Grieving the Death of a Spouse or Significant Other
By Eleanor Haley, M.S.
Death, regardless of the details, is capable of devastating those it leaves behind. Brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, or father – all losses are significant. Although commonalities exist amongst people who have experienced a certain type of loss, individual grief is as unique as the person experiencing it and their relationship with the person who died.
While we are hesitant to categorize and careful not to compare, we do acknowledge that there’s merit in recognizing commonalities. Shared experiences tell us, if nothing else, that we are not the only ones. And if other people have had struggles similar to our own, then maybe our grief isn’t as crazy as it sometimes seems.
Today we want to discuss some of the reasons why grieving the death of a spouse, fiancé, girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other is difficult. We aren’t going to tell you how to grieve these losses, because we don’t really believe ‘type’ of loss dictates a certain way of coping. However, we do know that these types of losses can present very specific barriers, stumbling blocks, and secondary losses.
Of note for people who don’t regularly read WYG: we have linked some of these to past posts which go much further in depth on the topic. Also, we are going to use the term ‘partner’ and ‘significant other’ for the purposes of this article because they apply broadly, that’s our thought process and we’re sticking to it. Thanks to our readers whose input went into writing this article.
1. They were your best friend
We recently wrote a post about grieving the death of a best friend. Afterwards many people commented that their partner was their best friend, which made their loss feel two-fold.
2. They were your go-to support person
Who was the first person you’d call when something happened? It didn’t have to be a big something, like an emergency, it could have been a small something, like someone annoying you at work. For many of you, your significant other was the one person who knew how long to let you vent and how to calm you down. In fact, there are times when you still pick up the phone to call them after a terrible day, only to be reminded that they are gone.
3. They provided you with unconditional love
Love may not be blind, but it is often very accepting. Your partner may have been the one person knew how deeply flawed and crazy you were, but chose to love you anyway. The world can feel dark when it seems like there is no one in it who will accept and love you for who you truly are.
4. They were the only person who really truly knew you
Perhaps your partner knew how you took your coffee and how you liked your eggs. Maybe they knew your weaknesses and fears; where you came from; and what you’ve been through. It can be comforting to be ‘known’, but this kind of ‘knowing’ is not easy to come by and takes a long time to build.
5. They looked out for your needs and your well-being
Although they may have been selfish from time to time (who isn’t?), overall they probably thought of your needs and wanted you to be healthy and happy. After having someone like this in your life, not having it can feel very scary and isolating.
6. They were your source for physical intimacy and comfort
I’m not sure much needs to be said on this matter. As a human you most likely crave some level of physical comfort. It may be that you’re open to intimacy with someone new, but haven’t found anyone. Or perhaps you long for intimacy, but can’t imagine that kind of closeness with anyone but your deceased loved one.
7. Your living space feels empty
You miss their mess, their snoring, their talking, their singing, and their TV blaring. Your bed is half-empty when you go to bed at night, and again when you wake up in the morning. Your home is incredibly lonely and way too quiet.
8. Logistics and secondary losses
After the death of a partner, there are endless logistical considerations like household chores, the loss of primary or secondary income, childcare, paying bills, paperwork, estates, dealing with their belongings, the loss of identity, and so on. You can check out our post on secondary loss here. Regardless of what you’re dealing with, trying to balance life after the death of a partner can come with a lot of responsibility and pressure.
9. You feel pressure to do right by them
If you were your partner’s next-of-kin, the responsibility fell (falls) on you to make decisions on their behalf. Perhaps you knew what they wanted in terms of end-of-life care, funeral arrangements, estates, and belongings, but if not, you are left to guess. Hopefully, you have the support of your extended family, but in some instances it can feel like you’re fighting against everyone to do what’s right. Sadly, guilt and regret over decisions made at the end of a person’s life can have an ongoing negative impact on your grief.
10. You’re single again
A return to single status is hard for a hundred reasons. To name a few, #’s 11, 12, 13 & 14.
11. You sometimes feel like a third wheel
Many people say they feel like a third wheel after the death of their partner, which can be awkward and alienating.
12. Pressure to start dating
People often push you to move on well before you’re ready
How long have you been out of the dating pool? Long enough to fear jumping back in? Some people love dating…many do not. Although you may feel ready for a new relationship, you may simultaneously dread the thought of dating (we don’t blame you).
14. Your next relationship might not “get it”
We receive a lot of email from people who are dating while grieving and who are dating someone who is grieving. Our anecdotal impression – it takes a special girlfriend/boyfriend to (1) understand death does not end a relationship, (2) allow the deceased’s memory into their life, and (3) understand that you can love a person in the present, while continuing to cherish a significant other who has died.
15. They were your co-parent
Parenting is hard; being a single parent is harder; being the single parent of grieving children is one of the hardest. When your co-parent has died, all responsibility falls on you to keep your children safe, clothed and loved. Parenting is difficult after a death for a hundred reasons, including #’s 16, 17,& 18.
16. You have to watch your kids miss out
Every time a milestone happens – father/daughter dances; mother/daughter sleepovers; proms; weddings; drivers licenses – you have to live with the knowledge that your child’s excitement may be somewhat tempered by grief over the absence of one of their parents.
17. You are the keeper of your loved one’s memory and family history
You may feel as though it’s your responsibility to keep your significant other’s memory alive in this world, especially for the sake of your children. You are the link between your children and their deceased parent and so it is your job to help them stay connected. This may feel like a lot of pressure, but it’s also a wonderful way to continue your bond with your loved one.
18. You mourn all the things your significant other will miss out
You may grieve for everything your partner will miss (has missed) out on. Special moments, having children, having grandbabies, retirement – these are things your significant other would have loved to experience.
19. You mourn all the things you will miss out on now that your significant other is gone
After someone dies, it is normal to grieve the past as well as your hopes and dreams for the future. Since your loved one has died, you will mourn for all the things you had dreamed of sharing with them.
20. Death is a threat to your identity
Are you a husband? A wife? A widow? A widower? For so long your identity, in some way, was a reflection of your relationship with your significant other. Now that you have to live on your own, without your partner, your identity may need to shift and change.
21. You live with unresolved guilt and regret
It is common for people to feel guilt and regret about things that happened in their relationship with the deceased, even if these thing occurred years before the person died. Perhaps you wish you had treated your partner better, perhaps they never forgave you for something, maybe you regret something you said, maybe you regret not saying enough, or maybe you feel guilty for the fact that you survived and they died. The battlefield of love is fertile ground for the coulda’s, woulda’s, and shoulda’s that are typically seen in grief.
22. Your relationship with their family and friends is changing
Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, people grow distant and they lose touch. There are a lot of caveats as to why this happens, but for the purposes of this post, it’s most important to acknowledge that in losing a significant other, sometimes your overall support system is cut in half.
23. Special Days
You not only miss being able to spend special days with your significant other but now these days have become a minefield of reminders and grief triggers.
24. You miss the thoughtful little things they used to do
Notes, oil changes, special dinners, birthday cakes, surprise lattes, gifts for no reason, compliments, inside jokes, letting you rest – whatever it was, it was unique to you and your loved one. Nothing can replace the joy they brought you.
25. You miss the things that drove you crazy
To be honest, you also miss the things they did that drove you up a wall.
26. Being on your own is hard
It’s hard to go from having a partner in life, to doing everything on your own. It’s not that you can’t cope with life on your own, but you got used to the security and comfort of having someone at your side.
27. You worry about being truly alone
You were supposed to grow old with your partner, and perhaps you worry that you will spend the rest of your life alone or lonely now that they have died.
28. You have to live the rest of your life without them
And without them, this feels like a really really long time.
By Eleanor Haley, M.S. Eleanor is a Program Director and Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Eleanor lives in Maryland and received her Masters in Counseling Psychology from Loyola College in Maryland.
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