12 Ways to survive – and thrive – after the loss of a spouse

Several of my friends have lost their spouses over the last couple of years, and I’ve lost a few Facebook friends as well. You naturally assume that when people get to a certain age, this would not be an uncommon occurrence, and therefore expected. But we are not of “a certain age.” These were people in their fifties or sixties with presumably years left to live.

How does one go on after losing a spouse they had planned to be with for years, if not decades, to come? When I was the CEO of Gilda’s Club (a cancer support organization), we referred to our members – people living with cancer – as the experts. The idea was that the experience of someone with cancer, or living with the reality of a loved one’s diagnosis, made him or her an expert in living with that experience. The medical community was certainly experts in treating the disease, but without the experience of actually “living with cancer” they were not experts in living, only in medicine.

So why am I telling you this? Well, after an eight-year period in which I lost both of my parents, a close aunt and uncle, four jobs, my dog, and my spouse too, I consider myself an expert of sorts in managing grief. So for those of you dealing with this type of loss (and this may apply to someone dealing with an unexpected separation and divorce as well), here is my “expert” advice.

For how to navigate someone else’s grief and links to some great articles on the subject, read this post from last year.

First, surviving…

  1. Welcome help from everyone and anyone willing to give it. I was always very stoic. When my dad died, I scheduled his funeral around work obligations, and repeatedly told people it was no big deal and we were “fine.” When my husband died I recognized that I was in over my head. My friends filled my refrigerator with food. My sisters came all the way from Ireland and even cleaned my house. I didn’t stop any of them. For someone like me who always bordered on control freak, this was huge. But my ability to let go was so important. I didn’t honestly have the mental capacity those first few weeks to take care of the simple things. Allowing others to help is good for your mental health. And people like to feel needed when they are feeling out of control and their heart is breaking for you. Let them help. It will do you all good.
  2. Don’t be shy in asking for help even if it wasn’t offered. There will be times, especially as you begin to take on responsibilities that used to belong to your partner, when you will have more than you can handle. My husband died in October and by mid-November I was looking at a yard full of leaves. The town’s pick up schedule was telling me I had about a week to get them to the curb and I was so overwhelmed. Feeling a little like Tom Sawyer, I created a Facebook event for a leaf-raking party and invited my fiends. Blowers and rakes and many hands descended on my yard and the leaves were gone in less than 2 hours. Everyone stayed around and shared hot chocolate and snacks, stories and jokes. It served as a nice reminder of the wonderful people I had in my life, some who I thought were only Facebook friends.
  3. Seek professional help. I dealt with an unbelievable amount of stress in my life before I decided to see a therapist. It wasn’t until after my cancer diagnosis that I realized maybe I needed more than my morning runs to cope. And while I have had my share of experience in dealing with grief and call myself an expert for the purpose of this blog, I’m not a licensed therapist, counselor or psychologist. Everyone grieves in their own way, in their own time, and professional help can better evaluate whether your reactions are normal or not. I never went the support group route but  know people who have found tremendous help in connecting with others in groups facilitated by mental health professionals.
  4. Know that it’s okay to feel like s*** but don’t let it stop you. I went through waves of emotion. There were days when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I blamed myself for what happened. I experienced survivor’s guilt, anger and plan old loneliness. I found I cried a lot in the first few days and then it subsided. I made it a point to get out of bed every morning, shower and dress, and make the bed. Even if I accomplished nothing else, that was something. Usually getting that far kept me going. And as the weeks and months rolled on, I found just doing one small thing everyday kept me in a forward motion. My therapist helped me deal with the guilt and I stopped blaming myself. I was surprised sometimes when I’d cry out of nowhere or have relapses of my guilt months, even years, later. This, I have found, is normal. And okay (pay close attention to #8).
  5. Know that it’s okay to run away…a little. There will be times you will just want to run away. As long as you don’t find yourself checking out completely, beginning to recognize triggers or difficult situations and avoiding them is reasonable. I knew the first Christmas would be difficult. On top of that, his birthday was a few days later. So right after his death, I booked my daughter, his mom and me on a trip to Cancun for five days starting with Christmas Eve through the day after his birthday. It wasn’t perfect, or completely without emotion, but it avoided staring at an empty seat at the holiday dinner table. I still avoid the old holiday traditions. Last year I had a bunch of friends – also without nearby family connections – for Thanksgiving.
  6. Get back to your routine. Whether that’s running or going back to work or school or whatever. I entered a 5k the Sunday after the funeral. My daughter went back to school on Monday. I had been working on a consulting project. I negotiated a new deadline for the project, but got back to working on it within a week or two as well. I was president of my running club and kept on top of my duties. I trained for a half marathon. Things were different, obviously, and we were beginning to build a “new normal” which now, almost three years later, just feels normal.
  7. Spend time alone to reflect…but not too much. Long walks in the woods, a day at the beach, going to places that are meaningful and relaxing for you is good. Spending too much time alone, thinking too much, I found wasn’t good. I learned this after my parents died. If I thought too much about their absence, I’d develop a crushing pain in my chest. I was self employed, working from my home when my husband died. Being in the house without him there was weird for a long time. I’d go to Starbucks or Panera to work simply to get out of the house. I also took advantage of invitations from friends, and started going to the movies frequently with my daughter (good for her too). It’s not weird anymore. And adoption of a meditation practice was also something I found helpful.

Then thriving…

  1. Understand that there will be set-backs and triggers. After a few months I started feeling really good. I said to myself, “I got this.” And I did. But there were triggers in that first year. Holidays. Anniversaries. A warm day that reminded me of something and I’d find myself feeling overwhelmingly sad. It passes. It never completely goes away. Almost three years later and sometimes out of no where the wind blows a certain way or a song comes on or a military band plays taps at the beginning of a Memorial Day weekend race in Chicago. Embrace the moment. Cherish the memory. Give yourself credit for how far you have come. Live in your humanity. Feel. Facing your feelings, not denying your need to feel, I have found, is part of moving forward. It’s essential to find a balance between the life you’ve lived and the life you’re living. Meditation, again, was helpful in teaching me to embrace the present in all it’s glory…and despair.
  2. Find ways to honor your loved one’s memory. Some people raise money for a charity of personal significance to their spouse, or plant a tree in their memory or do something else that is meaningful. When my husband died, I was registered for the Chicago Marathon the following year. I decided to use my participation to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in his memory. The marathon fell one year and five days after his death. The training and the fundraiser served as a countdown (and a distraction of sorts) to the one-year anniversary. It also served as a vehicle through which I could tell the story. There are also two days each year that I reserve for acknowledging my husband’s memory a little more privately. One is the anniversary of his death. Since he was buried at sea, on the first anniversary my daughter and I went to the beach. On the 2nd Anniversary we went on a dinner cruise. Coming up with new ways each year to “visit the sea” will be interesting. His ashes were spread near the Straight of Gibraltar off the coast of Spain, so that’s on our list of potential destinations. The other day is our wedding anniversary. I write him a letter every year that I put in the mail. Now in the 3rd year since his death I have a small collection of sealed, postmarked letters that if ever opened will be a chronology of how far I’ve come.
  3. Create new traditions. I’ve already discussed 2 small private traditions I’ve created. My daughter and I also host two annual holiday celebrations. The first holiday season after my husband died, my daughter and I threw a big party about a week before Christmas. It was a way for us to begin to create a new life for just the two of us – and a way to thank all our friends who had helped in the first few weeks and months. When summer rolled around we hosted an Independence Day Barbecue. We also created some small new traditions around meals and weekends away.
  4. Do what you couldn’t do before. We make sacrifices even in the best of relationships. It maybe a conscious and willing choice and an easy one to make while they were around. But is there something you gave up doing, or maybe never tried, because it didn’t interest your spouse? My husband wasn’t very social and didn’t like to entertain beyond having our immediate family for holidays. That was part of the reason my daughter and I started entertaining more. We also took a few big vacations (and one spectacular European one!) and continue to honor our interest in travel. There were also simple things like burning scented candles all over the house, making the bathroom more “feminine” and some other redecorating. I also began parenting in a way that I thought better matched by personality, values and everything I learned from my parents.
  5. Do something spectacular. Adjusting to life without someone, especially a spouse, is also a time of self-discovery (or maybe re-discovery). It’s probably the first time you’ve been alone in twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years. Start by trying some new things. Venture into new experiences. Check off some bucket list items (since you just got a lesson in how short life can be). Then set the bar high. Dream. Stretch to something you think is unachievable and make it happen. As I said, I navigated the first year without my husband training for the Chicago Marathon and raising money for charity. That was a productive way to spend my time, but for me it really wasn’t anything new. My two dreams were to write a book and to figure out a way to turn my passion for running into a living. I started this blog over 18 months ago as a way to become more disciplined about my writing. I became a certified running coach two months later. I began my education and training as a life coach as well last year. I formed a new business last fall, a mere two years after my husband’s death. My book isn’t published quite yet. I’m still evolving. Somewhere on this journey I went from surviving to thriving and you can too.

IMG_8153New adventures. Chicago, Illinois. August 2017.

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