Coping with the Death of Your Spouse… | Counseling | Therapy

Coping with the Death of Your Spouse in Adulthood

Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt , LCSW, DSW — Therapist

Coping with the death of your spouse: grief therapy image

Coping with the death of your spouse: Grief Therapy

Ginny and her husband, Adam, were happily married for 3 years and ready to start trying for a family when Adam was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Instead of spending their early married years the way their friends were, excited for the future, Ginny became Adam’s full-time caregiver through his cancer journey. When Adam died one year after his diagnosis, Ginny was shocked, devastated, and didn’t know how to start her life again.

Unfortunately, the scenario above, while heartbreaking, is not uncommon: whether we want to admit it or not, sometimes, young people die. If you have lost your spouse after a prolonged illness or a sudden loss, spousal loss therapy support services may be what you need to help you begin to cope, heal, and build a path moving forward.

Who Can Benefit from Spousal Loss Therapy Services?

There used to be a taboo that only the “weak” went to therapy, but we now know that this couldn’t be more wrong. People seeking spousal loss therapy services come from all ages, life stages, and backgrounds, and for those who have lost a spouse in the early years of marriage or partnership, a special approach is needed. Spouses who have cared for their partner over the course of a long illness may be feeling a number of things, including:

  • Loss of purpose. Though it may have felt overwhelming at times, you may have taken your role as a caregiver as if it were your job, and perhaps one you were very good at, anticipating your partner’s needs, advocating for them, and ensuring that they were comfortable and content. You may now be wondering how to find a new purpose or even explore what passions and goals you have for yourself in the wake of the death of your spouse.
  • Resentful. Anger and resentment is natural when you have lost your spouse. Perhaps your spouse made health or lifestyle decisions that contributed to their death, or perhaps their death was truly random and unexpected. Anger over what happened, your loss of control in protecting or influencing their life choices or death, can feel overpowering. Please do not judge yourself when these feelings come. They are a natural response to losing someone you love.
  • Ambivalent. Maybe your relationship with your spouse was not perfect, and you were in the process of counseling, or separation, or working through different visions of what you’d hoped your marriage would bring. Maybe you fought a lot, or maybe there was some relief when your spouse died if they were suffering due to a mental or physical illness. An ambivalent response means you may feel many different emotions at the same time: relief, anger, numbness, and more. People who feel ambivalent often feel guilt over their emotional responses even though these, too, are normal. Be kind to yourself. Your heart, mind, and body, are processing the physical end of an important relationship in your life, no matter what that relationship looked like.
  • Isolated. You may feel as though nobody understands, since most of your friends may be on a more ‘normal’ life trajectory. Maybe your loss makes them uncomfortable and some formerly supportive friends have been avoidant. Maybe they say nothing because they simply don’t know what to say. Feeling lonely can bring about greater feelings of depression and hopelessness, and it can be so helpful to find even one supportive friend to talk to. Maintaining connections where you can, reaching out for help, and admitting you’re struggling, is the first step to healing.
  • Afraid of Death. This is very, very common. As humans, we tend to ignore the fact of our own mortality and distract ourselves while we focus on living our lives. The death of your spouse may bring your mortality into focus, and this can make you feel anxious, helpless, and hopeless. While death is a natural part of life, you have had to face it sooner than most, and it is understandable that you may be wondering if death hurts, if there is an afterlife (even if you are a person of faith), and when you, yourself, might die. If you have children, you may feel all the more acutely that you must be making plans for their care as you are now a single parent.

How Can Spousal Loss Therapy Services Help You?

Spousal loss therapy services all you to begin to speak the unspeakable. When death happens unexpectedly, few people want to talk about it, as if it is contagious. While of course this is superstition, many grievers feel silenced by the people who used to support them. Spousal loss therapy creates a safe space for you to face your loss, instead of run away from it. A caring, skilled clinician can take on the taboo topics you have been wondering about or feeling, honoring your anger, gently exploring your ambivalence, and even helping to make concrete plans for your future.

Spousal loss therapy services may consist of a number of therapeutic exercises, including narrative therapy, in which you are asked to tell the story of life with your spouse, including your spouse’s death. You may think of your life in terms of chapters, reliving how you and your spouse met, your relationships, and their decline/death, and the aftermath. Your spousal loss therapist may ask you to make writing this story a regular practice, taking even 5 minutes a day to journal, and encourage you to use untraditional or creative mediums like art and poetry to activate different areas of your brain involved in growth, learning, and healing. You can review your narrative with your spousal loss therapist, looking for areas in your story where you judge yourself too harshly, demonstrate overly rigid assumptions about your experience, or need to revise content where you are simply unfair to yourself or your experience. Narrative therapy can give you a place to “put” the many thoughts and feelings that may be circling endlessly in your head without an escape valve.

Our spousal loss therapy services can start to address the helplessness or confusion you feel, or the What now? that comes after your spouse dies. There may be concrete tasks that need to be completed, but there may also be major shifts in your perspective that are needed in order to recenter yourself as an important person who deserves to live a meaningful life. For example, you may wonder if at some point you might find a new partner, and if that would be OK. You may consider a career change, or stepping down from an overly stressful job to explore different opportunities. A spousal loss therapist can help you take the first steps toward re-prioritizing your needs. You need to care for yourself so that you can care for others.

If you are caring for others like dependent children, spousal loss therapy services can help you find the language, resources, and information you need to begin to talk about your spouse’s death with your children or young family members. Even if your spouse died after a lengthy illness, children may be having their own unique, unexpected reactions, and they will rely on you to translate these for them. This responsibility can feel overwhelming and weighty, and you will likely want to be sure to speak to your children in an age-appropriate way. You may worry about showing emotion during this process, and your therapist can help you prepare for this by role-playing, but also reassuring you that showing emotion and sadness to your children during this painful time is appropriate and not harmful.

What About the Internet?

Online support groups can serve a valuable role in connecting you with other people who have experienced spousal loss, and many newly grieving people turn to online forums for this purpose. While there is certainly value and kinship found in online support groups, remember that no two losses are the same, and ever single human grieves differently and, furthermore, some people may have outdated or even harmful views about grief. For example, some grievers may label others’ responses as abnormal or unusual, when there are very few symptoms of grief that are, in fact, abnormal. Human grief is a spectrum and a continuum, and there is no one “right” way to grieve. You may encounter people who, because they are untrained therapists, may say hurtful things or ask you for details about your spouse’s death that you are not ready to share. Proceed with caution into these support groups. Certainly, you can find some long-lasting, meaningful relationships in online forums that can reassure you that you are not alone, but online support groups are not a substitute for spousal loss therapy services.

At What Point Should I Call a Spousal Loss Therapist?

It is never too early to get help. In fact, if you are anticipating your spouse’s death and need support, you can even arrange an appointment before that death occurs. There is no wrong time or place to get therapy, and with the advances of teletherapy, you can schedule an appointment that is convenient for you in the comfort of your own home. A spousal loss therapist can help you prepare for your spouse’s death, but also support your through it as you work toward your “new normal”.

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