Loss of one’s marriage partner may be the hardest life change anyone can ever experience. Though I have not experienced such tremendous grief as this (thank you, God), in the past 10 years I have encountered and experienced firsthand the devastating affect of losing a spouse. The most profound experience that of my mom in 2009 with the unexpected death of my dad — her beloved life partner of 64 years.
Whether the death of a spouse is a sudden loss or one after an illness, the surviving partner is left alive in a familiar yet devastated world. As that person begins the process of living without the other, understanding the natural tasks and aspects of grieving can be helpful.
Acknowledging the loss
It was difficult for me to know how to help my mom with her obvious excruciating pain as I was so clouded over with my own grief over the loss of my dad. It wasn’t long after his death, and my prayer on bended knee of “please God help me,” that I found myself facilitating a grief support group at my church. Indeed, God works in mysterious and blessed ways! Little did I realize, when I begged God to help me to help my mom, that I would find such help through the lives of so many. Primarily those, like my mom, who had lost their life partner and soul mate.
An initial response after the “jolt” of a death of a loved one is, “They aren’t really gone, are they?” Not only is the other absent, but they will not ever return. The grieving person gradually converts this fact into the intellectual acceptance that the spouse is gone and does not deny the death. That knowledge also becomes an emotional reality, as when habits of turning towards the other in expectation of familiar words, responses and gestures are checked by remembering that the spouse is gone. Those habits of togetherness, especially in long-term relationships, are now painful reminders of the loss. A common occurrence among those who grieve is “seeing” their loved one in a public place, then realizing that there were resemblances in the person they saw who reminded them powerfully of the one they lost. Seeing what they thought to be the loved one triggers a sliver of hope, a momentary flash of thought that the loved one is not really gone.
The need to feel and express grief
Another natural and necessary part of grieving is experiencing the pain of the loss. This includes a willingness to feel and express the hurt, and all the emotions surrounding the absence of the deceased. Grief is painful, and overwhelming sadness is normal and expected. Pope Francis said, “Tears are sometimes the lenses we need to see Jesus.” And his words are always the primary theme at our parish grief support groups.
Feeling the grief and pain associated with death is actually helpful as the surviving spouse processes the various aspects of what this enormous loss means, and what is lost in the death. A sense of being completely alone is normal: the surviving spouse is alone in the relationship now, and these strong feelings convince them at an emotional level that this is true. What may be uncomfortable, and upsetting, is that many unexpected and negative emotions about the deceased emerge. Anger, great anxiety, despair, strong regret, overwhelming guilt, and depression may be present. These show the difficult parts of the relationship the mourner had with the deceased, and the unresolved areas as well.
In my mom’s grieving of my dad, it was powerful depression that engulfed her along with despair, mixed with feelings of no longer being needed or useful. She would soon discover how untrue that was when she started her lifelong passion of teaching kindergarten religious education at the age of 89.
Feeling pain, finding hope: The comfort of the cross
For those who believe in Christ, death is an unnatural event, one we were not originally intended to experience. But because of sin and its effects on the whole world, we all die and all experience grief at the death of others. Christ’s death, his conquering sin, and resurrection give us hope and certainty that death is not the final state for our loved ones or for us.
Christian counseling for those who grieve
Family, friends and other parts of a couple’s support system, such as church relationships and social groups are needed to help the bereaved spouse process their grief. Often, though, within three or four months after the death, the surviving spouse is urged to “get on with life” or adjust better or more completely.
The loss simply is not as profound in the lives of those outside the spousal relationship as it is for the spouse who is left. Thus, at the time when the initial shock and numbness for the surviving spouse is wearing off, and at the time when they most need more specific support, the support that says, “There is no need to suffer or cry alone.”
JoMarie Grinkiewicz is facilitator of Seasons of Hope, a Christ-centered adult grief support group at St. Catherine Catholic Church. For more information, email JoMarie at firstname.lastname@example.org.