When Death Seals a Spouse
Special help when aiding those who lost a spouse through death
I attended a stress management seminar in Detroit many years ago. During that seminar I learned that on a national average the top two highest stress-producing events were public speaking and the death of a spouse. During the months following Ruth’s death my reading included information on dealing with the loss of a spouse. Among the statements about the importance of taking care of your own health while you grieved, the point emerged that among older people the possibility of the surviving spouse dying often increased by forty percent in the year following the loss. It is not necessary for anyone to be a statistic in the national averages. These facts do, however, emphasize the significance of losing a beloved spouse.
TO BE RECKONED WITH
The doorway to my bedroom seemed to jerk me to a sudden stop. Staring at the spot where I watched my wife take her last breath three weeks earlier, I melted into another uncontrolled sobbing session. My daily wandering around the house like a two-year-old child looking for a pacifier seemed endless.
This time I ended the emotional session by thinking of other deep hurts I had experienced. I perceived them differently now. My mom came to mind. Suddenly my situation seemed not so harsh. Wow, I thought, She really had life tough when my dad died suddenly! For my whole life I only could remember the difficult years surrounding my dad’s accident from my 11-year-old boy’s perspective. But now, through my own loss, my heart ached for my mom and I admired her in new ways.
I was the oldest of four kids the day of my dad’s accident. Mom was a young 30-year-old pregnant woman living in a home with no indoor plumbing and a pot belly stove that burned coal or wood for heat. Winter had only delivered half her force when our lives changed forever that sunny February day. My mother’s grief seemed to cause our lives to stop. She spent a lot of time in bed and only got up to give the minimum care for her four small children. One week after my dad’s funeral she delivered my youngest brother.
A week after Mom came home from the hospital with my baby brother, we got an unexpected visit from her dominating mother. She burst into our house unannounced. Upon her arrival, she found the house in a chaotic mess. Mother was in bed, as usual. It had been nearly a month since my dad was killed in the accident. The newborn at her side received all her attention at the expense of taking care of the house and the rest of us children. In retrospect, Mom’s behavior was understandable given all these circumstances. Unfortunately, Grandmother responded in a very harsh fashion.
“Get out of that bed and stop this right now,” my grandmother snapped. My mom had never crossed her commanding mother her entire life and she didn’t start then. She did what she was told physically, but she could not deal with her grief so easily. So, instead of going through the grieving process in a healthy way, Mom stuffed it down for the present but her grief didn’t stay down. The pain seeped out the rest of her life.
Difficult days for my mom continued that first year. With no husband, Mom still had a farm to manage. She had no clue how to do that and care for five kids. That spring and summer the neighbors came in force to help plant and then harvest a crop. However, she lost the farm and we had to move into the small town nearby. The only financial income Mom qualified for was government assistance. Three hundred dollars a month did not go very far, even back then. Very often, the money I got from mowing lawns supplemented to buy bread and gas.
This experience, along with the busyness of life, kept a raw place in my mother’s soul. I saw her pull out Dad’s picture and weep each time hard emotional events occurred. The most vivid one came during her divorce from the man she married three years after my dad’s death. Her healing had been aborted and she suffered for it for years.
Sadly, my mom died relatively young of a rare disease that could have been triggered by stress. In my judgment she suffered in many ways, because her grief was not processed well.
Sometimes circumstances and dominant personalities hinder some people from grieving freely. In many of these cases, having a friend or close relative who gives them “permission” to grieve can be a key to their victory. Instead of pointing out their strength or toughness, an honest statement about their loss and pain would be more beneficial to their long-term healing. A straightforward question such as, “Are you giving yourself time or permission to cry sometimes?” could be just the thing that helps.
THE CLOSER, THE LESS
Roz called me from Florida the other day. She was hesitant but asked, “Can I ask you a question about how to help a new friend of mine?” She explained that a new lady had just started coming to her Bible study who had recently lost her husband. Roz said she wanted to help her and not be a hindrance to her. Neither of us had a long time to talk so Roz asked me for a “really concise version” of what she needed to say or not say. I replied, “The general rule is: The more recent the loss, the less you should say.”
What that means is that the closer it is time-wise that the loss actually took place, the less you should say. If they lost their loved one that day, you say very little. Maybe one sentence like, “It must really hurt.” Do not try to solve their mourning issue with a long logic statement on how to look ahead, etc. However, if you are talking to them three months later, you might find they want to rehearse how their loved one died in vivid detail.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, lost her husband in an accident. In a poignant personal post on her Facebook timeline June 3, 2015, she articulately expressed some things about her first month of grieving that demonstrate what I’m talking about with my phrase, “the closer, the less”:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear, “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”
THE ROLLER COASTER
Grieving the loss of a spouse is not an event; it is a process. This process can take one from emotional highs to deep grief without warning.
Judith stopped in her tracks and stared at the silhouette filling the doorway. Gordon (her husband) had died just weeks before. She and her sister were out shopping on a much-needed reprieve. Gordon had been six foot six inches in stature and built like “Mr. Clean.” The man in the doorway grabbed her attention. “Judith,” Marsha began, “Are you okay?” The swell of emotion engulfed Judith, right there in the clothing department.
Marsha’s response to this normal event in the healing process of a mourner was right on. She did not try to talk Judith down or out of the emotions that swelled up. She did not criticize her for expressing her emotions openly. Instead, she came along side and saw it as normal and healthy and just let her cry.
One of the common errors I have seen in those who are friends of the bereaved emerges when they see their friend show emotions and somehow think that it is not good, or a sign they are struggling. The common implication is that a lack of emotion signifies they are doing okay. This isn’t true. Public display of emotions can be a sign that the bereaved is freely working through the process and can be very “normal.”
I have received negative feedback from friends who witnessed my public expression of emotion. Some saw it as weakness, while others concluded I must not have been doing well. In fact, the opposite was true. I experienced added healing each time I had the freedom to express these sudden bouts of emotions. To deny someone this freedom of emotional expression could be a hindrance to their healing.
Author Jerry Sittser, in his book A Grace Disguised explains it this way:
Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life. (pg. 42)
When this happens in your presence instead of saying something to try to stop their tears it would be better to say, “It’s okay. I know it must hurt sometimes more than others. I miss them too. Thanks for having the freedom to cry in front of me.”
TIME WELL SPENT
Understanding the depth of emotion a friend or relative is going through can go a long way in helping you know how to assist them in their journey. Often this can only be found out by spending time with that person and listening closely. You may even need to ask clear questions. A simple, “How are you doing?” will not produce a true picture. A better question may be, “Can you tell me about your up and down feelings today (or this week)?”
A friend of mine who lost his wife eight months ago wrote this to me. “I believe I am doing ‘well’ which might need some explaining. I still get blindsided by my emotions and, for what seems like no reason at all, I have a meltdown. The pain doesn’t seem as sharp and overwhelming as it has in the past, but it is there. Loneliness is hard to handle. A busy schedule helps, but a busy schedule doesn’t satisfy the need to talk and interact with a person of confidence. God knows these things and I am learning how to handle the different situations that come into my life.”
A listening ear and the right questions can provide needed information to you as you seek to be the best comforter to a friend or relative. Avoid statements of command that tell them to “Suck it up” or “Be strong.” Those only imply that stuffing their grief is the best, when that is not the case.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
I have noticed that, many times, the attention in loss tends to be directed towards the loved one lost. However, I’d like to suggest that one truly understands the depths of grief when it is realized that grieving needs to center around the pain of the griever.
“Your loved one has no more pain,” announced the attending doctor. This response to the death of a loved one is very kind when announcing their death. The blow of the news concerning immediate loss can even be softened more with consolation that the one who has died is better off in some way. However, as time passes, the pain that the griever is experiencing overshadows any trite consolation pertaining to the deceased. Their soul is hurting beyond belief. I remember feeling like there was a hole in my soul that seemed permanent.
Statements such as, “They are in a better place,” “It was their time to go,” “God loved them so much He wanted them with Him in heaven,” “It was God’s will for them to die,” or “They are happier now” put the emphasis on the wrong place and do not benefit the griever. Grief is not a result of the change in the condition or location of the dead. It is caused by the pain being experienced by the griever because of their loss. Acknowledging and addressing the pain of the griever can be of much more help in processing them through to victory.
I met Bob and Rachel years ago. Bob’s first wife had died suddenly a couple years before. By the time I met them, Bob and Rachel had just met. They soon married and were building a life of ministry together. Forty-one years later I got a letter from Bob saying that Rachel had died suddenly. I waited until after the three-week time frame to contact him because I knew that would be about when most people began to pull away and his need to talk would only increase.
The day we connected by phone was a Saturday morning. Some have asked me, “So, what did you say to him?” My answer is, “Very little. Mostly I just listened.” About the only significant thing I said to Bob during that hour conversation was, “When I read your letter about Rachel, it broke my heart.” Following his tears, he went into detail telling me everything surrounding her death. It was then I learned the startling news that Rachel had taken her life. It was obvious that he felt the need to unload the details that probably were tormenting his mind including the struggles he was having. I sensed a freedom in his spirit when he said, “Goodbye. Maybe we can talk again.”
I knew that I did not have to know what to say to Bob; I only needed to connect with his emotional hurts and let him talk through his experiences. Grief is an emotional issue, not a brain issue. Heart responses help more than logic statements at this point.
You don’t have to have a well thought out plan of logic to help the grieving. Simple concern works great.
It is well worth repeating here that loneliness, to most who have lost a spouse, soon becomes a huge hurdle that can last for years.
Loneliness is a very real part of the grieving process. Loneliness can be experienced in addition to missing the one who has died. Thomas Wolfe puts it this way: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human experience.”
This aspect of the grieving process is often overlooked by those not experiencing it. I found it to be suffocating. We all understand that we will miss the one whom we have lost. But, what about the oppressing loneliness that develops later? Many have expressed that, though missing their loved one was difficult, coping with the loneliness was more painful.
That being said, as you respond to those who have faced a loss, include loneliness as part of their experience in your thinking. This aspect can be easier to help them with since all of us have had bouts of loneliness in our lives. “How are you handling times of loneliness?” is a good question along with, “When can I come by during times you are commonly feeling alone?”
YOU DON’T KNOW
“Sixty-one years is a long time to be married to the same person — and then lose them,” Elaine said as she stared into space. “Wow,” was my response. “That is amazing and I can’t even imagine how it must feel for you now. The loneliness must be overwhelming.”
“You’re right, it is,” was her confident reply. We went on to cover simple changes both she and I had experienced over the last year: buying food and cooking for ONE instead of two, learning to manage jobs our mates always did, and adjusting socially to being single. I noticed that her spirits and demeanor improved following our talk.
Did you notice that I did not say anything like, “I know how you feel?” or “I know, I lost two wives!” Neither statement is helpful. I really don’t understand another’s personal pain, and she did not expect me to. She only needed me to empathize and acknowledge her pain. And comparative statements tend to shut people down. Too often, when we don’t know what to say to FIX their problem with grief, we feel we can’t help and so we shy away. Not so. Grievers need to be heard, not fixed, or out-done.
ORDER YOU COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.