Widowhood and Widowerhood

The death of a spouse or partner is one of life’s most stressful events. The grief can be overwhelming. It’s hard to deal with this kind of loss, but here are some ideas that may help.

Practical Matters

In the first days after the death of a loved one, you are likely to be busy notifying friends and taking care of the details of a death. Lots of people call or stop by to express sympathy. You may be in a state of shock and find it easier to handle details than to think about the past or the future.

In the first few weeks after the death, it’s important to take care of financial matters.

  • Notify banks, insurance companies, and pension funds.
  • Check for a will, stock certificates, and any other important papers.
  • Contact Social Security to apply for survivors benefits.
  • If your spouse was a veteran, contact the Veterans Administration (VA) about benefits.
  • Tell all creditors, including issuers of credit cards, that your spouse has died.
  • Check to see if loans, or perhaps your mortgage, will be paid by insurance.
  • Be sure to order enough death certificates. Most financial matters require an original or copy of the death certificate.

Make decisions that must be made, but put off as many major decisions as you can until a later date.

Dealing with Emotions

Your first reaction to the death of a spouse will probably be shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief. In time, the numbness is replaced with pain, sometimes even physical pain. You may feel like your heart has been torn out of your body. Your home and all the places you usually go may seem full of painful reminders. You may keep looking for your lost mate everywhere you go, expecting him or her to come around the corner.

A couple of weeks after the funeral, people tend to stop calling, relatives go home, and you may be left in an empty house with an empty bed. For part or most of your life you have been a wife, husband, or life partner. When your spouse or partner dies, you have lost this role. There are other losses as well. Your partner may have been the primary wage earner, the housekeeper, the car mechanic, the cook, or the one who did the shopping. You may be left to care for your children by yourself. The thought of all that you have to deal with can be frightening and overwhelming. Sadness, fear, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, anger, and guilt are all common reactions to these losses. Somehow, you must create a new identity, a new purpose for life, new goals, a new sense of “normal.”

Anger is a normal response when your life partner dies, especially if he or she was killed in an accident or an act of violence. You may feel bitter and hostile. It’s important to allow others to comfort and support you.

Feeling guilty about the death of a partner is another common feeling. Your partner may have suffered or been sick for a long time. You may think of things you could have done differently or better. Being human means that we do not always do everything perfectly. It is important to remember that you did the best you could when you were under a lot of stress. Don’t feel guilty about things that you had no control over.

You may also have other reactions, such as:

  • Your sleep patterns may change. You may find yourself up all night and wanting to sleep all day.
  • You may feel very tired, without the energy to do much of anything.
  • You may have no interest in cooking or eating.
  • You may feel sick to your stomach, tense, or just generally not well.
  • You may drink too much, smoke more than usual, or take too many tranquilizers, pain pills, or sleeping pills.

What helps?

Remember that there is no timeline for your grief. You will heal at your own pace and in your own time. Here are some ideas to help you cope.

  • Eat a healthy diet whether you feel like it or not.
  • Get some exercise every day, like walking.
  • Go back to your usual activities as soon as possible. Keep busy. Find ways to spend time with other people. It helps to have things to do and a normal schedule.
  • Give yourself permission to laugh, sing, joke, try new things, and support others. It doesn’t mean that you are not grieving or that you have forgotten your partner.
  • You may be distracted and more prone to accidents. Be sure to pay attention when you are driving or operating machinery.
  • Try to have a positive attitude. Instead of saying, “I miss him or her so much,” say, “He had a great laugh,” or “She brought so much beauty to the world.”
  • Don’t make important life decisions for a few months. For example, don’t sell your house, quit your job, move to another town, move in with your family, or give away large sums of money. Making big changes will not ease the pain of grief. Adding stress of such changes will not make you feel better.
  • See your healthcare provider for a checkup, especially if you have headaches, chest pain, or digestive problems.
  • Give yourself permission to cry, scream, or find other ways to express your feelings. If you feel overwhelmed and like you cannot cope with your loss, or start using alcohol or drugs to help with depression you might want to see a therapist who specializes in grief counseling.
  • Most cities have grief support groups that you can join. You may be able to find one by looking on the internet or in the Yellow Pages for hospices. Churches or hospitals may also offer support groups.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-01
Last reviewed: 2014-09-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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