A friend of mine recently asked me what advice I would give to someone whose spouse has died unexpectedly. I was being asked this question not so much because of my professional background, but because I have been there too. In this case, the spouse had committed suicide. My spouse died of a heart attack while we were on vacation. These are profoundly different circumstances, but still contain common elements for the grieving spouse.
I had to pause for a moment, because I really did not know what to say. I felt a bit pressured to respond wisely and in 60 seconds or less! The loss of a spouse is at the top of the stress scale and it changes an individual’s life circumstances forever. Figuring out how best to nurture yourself and your children is essential for the family to thrive again once the grief has subsided.
As counsellors, we tend not to give advice under these circumstances. We understand the normal grieving process and have listening skills to help others find their own best path on a difficult journey. We can also help an individual recognize when and if grief has taken too serious a toll on physical and mental health.
I think talking is important for most people. It is important to find people to talk to who are able and willing to provide support, who are active listeners, and who can ask the kinds of questions that help clarify choices and priorities.
A grieving spouse often wants talk about the unique aspects of their relationship with the loved one and any unresolved relationship issues. Often the griever continues to feel connected with and in communication with the departed loved one, and that conversation may be a topic for discussion with a counsellor or other trusted confidante. This connection will have with it all the thoughts and emotions that were present before the spouse died, as well as even more intense ones related to how the spouse may have died. These unfinished conversations get played out in the survivor’s mind.
If the grieving individual is interested, many find comfort in support groups and speaking with others who have experienced a similar loss. I also found it helpful to read. I read a story called Ghost Rider, Travels on the Healing Road, written by Neil Peart who travelled on his motorcycle to the Arctic Circle as he grieved the loss of his spouse. His healing journey spoke to me. I learned which music and which activities comforted me and what I could and could not handle at the time.
Grief can last a long time. It has been 12 years since my spouse died suddenly. My life is very happy and our family is thriving again, but I still miss my spouse. I continue to see and remember what he gave me and others while he was here.
It may be difficult to believe now, but life will get better and it will be good again.
To help you work through your grief, contact your Employee and Family Assistance Program and work with a counsellor. We’re always here ready to talk when you are.