(A practical post to support those who are grieving the loss of a partner.)
I started my own bereavement journey as a mother who had lost both of her children. Time has passed and I feel privileged to now be able to support others on their own valley journeys. Along the way, I’ve been meeting quite a few widows and occasional widowers. In fact, on average more than half of those who attend my Living with Loss retreats have lost a life partner, and I have been learning a lot from them.
Losing a life partner is a very different experience to losing a child, and although losing a husband hasn’t been my personal experience, I can certainly empathise. I can also relate somewhat to some of the implications of this loss, as my first marriage ended in divorce and I remember how I struggled with the practical side of things for the first couple of years. I was now a single parent, I didn’t drive, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience in taking care of certain aspects of daily living that were now my sole responsibility.
Each of the widows I have been meeting face their own challenges. They may have been married 30, 40, 50 years; they may have children and grandchildren or none; they may have nursed their husbands through long or short illnesses. Some are well supported by their families and friends, others are not. Some are financially comfortable whilst others are struggling with new difficulties, loss of pension, perhaps a need to sell a home. Some are desperately sad and missing their “other half”. Others find themselves slightly relieved that their loved one’s suffering is over, recognising that they had lived a full life that had reached its natural end.
I’m writing “widows” here but I’m also speaking of widowers, in fact anyone of any gender, grieving the loss of their partner of any gender – a loved husband, wife or civil partner.
So many different situations and reactions, yet each and every one has something in common: they face a future that is very different to what has gone before, because the one who had been by their side is no longer there.
They face loneliness and heartbreak, and all the tumult of emotions that follow any life-changing loss. What is more, I have observed that the practical side of their new life can present some of the biggest challenges.
There are immediate issues to deal with, explained very helpfully in this useful link from Age UK
Then there is the business of taking care of the estate of their partner. Here’s another useful link from Age UK with guidance on this issue.
Along the way, there are a lot of decisions to be made, both minor and major. Some find themselves alone to make decisions for the first time, and this can feel quite lonely and even scary. Making a decision with someone else can be reassuring; a shared responsibility might not feel so heavy, as we can rely on our combined experience, ideas and insights. Facing major decisions without anyone to lean on can feel daunting, especially at first. The bereaved often feel quite de-stabilised and unsure of themselves, which adds another layer of difficulty to making choices.
On the other hand, perhaps especially for those that are elderly, there can be no end of advice from other people, and even some pressure. Adult children might step in to try to take over our affairs and might think they know what is best for us.
It is always a good idea to go slowly with decisions, whenever practically possible. We have to remember that it is our life to live now, and we must manage the best we can. Finding our own strength to stand on what we believe is best for ourselves is part of the “living with loss” journey.
The physical practical challenges of being newly alone are endless. If our partner used to do the cooking, or shopping, or gardening; if they were the only one who drove; if they emptied the bins, changed the lights, paid the bills; if they took care of buying our grandchildren’s birthday presents or making Christmas arrangements; if they were the driving force behind booking our holidays or making major purchases; if it was their club friends who came over for supper; all of these “ifs” represent a major change in our daily lives as they are now.
We might not feel like bothering at the start, but in time we will need to face many of these challenges. We have to eat, our home must be cleaned, bills must be paid and banking attended to. We might feel hurt or upset that we are left alone to manage. We might feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, we might also enjoy it just a little. Maybe we don’t have to have Eastenders playing on the TV any longer!
We should be patient with ourselves as we live and learn and make these practical adjustments that may be often quite difficult. Sometimes we might be able to get some help from relatives or friends, or talk to our GP if we are not able to manage. Other sources of help and advice include Age UK and possibly our local council. Many churches and religious organisations also offer support of some kind.
A big question that often arises following the loss of a partner is concerning our living arrangements. We might find our present accommodation too big for our needs, yet we have so many memories attached to this place, it is hard to imagine leaving. Some sort of sheltered housing might be a realistic option to consider, especially if we are not in good health. There are some ideas about the choices we might want to reflect on here. The advice regarding decision-making definitely applies; as much as possible, we should try to take as much time as we need to make our own decision. Well-meaning advice of relatives can support us in making the right choice, but it needs to be our own choice, not theirs.
Speaking of relatives, something else I have observed from my interactions with both bereaved men and women is that relationships with family members can sometimes not work out as might have been expected. Weeks have passed since the funeral, and grown sons and daughters have disappeared – why are they not at our side? Other family members may also disappoint. We feel puzzled, hurt, confused. There are so many factors behind each individual’s behaviour, their relationships with us, and their own process of grieving. Whatever the reasons, any disappointments of this kind are yet another aspect of how much life can challenge us after a partner dies.
I hope if you are reading this because you have lost your loved one that you will find a measure of comfort in realising that you are not alone. What you are facing precisely is unique to yourself, but many aspects are common to others – like I wrote about on the “choose a cup” page.
Be patient with yourself. Take care of yourself. Life is full of adjustments that you have coped with in the past. This is a time of major change, but you can cope with this too. It may take some time, but there is a road forward; just take it one step at a time.
In the words of Annie Johnson Flint:
One day at a time – but the day is so long,
And the heart is not brave, and the soul is not strong,
O Thou pitiful Christ, be Thou near all the way;
Give courage and patience and strength for the day.
READ MORE: Coping with the loss of a partner
PS. If this post has helped you personally, or if you know someone who is struggling with life following the loss of their partner, please have a look at my retreats. We explore these issues and many more in order to find hope and courage for the road ahead.
A tree damaged and cut down in a storm becomes the base for a beautiful fern about to unfold for the first time. There is life after loss. (Picture taken in Bodnant Gardens, North Wales.)