Dealing with the death of a partner can bring a sense of emptiness and loneliness that is as unique as the love you shared. Particularly when you have spent the majority of your adult life with this person, it can feel like half of you is gone. A sense of feeling lost and abandoned is not uncommon. “I have no will to weep or sing, No least desire to pray or curse; The loss of love is a terrible thing; They lie who say that death is worse.” Even in cases where your partner has been ill for a long time and death can seem like relief for both you and your beloved who was suffering the pain and finality of death can sting just as hard even when the passing is expected.
Grief is a multi layered emotional experience at the best of times. The loss of a partner holds the double impact of being a time when you need your partner most as the impact of grief descends. The irony of being single at this time is great.
Feeling the magnitude of emotion that is likely to impact is very important at this time. Allowing space to grieve is vital. Time away from a regular routine is very important, so taking as much time off work and away from responsibility as possible is a good idea. It is likely very tempting to avoid feeling and throw yourself into as much activity as possible. Though this is a legitimate coping strategy, we need to remember that it is a defence mechanism against pain. Though we can’t feel the pain because we are so busy, it does not mean that the pain has gone away. Rather, like with all defence strategies, it is masked and therefore liable to re-emerge in another form at another time.
For some, this is preferable to feeling their immediate grief. This is likely because immediate grief of this kind is overwhelming and most of us hold a great fear of being overwhelmed. It is important to remember that this pain has context. Though we fear never recovering from pain of great magnitude, the reality is that though life will never be the same, we can deal with this. Strength is not predetermined but is a measure of our capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity. Allowing our grief to have space means that we can, when the impact of the loss has been fully felt, discover our new, increased strength and allow other feelings to have room.
This brings us back to why it is so important that we allow ourselves as much time as logistically possible to be submerged in immediate grief. If your partner died young, this is even more vital. If you have children, encourage them to be with you as much as feels right for everyone. Knowing the fullness of grief is an intense experience but it is where hidden strength is formed and where emotional depth reaches its importance.
There is an idea within popular culture of ‘real’ grief being a mark that remains for the rest of the living partner’s life. Widows in perennial black mourning clothes. A sadness over a family that is tied to respect and therefore love. A martyrdom of the deceased to the cause of grief, turning them from full and regular people to someone with only positive attributes and forgivable, minor flaws.
This societal expectation takes its toll on a grieving partner. What way is there to do this correctly? What space is there for any other emotion but grief? What judgement are we incurring if we express anger, or fear, or, most acutely, joy or relief at any point, for anything?
There is a really important step in grieving a partner. This is that we must insist upon absolving ourselves of the grief expectations of others. What the world, our immediate family, our partner’s family, our friends, peers and colleagues expect of us is the straw that might break us in this case. People imagine that they come in love, but instead they actually come with what is likely to be a fairly restricted view of what we must be feeling. In many cases, they arrive at this feeling via empathy. The imagine what they would feel if this happened to them. However, their feeling is a projection and is not real. The feeling, that a grieving partner wakes with and sleeps with and carries all day every day: this is grief. Sometimes it may take an ugly turn and say that drinking heavily is a good idea. Sometimes it may want to alienate all non-grieving participants in a life. Sometimes it may need to cry, in public, extensively. Whatever happens in a grieving partner’s emotional life is theirs. The one piece that they can get rid of is their emotional interaction with the expectations of others. Grief is personal. If any of us want to support someone in our lives at the time of the death of their partner, we need patience, love and to rid ourselves of the idea that we know what they are going through. Allow them to talk, cry, express, be, in whatever way is right for them. Allowance and acceptance are the twin carriers of real caring at this difficult time.
By Lorraine Hackett & Silvia Ribeiro