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Healing a Spouse's Grieving Heart
100 Practical Ideas After your Husband or Wife Dies
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2003 Alan Wolfelt
All rights reserved.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GRIEF AND MOURNING.
Grief is what we think and feel on the inside when someone we love dies.
Mourning is the outward expression of our grief.
Everyone grieves when someone loved dies, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn.
Many of the ideas in this book are intended to help you mourn the death of your spouse — to express your grief outside of yourself. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.
Mourning the death of a spouse isn't always easy. As a culture, we tend to be uncomfortable with outward expressions of grief. We sometimes feel ashamed or weak if we show our innermost feelings. Yet the truth is, it takes strength and perseverance to mourn.
If some of your friends and family are not compassionately supporting your need to mourn, seek out the company of those who will.
CARPE DIEM: Ask yourself this: Have I been mourning my spouse's death or have I restricted myself to grieving?
KNOW THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
Your relationship with your spouse was unique. Your grief is unique, too. No other widow or widower will grieve in exactly the same way. No one else will have precisely the same thoughts and feelings.
Still, you are not alone. Millions of others have experienced the death of a spouse in the last five years. Millions more will lose a partner in the coming decade. According to the Census Bureau, at any given time about 12% of the U.S. population has been widowed — 2 % of all men and 10% of all women. And this number does not include deaths among same sex partners and unmarried heterosexual couples.
Some people like to point out that widowhood happens to half of all married people. This is not to say that something is simple or unimportant just because it is commonplace. On the contrary, the loss of a partner is among life's most wrenching and challenging experiences.
Many others before you have walked the path that you now walk. They are all around you — in your neighborhood, your workplace, your community groups, your place of worship. And many of them would like to offer you the support that only another widow can. Open up to others and in turn they will open up to you.
Think about whom you know who has also lost a spouse or partner. Make an effort to spend some time talking with one of these people today.
BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF.
The journey through grief is a long and difficult one. It is also a journey for which there is no preparation.
You have lost your life partner, perhaps your soulmate and best friend. The person who may have known you better than anyone else is now gone. To feel lonely, angry, deeply sad and other difficult emotions is not only normal, it is necessary.
Be compassionate with yourself as you encounter these painful thoughts and feelings.
Don't judge yourself or try to set a particular course for healing. There is no one way to grieve the death of a spouse. There is only what you think and feel and the expressing of those thoughts and feelings.
Let your journey be what it is. And let yourself — your new, grieving self — be who you are.
If you have the energy, take a walk today through a quiet area of town. Or better yet, get out of town and find a "safe place" in nature. Rest when you're tired and contemplate the ways in which you might take better care of yourself in the coming weeks and months.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE UNIQUENESS OF YOUR WIDOWHOOD.
Your unique grief journey will be shaped by many factors, including:
* the nature of the relationship you had with your husband or wife.
* the age of the spouse who died as well as your own age.
* how long you were married.
* the circumstances of the death.
* your family's coping and communication styles.
* your unique personality.
* your cultural background.
* your religious or spiritual beliefs.
* your gender.
* your support systems.
Because of these and other factors, no two deaths are ever mourned in precisely the same way. If other people in your life have died, you may find that this grief feels similar or completely different.
If you are a younger widow, your circumstances and needs will probably be very different than if you're an older widow — and vice versa. Financial matters, social issues, remarriage, childcare — all these things can be markedly different depending upon your age.
Don't have rigid expectations for your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Instead, accept and even celebrate your uniqueness.
Reach out to get your unique mourning needs met today. Find someone close to your age and circumstances who is also a widow — someone who can truly affirm and honor the power of your story.
ALLOW FOR NUMBNESS.
Feelings of shock, numbness and disbelief are nature's way of temporarily protecting us from the full reality of the death of someone loved. They help us survive our early grief. Thank God for numbness and denial.
We often think, "I will wake up and this will not have happened." Mourning can feel like being in a dream. The world feels distant, almost unreal — especially the lives of other people. The world turns but you may not feel it. Time elapses, but you may not experience it.
Your emotions need time to catch up with what your mind has been told. This is true even when death has followed a long illness.
Even after you have moved beyond your initial feelings of shock, numbness and disbelief, don't be surprised if they resurface. Birthdays, holidays and anniversaries and other special occasions often trigger these normal and necessary feelings.
You may want to reach out and let others you trust know when you are experiencing waves of numbness and disbelief. Their compassionate support will help you through these difficult times.
If you're feeling numb, cancel any commitments that require concentration and decision-making. Allow yourself time to regroup.
EXPECT TO HAVE A MULTITUDE OF FEELINGS.
Mourners don't just feel sad. We may feel numb, angry, guilty, afraid, confused or even relieved. Sometimes these feelings follow each other within a short period of time or they may occur simultaneously.
As strange as some of these emotions may seem to you, they are normal and healthy.
Think of your feelings as friends to be understood, not enemies to be fought. In part, the function of your feelings is to remind you that you have "special needs." Your task is to pay attention to your unique special needs.
Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling without judging yourself.
Talk about your feelings with someone who cares and can supportively listen.
Which emotion has surprised you most since your spouse's death? In your mind, single out this emotion for a moment and give it play. Embrace it. Honor it. And affirm it by talking to someone else who has journeyed through grief after the death of a spouse.
BE AWARE THAT YOUR GRIEF AFFECTS YOUR BODY, HEART, MIND, SOCIAL SELF AND SPIRIT.
Grief is physically demanding. The body responds to the stress of the encounter and the immune system can weaken. You may be more susceptible to illness and physical discomforts. You may also feel lethargic or highly fatigued. (We call this the "lethargy of grief.") You may not be sleeping well.
The emotional toll of grief is complex and painful. Mourners often feel many different feelings, and those feelings can shift and blur over time.
Cognitive disorientation is common in grief. You may find yourself unable to think clearly, stay on task or remember everyday things.
Bereavement naturally results in social discomfort. Friends and family often withdraw from mourners, leaving us isolated and unsupported. While I hope this isn't the case for you, don't be shocked if some of your friends and family pull away. They often do this in an effort to protect their own emotions.
After the death of someone loved, we often ask ourselves, "Why go on living?" "Will my life have meaning now?" "Where is God in this?" Spiritual questions such as these are natural and necessary but also draining. If you are feeling spiritual discomfort, you may want to talk with a clergyperson or spiritual counselor.
Basically, your grief may affect every aspect of your life. Nothing may feel "normal" right now. If this is true for you, don't be alarmed. Just trust that in time, you will find peace and comfort again.
If you've felt physically affected by your grief, see a doctor this week. Sometimes it's comforting to receive a clean bill of health.
EMBRACE YOUR SPIRITUALITY.
Above all, grief is a journey of the soul. It demands you to consider why people live, why people die and what gives life meaning. These are the most spiritual questions we have language to form.
For many people, formal places of worship — churches, synagogues, mosques — offer a safe place and a ritualized process for discovering and embracing their spirituality. If you don't belong to a place of worship, perhaps now is a good time to join.
Try to schedule some spiritual time into each day.
For me, spending time alone in nature provides both the solitude and the beautiful evidence of God's existence that I need to nurture my soul. This "exile time" helps restore my soul and gives me the energy to cope with the demands of my day.
Since your spouse died, you may have found yourself contemplating your own eventual death. This is very common. After all, you were partners in life. It's only natural to wonder if you'll be partners after life.
We grow, we learn; the spiritual path is a lifetime unfolding process. The death of your spouse may inspire this spiritual unfolding. Make the effort to embrace your spirituality and it will embrace you back by inspiring you with a sense of peace, hope and healing.
Perhaps you have a friend who seems spiritually grounded. Talk to this person about his beliefs and spiritual experiences. Ask him how he learned to nurture his spirituality.
LET GO OF DESTRUCTIVE MYTHS ABOUT GRIEF AND MOURNING.
Unknowingly, you have probably internalized many of our society's harmful myths about grief and mourning.
Here are some to let go of:
* I need to be strong and carry on.
* Tears are a sign of weakness.
* I need to get over my grief.
* Death is something we don't talk about.
Sometimes these myths will cause you to feel guilty about or ashamed of your true thoughts and feelings.
Your grief is your grief. It's normal and necessary. Allow it to be what it is. Allow it to last as long as it lasts. Strive to be an authentic mourner — one who openly and honestly expresses what you think and feel.
Help de-mythologize grief by talking to your friends and family about grief and mourning. Let them know that their feelings about your spouse's death are normal and necessary. Share how you've been feeling.
TELL THE STORY, OVER AND OVER AGAIN IF NECESSARY.
Acknowledging a death is a painful, ongoing need that we meet in doses, over time. A vital part of healing in grief is often "telling the story" over and over again.
The "story" relates the circumstances surrounding the death, reviewing the relationship, describing aspects of the personality of the spouse who died, and sharing memories, good and bad.
It's as if each time we tell the story, it becomes a little more real. It also becomes a more integrated part of who we are.
Find people who are willing to listen to you tell your story, over and over again if necessary, without judgment.
Tell the story to someone today in the form of a letter. Perhaps you can write and send this letter to a friend who lives far away. If you are not a letter writer, find a trusted friend to "talk out" the story. You will know who will be willing to listen and who won't.
START EACH NEW DAY WITH A MEDITATION OR PRAYER.
For many widows, waking up in the morning is the hardest part of their day. It's as if each time you awaken you must confront anew the realization that your lifemate has died.
Starting the day off with tears and a heavy heart, day in and day out, is so draining. Yet it may be a necessary part of your grief journey, especially in the early weeks and months after the death.
Excerpted from Healing a Spouse's Grieving Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2003 Alan Wolfelt. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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