they appear. Some people are excellent at hiding their emotions.

Do not dismiss your friend’s varying range of emotions. Because we each grieve in our own way, we may not experience the same emotions – there are no right or wrong emotions involved in the grieving process.

Avoid telling your loved one about your own grief experiences.

Do not compare grief – grief is different for everyone.

Do not offer unsolicited advice about “getting over” their grief. They will NEVER be over their grief.

Don’t offer reasoning about how they should or shouldn’t feel.

What NOT To Say To Someone Who Has Lost A Partner:

“You’ll get remarried some day.”

“He/She was lucky to have lived to such an old age.”

“It was God’s will.”

“He’s/She’s in Heaven now.”

“Be thankful he/she is not in pain any more.”

“Think of all the good times you had.”

“You’ll feel better soon.”

“Count your blessings.”

“You have so much to be grateful for.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“Pull yourself together – be strong!”

“I know exactly how you feel.”

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