Coping with Grief When You Lose the Love of Your Life
By Robert Wright, Jr., Ph.D., COFT
Recently, my beloved wife Christine passed away after a valiant fight with cancer. The death of a close loved one, puts you in a club that almost no one wants to belong to: a place of heartfelt sorrow, disappointment, sadness and “what ifs.” Additionally, the death of your spouse is like no other. Why? Because usually your spouse knows you better than anyone else on the planet—your good points as well as all your warts and blemishes—and they are your best friend who always has your back.
When grief strikes, even when you are prepared for it, the experience can still be surreal since you may not even be able to tell what you’re feeling as the experience begins to seep into every pore of your being. Many people initially feel numb or simply “out of it” while others may immediately go into denial—sobbing, anger, rage, disbelief—“Why is this happening to me?” “She didn’t deserve this!” or “How could this happen?”….“I don’t believe this is really happening!”….“It’s so unfair!”….“Why now?”….“If I had only listened to you!”
The mental and emotional toll the death of a close loved one can have on you is often a heavy load to bear since there are so many unknowns within the bereavement and grieving experiences. For instance, you may begin to mentally and emotionally beat yourself up, wondering “Where did I go wrong?….What if I had listened to her and done things differently?…Why did I ever disagree or argue with her when she was right 99% of the time?….Why was I such a jerk or knucklehead?” When you are in such a heightened feeling state, it’s important to be gentle with yourself and minimize self-blame. Doing so helps you keep your head clear so that you can make better decisions at this critical time in your life. So many important decisions to make within a very short time window.
Of course, as is often true in life, with hindsight, many things could have been done differently. But, it’s also important to acknowledge that most likely, since you always had good intentions, you made the best decisions possible under the circumstances, based upon the information you had available at the time. Years ago, I received some wise advice from an elderly gentleman who said this to me: “If you live long enough, you’ll get to know what grief feels like up-close.” How true!
As I reflected on his statement, I immediately realized that losing my wife to cancer created an immense hole in my life since Christine was not only my wife, but she was also my business partner, my lover, my confidant, and most importantly, my best friend. With her death, all at once, I had lost my dearest and most precious friend and friendship! Double Ouchie!!!
I knew right away from previous internal grief work I had completed, that I needed to immediately unlink in my mind the fact that my mother had died of a similar cancer to Christine’s untimely death. And that has been an important aspect of my healing recovery that has allowed me to steer clear of the grief “pity party pit:” focusing on the positive and how to make things better right now instead of being stuck in a “whoa is me” feeling state.
Of course, this is not an easy thing to do but once I shifted my focus from Grief to Gratitude, I was able to focus on how I could live the rest of my life implementing Christine’s legacy of kindness, compassion and empathy—to leave this world a better place than I found it. That has been a key take away for me from Christine’s death: during her lifetime, she touched so many people in gentle ways to effect positive change—it is a high honor that I got to spend 14 blissful years with her!
Since the death of a close loved one can cause you to feel and experience deeply felt emotions such as guilt, numbness, sadness, disbelief, depression and regret all at once, here are a few tips you can use to help you steer your path through the mourning, bereavement and grieving maze; all while remembering that grief and grieving are unique and individual experiences:
Acknowledgement: You must move past denial that your loved one has died and that your life will never be the same. Although this may be a painful realization for you, the sooner you can do this, the more likely you’ll be able to regain your equilibrium.
Grieving is Unique: There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Don’t allow others to tell you how or what you should be feeling. Since you are a unique individual, the way you grieve or mourn the loss of a close loved one may be “different” or “difficult” for some people to understand or accept. There is no “normal” way to grieve, however, should you become depressed or experience complicated grieving—you can no longer successfully engage with life—then you need to immediately seek out professional help and consider accepting the offers of support from family and friends.
Accept Support: Although many of us like to act “as if” we don’t need others and can do everything ourselves, research studies demonstrate time and again that you’ll have a better chance of recovering and being able to move on with your life sooner when you have and use a strong social support system. In fact, the wider and deeper your social support system, the better and faster you may recover! So, remember to allow family, friends, and co-workers to assist you at this difficult time and be gentle with yourself since you gave your all as a caregiver. Although each of us needs “space,” research shows that when you isolate yourself, you increase your risks for complicated grieving, depression and anxiety disorders. This is especially true when you are grieving during the holiday season.
Re-Engage with Life: A key aspect of healing grief is to start re-engaging with people and activities that make you come alive. Perhaps you used to dance; so start shopping for some new dancing shoes and go dancing! Perhaps there was a dream destination you always wanted to travel to—then start planning and go! The fact that you lost your close loved one should create a new awareness that putting things off “until I retire” may not be the best strategy for living a full life. I have met many people who now regret having put off travel or other fun stuff only to learn that their spouse, significant other, mother, aunt or sibling was now either incapacitated or had died unexpectedly of a heart attack, stroke or brain aneurism. So get out there and start enjoying!
Seek Professional Help: For most of us, negotiating the territory of grief, bereavement and mourning is not an easy experience. After all, in our culture, we are generally not taught how to accept losses; the cultural focus is on acquiring and making gains. Therefore, serious losses such as the death of a spouse, child or beloved pet, tend to wound us deeply. Consider reaching out to your medical doctor, therapist, grief counselor or other health practitioner for advice should you feel “stuck” or unusually despondent. Remember, getting professional help when grieving is not a sign of weakness but of strength! Consider using resources such as the Grief Recovery Institute who have helped thousands of people in distress transit their grief and bereavement experiences.
Prioritize Self Care: When you are grieving deeply, a cascade of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol will increase in your body automatically, thus raising your allostatic loads by spiking your sympathetic nervous system. In order to reduce your stress and anxiety to move back toward healthy homeostasis, you must do things that simultaneously calm your sympathetic nervous system and spike your parasympathetic nervous system. Spiking your parasympathetics increases secretions of soothing hormones and neurotransmitters such as cyclic nitric oxide, endogenous morphine, oxytocin and serotonin—all which boost your mood and sense of well-being. Regularly practicing an effective stress management regimen such as aromatherapy, biofeedback, diaphragmatic breathing, massage, meditation, neurofeedback, Open Focus or reflexology helps minimize your daily stressors so that while grieving, you do not move into debilitating experiences of overload or burnout. When you are grieving, insomnia can strike, so it’s important to keep track of whether you are getting enough sleep. Ask family members and friends to “flag you” if they think you may be moving down the sleep deprivation path so that you can take corrective action.
Remember to Celebrate: This may seem counter-intuitive but the more you focus on the good times and fond memories you have of your dearly departed love one, you may find yourself chuckling unexpectedly and smiling more often as you clearly recall the good times you had together. Consider placing a few favorite photos in your purse or briefcase to look at whenever you have a free moment during the day or while waiting in line at the supermarket. Perhaps you’ll experience what I felt: a lifting of a gloomy cloud of sadness turning into an uplifted bodily feeling of joy and relief that my sweetie pie is now resting peacefully without pain—and that the world is a better place because of her generous actions just like in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
Dr. Bob is an Executive Stress Management Wellness Coach, author, speaker and co-host of the popular StressFreeNow podcast series listed as one of the top 50 stress and pain relief podcasts worldwide. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.