14 Things you may not know about losing a partner and how to help others through loss
Losing your partner suddenly, especially at a relatively young age is many people's worst fear and some people's most stark reality. It became my reality in 2013 when my husband was killed suddenly and without warning in a paragliding accident leaving behind 4 kids and a business that could not run without him. I had to quickly learn how to navigate things I never thought possible, not the least of which was a funeral (where over 1500 people attended).
There are some obvious things Here is a list of things I didn’t know were a part of being widowed until I was thrown into it suddenly aged 43. Some you may have heard and some you may not have even thought of. These are part of every widow’s ‘every day’. Spare a thought for the deeper unspoken world of the widow.
1. People will say the stupidest things and you will have to resist the urge to slap them. Sometimes they just feel the need to relate and other times they have just never experienced real loss. People will compare your loss to the loss of their cat or an illness that a child or husband had but got over or still has but is doing well. One person asked me one full week after my husband died if everything was back to normal now! More than once I sat stunned wanting to run far away from a café we were sitting in together.
SO what should you say? The most comforting thing to hear was “I really don’t know what it is like for you but I can imagine it is really hard. I’m here if you want to talk about it” - giving the grieving person room to talk about their loved one is a rare and wonderful gift. Sometimes they wont want to talk about it, but other times they will and for you to listen and validate the existence of their previous life/ partner/ and all they have lost, is everything.
2. For a long time some people will go to great lengths to avoid you, backing fast out of the same supermarket aisle as they deal with their own humanity and lack of ability to say the right thing. This does not reflect on you or their regard for you, but their own grief and feelings of inadequacy in not knowing what to do or say.
What you can do – its ok to just smile as you pass, no-one expects you to be the answer. Be honest that you dont know what to say or how to help, that you feel helpless. Guess what, they feel helpless too and they dont expect you to know what to do or say.
3. You will lose some friends. They wont know what to say or you remind them you are living their greatest fear. Or they will say stupid things to you that hurt so deeply its best to avoid them.
What you can do - keep being there. Keep offering what you can, your time, a meal, a car ride for their kids, some time out. Be brave. This is not about you right now.
4. You will gain some friends. On the flip side you will find a whole lot of friends in places you never even looked. People who you never imagined will be your closest companions. It’s a whole new world for everyone and not everyone can handle it, but some just step up to the plate and become your closest allies and fiercest protectors.
What you can do - sometimes we think "I am not as close to that person, it would be wrong to jump in now" - no, it would be perfect. Keep in mind point 3. Call, text, send a card or flowers, express your caring concern, offer help. You might just make a friend for life.
5. The losses continue long after the initial loss of your partner. You haven’t just lost a partner; you have lost all future dreams you ever had together. You have lost a provider, a protector, a father/mother to your children and the only other person as invested as you in their lives. You lost someone to share the load and do half the driving on long trips. You lost someone to talk to about the struggle of your day or a big decision you have to make. You have lost the ability to take holidays or to sleep in whilst someone else does the school run. Life has changed forever and it will never ever be the same again. And it sucks.
What you can do - Be kind to yourself. Understand the losses are deep and ongoing. Life will not look the same, but it can still be enjoyed.
How others help? Validate and acknowledge the losses. Offer your services where you can and an empathetic ear where you can’t. Be specific in how you can help.
6. You will have to review all of your life choices and values in light of this loss. Perhaps you were a stay at home parent, but now the only one who is going to financially support this household is you. You may have been someone who worked full time, but now someone has to be home with the kids. You may have to retrain, study or earn a living working long hours where you don’t see your kids and they are in after school care or home with a sibling.
You may no longer be able to afford to stay in the home or apartment your kids were raised in, or the school they attended may have to change, or a whole lot of things you never really thought of before now have to change due to the circumstances you now find yourself in.
How can you help yourself with this? Give yourself room to understand, you are doing the very best with the resources that you have and the hand life has dealt you. Some of these changes will be temporary, some long term, most you didnt willingly choose, but you can do this. You were created to do hard things, you have done hard things before, you will get through this.
7. You might have to change direction so completely you lose yourself trying to keep it all afloat. It sucks. But keep going, you will find yourself again and life will look a whole lot different, but you just may find yourself loving it more than you imagined.
8. You will never get used to seeing people only connected to them without them there. Never. It will always be a trigger no matter how much you love those people. He/she should be here when their mum or siblings visit or best friend drops in.
What can you do? Allow yourself to grieve. Grieving is a part of healing. Take time out for a walk and reflect. Reschedule if you have to. There has been more than one time that I have excused myself from a scheduled gathering or visit because it was overwhelming. It is ok. Good friends and close family will understand. It will get easier. Believe me.
9. Everything is a trigger for a while. Their favourite song or that song that played at your wedding or whilst you took that romantic drive that time, will come on the radio and you will be standing talking with your boss and suddenly have to excuse yourself to go cry. Music is a huge trigger, which is kind of ok if you are driving or alone, but at work mid conversation… its awkward, and the rest of the day doesn’t go much better.
That favourite place you ate at, visited, took holidays to, will always remind you of them. For a while this is immensely painful but the day will come where you will enjoy it again, if only to reminisce in the best way.
What can you do? Recognise your triggers. Practise your triggers if you think you may be caught off guard. Many times I have deliberately taken myself to my favourite place to play my once favourite song to let the tears flow, in order to be able to tolerate that song in a place I know it will be played, so that I dont have to run out of that place, or at least so I know how it will feel at the time. Breathe, remain, let the tears flow. This is all a part of healing.
10. You don’t get ‘over’ it. You might grow around it and move forward though it and for a while you may feel you have lost your right arm and leg and half your head. You will turn around 5 years after the event to ask them how you are related to so and so or where exactly you got lost on the way to that holiday one time and realise there is no one to answer that question and there never will be...
What can you do? Continually validate yourself. You have loved, you have lost, you will be richer for it because you have known the depths and the heights. Encourage yourself and give yourself a well earned "well done you" and a pat on the back. Not many understand, not many want to, but you do and that is all that matters.
11. Their stories remain and they are bitter sweet. There will come a time in conversation that you will want to share one of ‘their stories’ that they always retold in the funniest way when others are telling their stories but you bite your tongue and swallow and blink and remember it to yourself, feeling more alone than ever in a happy crowd of people. Feeling like you cannot contribute. Contribute anyway.
What can you do? Realise that if others are not willing to allow you to contribute to the conversation, it says more about them than you. Find those who will allow you to be all that you need to be and bring them into your world. Joining a group, online or in person can also give you the space you need to retell those stories.
12. If you have kids, people expect them to take the place of the parent who died. This is unfair in every way, they are grieving every bit as you are but people expect them to pick up all the pieces that your partner once did and to ‘step up’ and care for you, especially if they are a male child and their father is the one who passed. Guess what, they are kids and it is not their role to ‘step up’, they are grieving and just as tired as their widowed mum, they have their own pressures and studies or work. Its easier to sit with overgrown grass than try to explain or justify why they cant mow it just like I cant mow it for lack of time, energy and other commitments. No-one will understand this. No-one. Most people will just see lazy kids and have no idea of all they have done already and what they are carrying.
What can you do? For the widow/widower, kindly, politely, and with empathy for their ignorance, educate the person if you can, they have not been where you are at. They may not realise that grief is even harder for teens and preteens than it is for adults, and it is pretty hard for adults.
Be kind to your own kids as well, they need your love, support and time to grieve as much as you do.
If someone asks for help in mowing, a yard clean-up or heavy lifting, either help or don’t help, but don’t try and educate the widow on how to better parent her grieving kids.
13. You will get sick. Grief triggers all of the fight flight hormones including a cortisol overload. Your immunity will be lowered, if not wiped out, and every illness will come your way. Grief is often carried in the chest and you may get chest infections, my kids all did, and antibiotics were required at the strongest dosage. Ever after, strong triggers may affect physical wellness. Each reminder of the death, the funeral, the loss, may bring very real illness. Grief lowers immunity (immunologists at the University of Birmingham have found that increased stress levels and depression brought on by grief can interfere with the function of a type of white blood cell known as neutrophils, which are responsible for fighting bacterial infections like pneumonia - The Telegraph, March 25 2012)
What you can do. Rest when you are triggered. Rest before you are triggered (when you know an anniversary is coming up). Be kind to yourself and do not heap guilt on yourself for feeling run-down or unwell.
14. There is a freedom that comes with loss. In not having to consult someone about if you can go out with friends or buy takeaway and you will learn you can go on long drives at opportune times all alone and not have that someone ring to demand you come home and cook…. But it comes at a cost as you know too well the reason for this freedom, and at the end of the day, you are alone and that doesn’t change.
Be proud of you.
There will be rare days where you will be so proud of what you have achieved as a widow/widower and single mum/dad and how you have coped and you will smile at yourself and say "well done you".
Do this more often. You are rocking this life of loss, even in the midst of loss, you keep going and that is worth celebrating. One day you will realise it was harder than you thought but you got through it. And all those other days where you feel you need to rest more often and you cry more, even 4, 5, 6 + years on, don’t beat yourself up, love comes at a cost and you reached ‘til death do us part’ – be proud of you. Keep Going.
And in the words of Dr Suess - once you realise you can rock the widow/widower life - you will realise you can DO ANYTHING! AND YOU WILL.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go!