The Crucial Months Before and After a Spouse Dies
We often know a death is looming and can prepare to thrive in its wake
Losing a partner is a shattering emotional experience that can disrupt your social connections, diminish your enthusiasm, and expose or exacerbate mental health problems. Between 10% and 20% of widowed older adults suffer major depression, anxiety or profound grief disorder.
While most widows and widowers emerge from grief and resume satisfying lives, they may not fully understand how to make the most of their own remaining years. The time to think about these issues starts before losing a loved one.
In most cases, says Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Boston University, “death doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s pretty rare to die of an accident, so there is a preparation period — that time between diagnosis and death — and I think it’s important for couples in particular, when one of them becomes terminally ill, to really talk about how the other will do when their spouse has died.”
Prepare. So much depends on your retirement savings. If you delegated that task to your partner, get up to speed as quickly as you can with my colleague Carla Fried’s two-part checklist for widows.
Grieve in your own way. There is no “normal” time or “right” way to grieve. “It varies from person to person,” Carr says. “Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it has been six months and I still feel terrible every day; I’m a bad person.’” Some people find comfort in being with family and sharing fond memories; others say grieving with close relatives can rekindle ill feelings.
Engage with close friends. Casual friends and acquaintances mean well, but you are more likely to find more comfort with long-time or intimate friends. “Reaching out to other people who really know you is the most important thing for coping,” Carr says.
Some long-time friends will be unable to adjust to your status as a single, so be open to making new friends who also have lost a partner. “Two of my friends lost their spouses in their late 30s to 40s,” says Dena Huisman, an associate professor of communication studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Both of them described how their friends disappeared.”
Consider virtual communities. Self-help or affinity groups, live or on Facebook, are a way to feel less alone and share advice about probating wills and dealing with insurance companies. “They’re really just communities of other people who have gone through the same thing,” Carr says.
Estimate life expectancy. Women widowed at age 65 can expect to live 19.7 more years and be physically active for 10.8 of them, according to Census Bureau data. People who lose a partner at age 75 — and 58% of women 75 or older have been widowed, which is twice the rate for men — can expect to live 12.7 more years, on average. Understanding life expectancy can help you pace spending and prioritize personal goals.
Take care of yourself. With many years ahead, you want to be in decent physical and mental condition. The formula here is the same as it always has been: Eat well, even when cooking for one; exercise regularly, starting with leisurely strolls and pushing yourself to a yoga class or a pickleball court; establish a sleep routine and stick to it.
Anticipate difficult days. “Be prepared for the fact that sometimes you are going to get this wave of emotion,” Carr says. “You may not know why, but accept it is going to happen and recognize it at the time.”
Make plans and be active. The abrupt transition from being part of a couple to being a single can disrupt social routines — even those as basic as when to wake, eat and sleep, as well as going out with friends. It helps to plan at least one activity with a friend every day. Take a walk, visit the library, volunteer, join a choir, sign up for tai chi or bowling, babysit your grandchildren, audit a class at a local college, schedule regular calls with family or friends, plan and take trips with a travel partner, and, if you have stamina and patience to spare, adopt a pet.
Survive and thrive. Conventional wisdom and academic studies have long linked widowhood with depression, anger and anxiety. Those conditions certainly do afflict many people who lose a partner, but they do not afflict everyone. Indeed, researchers have found that the largest group of widows — 45% of the total — exhibit resilience and only mild, transitory depression during the 18 months after the death of a partner.
In her research, Sarah Standridge, an assistant professor of sport and recreation management at East Tennessee State University, concluded that many people who lose a spouse eventually find themselves “not only comfortable with being single, but actually enjoying the new reality they have crafted for themselves.”