Coping with the Loss of a Spouse or Partner

lonely woman sitting on swings

When you’ve lost your life mate, it’s often an effort just to get through the day. In your grief and sadness, you may feel shock, anxiety, fatigue, depression, even anger at your partner for dying.

It’s also a major life adjustment. In addition to the emotional devastation, there’s likely to be upheaval on a practical level. You may have come to depend on your partner in ways you’re not even completely aware of until their absence, and will have to learn – or re-learn – how to do certain tasks, or find solutions to issues that had been your partner’s responsibility.

As with any deep loss, there is no “right” way or amount of time to grieve. The ways we mourn someone are as unique as our love for them. Some feelings people commonly express when their spouse or partner dies:

  • They’ve lost their best friend or soulmate.
  • Guilt that they didn’t do everything possible.
  • Guilt that they are relieved their partner’s suffering is over.
  • Fear about the future and being alone.
  • Loss of identity after being defined, in part, by the relationship.
  • Concerns about money.
  • More frequent thoughts about their own mortality.

It’s important to find a balance in your life, as the demands of daily living – work, parenting, chores – continue. But it’s also vital that you give time and space to fully experience the loss you’re feeling.

If taking time off is not an option, you should think of grieving as self-care, and make space for it. Life coach and therapist Cali Estes says she teaches clients to grieve “in stages,” even setting aside an hour a day or a few days at a time to focus on feelings of loss, rather than shutting down for weeks or months and being consumed with sorrow.

“We live in a society that expects us to be happy all the time,” says Tami Sasson, a licensed master social worker. “It’s okay to be human. It’s okay to grieve. Keep talking about it and keep feeling it. This is your time to take the best possible care of yourself. It will get easier. Cry as much as you need.”

Being encouraged to “get over it” only amplifies the loneliness of grief, says Megan Devine, therapist, artist, and author of the book It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand.

“Pain that is not allowed to be spoken or expressed creates more problems,” writes Devine, whose partner died at age 39. “Unacknowledged pain doesn’t go away. The way to survive grief is by allowing pain to exist, not in trying to cover it up or rush through it.”

Devine suggests finding a constructive outlet to express your grief: journal, draw, walk in the woods. The goal is not to cure the grief, or treat it as a problem to be solved, but to minimize the suffering.

“While creative practices won’t fix you, and can’t bring back what you’ve lost, they can help you tell the story of what is, in a way that makes things even just a tiny bit easier on both your mind and your heart,” Devine writes.

In his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, author William Worden describes “the four tasks of mourning” that he considers essential in assimilating grief:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss.
  2. Process your grief and pain.
  3. Adjust to the world without your loved one in it.
  4. Find a way to maintain a connection to your loved one while embarking on a new life.

Worden acknowledges that everyone grieves in their own way, and that grief is not linear or time-specific. You may need to revisit these tasks as feelings of grief arise again, over months and years.

When coping with the death of your spouse or partner:

  • Allow yourself to feel different emotions. Songs, places, or events that remind you of your partner may bring on grief and sadness; you may also feel happiness at those memories, sometimes simultaneously.
  • Give yourself time. You are adjusting to making decisions, both big and small, on your own, and sometimes small things can loom large. For instance, it may be daunting, even overwhelming, to figure out what you want to do with your partner’s clothes and other personal belongings. Don’t rush into any major decisions, such as moving or changing jobs, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends.
  • Be aware of your children’s grief. If you have children, losing one parent and seeing the other deeply sad is probably confusing and frightening. Be sure to help your children cope with the loss, or get them help.
  • Take care of yourself and your family. Grief can be hard on your health. You may not feel like eating much, and you may have trouble sleeping. Do your best to maintain healthy eating habits, rest, and do light exercise, such as going for a walk. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, and take medication with care. This is a good time to visit your doctor for a check-up.
  • Get help with practical issues. Your routine has been disrupted in a terrible way, and you may be struggling to do everything yourself now. If you need to, ask for help with childcare or hire someone for home repairs and other tasks.
  • Talk about the loss of your loved one. You don’t have to deal with your grief alone. Family, friends, and co-workers may be afraid to bring it up or say the wrong thing, but if you speak openly about your loss and admit your vulnerability, you’re communicating to the people around you that it’s okay to talk about it too. Being honest is an important part of healing, and in reaching out, you’re likely to find many people struggle with feelings similar to yours.
  • Seek support. Joining a support group with others who have lost partners may offer some solace and lessen the feeling you’re going through this alone. org and HelloGrief.org have lists of support groups, both online and in your area. You can also check with your funeral provider, local hospitals, hospices, and places of worship for grief support resources.

Talking with a therapist may help you in this difficult transition. Here is a detailed list of grief therapists throughout the U.S., and tips on finding the right therapist for your needs.

  • Honor your partner’s memory. Although you may have had a memorial service, you can also do something more personal to celebrate your loved one: plant flowers or a tree in your partner’s memory, or spend time in a place that was special to you and your partner.
  • When you’re able, take stock of important documents. Although this is difficult to think about at an emotional time, consider whether you need to make changes to your will, advance directive, power of attorney, insurance and financial documents, contracts, joint property deeds, and other legal documents. Know where they are stored, and make sure that someone else that you trust knows as well.
  • Finally, be compassionate with yourself. You have lost your significant other, life partner, helpmate, go-to support person, and co-parent. You’re mourning both your shared past and hopes for the future. It’s natural to be reminded, and even feel overwhelmed, by that loss at unexpected times. Learning to cope and adjust to life without this special person won’t diminish their specialness to you.

If you are struggling with grief, subscribe to our free online bereavement program, The 12 Weeks of Peace.


Published | Category: Resources.