Guide to Surviving Grief

Cry whenever you need to. Scream. Shout.
Lay on the floor. Sob in the shower.
Be still. Run. Walk. Create. Live your truth.
Share without fear. Listen. Release your pain.
Breathe. Be courageous. Throw away the map. Wander.
Be Real. Be compassionate. Read. Seek friendship.
Be vulnerable. Don’t fear being broken.
~ Zoe Clark-Coates

Coping With The Death Of Your Spouse

My Mom Losing Ray

My mom’s late husband died on July 12, 2001–a few months before 9/11. It’s funny what we remember. Drops of Jupiter by Train played ad nauseam on the radio, yet I didn’t mind. Instead, I pictured Ray floating peacefully among the stars in the Milky Way. I remember visiting him on his final day. His breathing was labored. I can still hear the gurgling “death rattle” as heaven patiently waited for him. In spite of the unsettling sounds, hospice made sure he was comfortable and at peace. Later that night, I received the call. I wondered how many more obligatory numbers my mother would have to push in the throes of grief.

In some ways, Ray’s death must have been a relief. He had suffered with pancreatic cancer. Like a CEO tracking a company’s profits and losses, my mother diligently kept a journal of her husband’s doctor’s appointments, medicines, and health insurance filings. In between, she researched clinical trials, doctors, medicinal side effects, and finally, hospice care. These tasks were all-consuming and exhausting, but she was good at it.

Now, with Ray gone, she was in the final leg of a 26.2 mile marathon.

Sanjay Gupta describes the ‘kick’ at the end. “Once your brain decides it’s no longer fatigued, it somehow convinces the body it isn’t either.”

With a final shot of adrenaline, she dauntlessly helped to arrange the services.

To me, planning a funeral for a loved one, let alone a spouse, seems incredibly overwhelming. That sunny week in July, with the help of Ray’s family, they worked together to seamlessly arrange the viewing, mass, and after-funeral luncheon. My mother warmly greeted family and friends with gratitude. Maybe she needed those distractions to help her survive the first, painful week of intense grief.

Ray’s Service

The services ended; my mom was utterly alone. There were no more appointments, research, organizing, caretaking, or planning. Both Ray and my mom had grown children preoccupied with their own lives. In retrospect, I don’t think I supported my mom well. I was young and selfish, and she seemed so capable. And, like the rest of the nation, I was distracted by 9/11 when my mom’s own pillars of strength subtly collapsed.

How My Mom Survived The Loss Of Her Husband

Create a New Identity

My mom had been one-half of a couple. As such, her social life revolved around other couples. My mom loved the idea of family and embraced traditional gender roles. She enjoyed taking care of her husband, and he treasured her company. She’d miss his small, loving gestures like making her tea in the morning. He’d often start a sentence with, “Love, can I get you something?” Now, my mother had to make her own tea and relearn how “to be” in the world.

With every decision, every new experience, every step out of the house as a single woman, her confidence amplified and her independent spirit grew.

Suggested Read: Living After Loss – The New Normal 

Coping With The Death Of Your Spouse

Rely on friends

Even though it wasn’t easy to be the third wheel, my mother continued to socialize with married friends. She inherently knew social interaction was important to mental health. She learned quickly to surround herself with supportive friends as they would uplift her and aid her healing. Her friends encouraged her to join a bowling league the fall after Ray’s death. Bowling was a pastime she’d enjoyed in her younger years. Her friends never failed to include her in activities. To this day, she speaks of her friends with humble gratitude. They were the bright light that chased away her dark shadows.

Self-Care

Emotionally and physically exhausted after Ray passed, I remember my mom taking a “time out” from life. After experiencing severe anxiety, she saw a doctor. She relied on medication to get through the first few months. Although hunger escaped her, she forced herself to eat. Her body needed rest, so she rested. She indulged in a few massages and continued to take care of her nails and hair. She made a point of visiting grandchildren. After all, who couldn’t resist smiling over the antics of small children?

Suggested Read: Why A Hug Is Important For Your Wellbeing

Accept Financial Challenges

According to one statistic, American widows see a 37% decline in household income when their spouse dies, while men see only a 22% drop. Without Ray, my mother could no longer afford a privileged lifestyle. She sold her home in Michigan and downsized to an apartment. She gave up two country club memberships, dinners out, and the ability to purchase items on a whim. She forewent an early retirement and continued to work. My mom contacted a financial advisor and became fiscally knowledgeable and responsible. She realized she was fortunate–she had an excellent retirement plan, and Ray’s family also provided her with extra funds. Conversely, many widows are left in extremely dire straits.

Stay Active

Not long after Ray’s death, my mother had the opportunity to split her time between Michigan and Florida. She had a supportive employer who allowed her to work part-time. While my mom was in Florida, she continued to step out and meet new people. The warm weather beckoned her to exercise and stay active. She joined water aerobics and played more golf. Exercising helped by releasing endorphins – a natural chemical that boosts mood and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Before long, she found a bridge group and became the “Sunshine Lady” for her community. She visited the sick and welcomed new homeowners to the neighborhood. Building new relationships provided her with a support system and gave her a sense of purpose.

Suggested Read: How to Age with Your Health Intact

My mom expressed to me that grief comes and goes. She explains, “Even years later, it can overwhelm you.” She acknowledged that the third year was the most difficult. She’d have flashbacks when she heard a song, visited a restaurant, or drove down a familiar street. She’d unpredictably break down in tears as memories flooded her senses. Again, her friends were there to reassure her and offer her comfort. They understood that grief is a process with an unknown timeline. It’s been almost 18 years, and my mom still speaks lovingly of Ray. This is a testament to the love they shared. Today, I’m grateful not only for my mother’s innate strength and fortitude, but for her compassionate and thoughtful friends who held her hand as she journeyed down the cobblestone walkway of grief.