When Your Partner or Spouse Dies:  Moving Through Grief and Loss

When Your Partner or Spouse Dies: Moving Through Grief and Loss

“Finishing well”

Nancy Kriseman, author of The Mindful Caregiver, draws on the concept of “finishing well” to describe a way to approach loss.  What does it mean to “finish well” and what is required of you, as a caregiver, to do this?  It means working on your “unfinished business.” Alright, so what is that?  For caregivers, unfinished business is when you are stuck in negative feelings about your caregiving situation, yourself as a caregiver, or your partner or spouse who died. You might be stuck in guilt, anger, regret, or resentment.  When we are stuck in negative emotions, the natural flow of grieving is blocked and this can, in Kriseman’s words, “…wreak havoc on your mind, body, and spirit.” 

Let go of all judgements and criticisms. Yes, all of them!

In truth, you did the best that you could as a caregiver. Period. If you could have done better, you would have.  The person you have been caring for also did the best they could. If they could have been a “better patient,” a “better care receiver,” or a “better partner or spouse,” they would have. Period. This is a time to let go of any lingering negative judgements or criticisms.

 “Let mourning stop when one’s grief is fully expressed” -Confucius

As with all other LifeStages of Caregiving, you will experience this Closing LifeStage with more ease if you allow the feelings to come up and flow through you. Caregivers are no strangers to loss. In fact, the entire caregiving journey typically involves various types of loss.

What is the best advice? Grieve it out. Complete the experience. Grief is a natural response to loss. While we usually associate grief with the death of someone, any loss can trigger grief including the loss of the caregiver role (loss of identity) and the loss of a cherished dream (how you imagined your life would be, your marriage or partnership would be, aging would be, retirement would be, etc.).

The Messiness of Grief

Some people may refer to the stages of grief and this may be a helpful type of map for you to make sense of how you are feeling and may feel in the future. However, be careful not to impose a rigid way of grieving onto yourself.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely known as the expert on grief and grieving in North America, wisely states that the stages of grief “…were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages…there is not a typical response to loss , as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.” The messiness of grief makes us acutely aware that the experience of loss cannot be controlled, and is, by definition, untidy and complicated. The only thing you can do “wrong,” so to speak, is to push your feelings away, ignore them, dismiss them, or judge them.

Common Grief Responses:

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Sadness
  • Guilt and remorse
  • Regret
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Doubt
  • Heaviness; tiredness and fatigue
  • Anger and blaming
  • Frustration
  • Dread
  • Feeling of being separate
  • Feeling lost
  • Loss of interest
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Insomnia
  • Dreams and nightmares
  • Relief
  • Pride
  • Joy

You may be surprised to also feel some relief and peace, pride, contentment, and even joy. Grief and relief can, and often do, show up at the same time. Caregivers who are grieving are often reluctant to publicly acknowledge these latter feelings and can even judge these feelings and then feel guilty.  Yikes! Add this guilt to your “unfinished business.”

How you grieve, and even if you grieve, depends on many factors including your personality, your coping style and strategies, your life experience, your culture and values, your faith and/or spiritual belief system, the quality of the relationship with the person you were caring for, and the nature of the loss (its significance to you). These factors (and perhaps others not listed here) are exactly what make grieving a highly personal and individual experience.

Despite the various grief responses, what is common is the experience of highly intense, time-limited periods of distress that are sometimes referred to as grief bursts or pangs and metaphorically as a (tidal) wave of grief.  So-called “normal” grief entails the experience of grief symptoms occurring less frequently with a briefer duration and lesser intensity over time. Again, be cautious about imposing or accepting someone else’s imposition of a time frame for your grieving. Experts have no agreement on any specific grieving time period and the best that can be said is that grieving symptoms resolve within the first year or two.

If you have questions about whether you are experiencing “normal” grief, you can consult with a health care professional. It may also be beneficial to access a bereavement group or bereavement counselling.  

“There are four things in this life that will change you. Love, music, art, and  loss. The first three will keep you wild and full of passion. May you allow the last to make you brave.” -Erin Van Vuren

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