Older couples had usually talked about losing one another and had some inkling of how this would affect them. Younger individuals were never prepared, unless their deceased loved one was involved in some dangerous kind of occupation. In a few cases, couples came to see me when one of them had recently received a terminal diagnosis and had only months left to live.
In my family, my dad lost our mother when she turned 75. They had over 50 years of marriage together during which her health had often been in question. We had all been forewarned of this eventuality. Despite that, my father went through a rough few years after her passing. He was hurt and angry and showed his feelings in extreme ways. He withdrew from his usual activities and grew sullen. We children spent as much time as possible with him. Because there were 6 of us, he usually had someone around to talk to.
One of my younger sisters lost her husband in 2004. He died of cancer at age 55. She was 48 at the time and they had been married for 27 years. They had one daughter, aged 25. This was a devastating blow for my sister. When the diagnosis came he was given 6 months to live. My sister nursed him as his health steadily declined. Again, we siblings rallied and spent as much time supporting her as possible, given we all lived in different cities.
After her husband passed my sister went into a depression and took a leave of absence from her workplace. At my insistence, she eventually joined a grief group and sought out a therapist in her area. She had so much of her life invested in her husband; she could barely function after losing him. She eventually returned to work on a part-time basis, always hoping she could increase her hours to full-time status. That never happened. Last year she finally decided to accept early retirement and that's when her recovery really began. Today she is dating again, working part-time and enjoying her daughter and son-in-law who married a year after her husband passed.
Although there appears to be some major differences in their adaptation to loss, both my father and sister truly struggled with their grieving process. In our family, dealing with feelings was never modeled as a healthy and functional pursuit. Lashing out at loved ones and crying uncontrollably was more the order of the day. It took me 10 years of professional psychology training to learn the healthy forms of emotional expression, forms that I imparted to my clients when helping them deal with the loss of their partner.
This approach to grief healing and grieving a spouse came in part from rejecting the unhealthy modeling I received in the home, to be followed by adopting the healthy forms of safe emotional expression that were part of my training. Dealing with feelings and emotions through journaling, group work and talking to a grief counselor is the key to healing grief of any type.
In the initial stages of the grief experience, this is difficult to adopt because most individuals are in a state of shock. No amount of good advice will register at this time. And some individuals try and hang on to their deceased spouse for months and years after the event. They live their lives in a constant state of tension which unconsciously they are refusing to release. Healing cannot occur until one chooses the healing path and commits to it. Therapists, books and other resources will have no effect until the grieving individual decides they are ready to let go of their loved one and allow their recovery to begin.
When you're ready, healing can begin in earnest. You will find all the resources and supports you need to navigate this journey. Until that choice is made, no expert, book or other resource can reach you because you are closed off from help. Mind you, this was not a conscious choice on your part, but more of a protective survival strategy that we all adopt when dealing with any emotional blow. When faced with a devastating loss, we typically close ourselves off to try and minimize the emotional pain.
Healing grief requires that we become vulnerable again. We have to feel the pain of that loss before we can move on. That's when reaching for help and guidance will have the greatest benefit. We are ready to deal with our grief wound now, and we have accepted that professional help in the form of books, support groups and counseling, are essential to managing what we have to face.