Moving On After the Death of a Spouse

Dear Alice,

My husband of 35 years died suddenly 10 months ago after having major surgery that we were told was successful. After leaving the hospital to return home and change clothes, I received a call from his doctor telling me that my husband was dead. I was devastated. I still am.

Both of my adult children are married and have children of their own. We are a close family, and my husband was a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. We made a good life for ourselves, and now the loneliness is unbearable.

I am struggling with the loss, and one of the hardest things about it is how little friends seem to understand what I am going through. Few ask me how I am doing. Some people, including my children, have told me that since almost a year has passed, I should be getting beyond my grief.

I am hurt by their comments and feel misunderstood in a way that is adding to my pain. I often react in anger, which has caused some people to stop contacting me.

Do you have any suggestions that can help me deal with all of their insensitivity?

— In Pain

Dear In Pain,

I am saddened about your husband’s death. Dealing with loss is one of the most misunderstood and complicated issues for human beings. For many widowed people, grief is a very emotionally painful process. Adding to the pain is the way friends and family often react over time to one’s continued expressions of sadness. What seems like a lack of caring is more likely to be their difficulty in how best to deal with your bereavement. Even people who have been through a similar loss may make statements that are hard to accept.

Understanding this may help you put their comments in perspective. Most likely these people, including your children, want you to feel better. There are some people who will not experience the depth of a loss that others will because they have not had a deep attachment to their deceased; therefore, even a widowed person might say something insensitive. Others may have gone through a painful recovery from such a loss and won’t want to relive it through your loss. In addition, we are rarely taught what to say at such times and may speak out of ignorance.

Your children are most likely also grieving for their father and are trying to do what they perceive society expects of them, to get on with their lives. They probably want to normalize their own lives by not conveying their own despair at the unexpected death of their father. Having a young family helps them focus on childrearing and being a spouse. Your loss does not have these same distractions to focus on. Also, your children have not lived exclusively with you and your husband in recent years, I suspect. They are also likely to be worried about you and don’t want to add to your grief by initiating a conversation about how you are doing. Certainly you want the love and support of your children. Trying to understand them better at this time will help you remain close.

Getting angry at what you perceive as the insensitivity of people will only add to your sense of isolation. Having high expectations for others to understand what you are experiencing will only intensify your sadness and loneliness. If you view other people as doing the best they can with your loss and try to accept their limitations, you may feel more comfortable with their attempts to soothe you.

We can increase our isolation after loss by our hostility toward people who may offer us friendship, however awkwardly. Their alienation from us becomes an additional loss. Give yourself all the time you need to grieve and forgive attempts by others to care for you in ways that may seem inadequate or insensitive. Over time you may come to appreciate these same people who were imperfect but trying to care for you in their own way. Even their careless comments will recede in your memory. Ultimately they will be part of your healing process and celebrate your return to life.

You and your husband likely made many decisions together, and shared family involvement, interests, friendships, and intimacy. Your adjustment to the end of these aspects of 35 years together will take time as you create a different life for yourself. This does not mean ever forgetting your husband. Your loving relationship with him will become a part of the fabric of your new life. You will find other pleasures and hopefully begin to enjoy family and friends again.

Best wishes.

— Alice

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