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Posted: September 11, 2008

Spousal Caregiving

Helping Yourself Heal When Your Spouse Dies

Bill Andrew

 I have begun my new journey as a widower whose spouse recently went to her heavenly reward, as you may have read in my previous column. This new journey began with "closure" (of sorts) as Carol's remains were buried in her final resting place. 

An important part of this new journey -- often called the "bereavement period" -- will be attending a grief support group sponsored by a local hospice.  Also, I have been, and will continue to, research the Internet for assistance and guidance.  As such, I learned about Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., C.T., director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition.  Wolfelt is an internationally noted author, educator, consultant, and grief counselor and is on the faculty in the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of Family Medicine.   

An educational consultant for many organizations, Wolfelt is best known for his model of "companioning," rather than “treating” the bereaved.  He is committed to helping people mourn well, so that they can live well and love well through the study of the phenomena of death and of the psychological mechanisms for coping with them. This is a field of study called thanatology (treating of death).   

Wolfelt wrote an article entitled Helping Yourself Heal When Your Spouse Dies from which my column is derived.  Few events are as painful and traumatic as the death of a spouse.  Many surviving spouses may be uncertain as to how they will survive this overwhelming loss, or whether they will have the energy or even the desire to heal.  Beginning this new journey can be frightening, overwhelming, and, perhaps, lonely.   

In his article, Wolfelt gives practical suggestions to help move toward healing through one's personal grief experience.  As a surviving spouse, I intend to follow Wolfelt's suggestions to the best of my ability and to share that experience with readers of this column. 

Here are Wolfert’s suggestions:   

  • Allow yourself to mourn.  Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death of your spouse.  It is an essential part of healing.
  • Recognize your grief is unique.  Your grief is unique because no one else had the same relationship you had with your spouse.  You will grieve in your own special way.
  • Talk out your thoughts and feelings.  Express your grief openly.  When you share your grief outside yourself, healing occurs.  Whatever you do, do not ignore your grief.
  • Expect to feel a multitude of emotions.  Confusion, disorientation, fear, guilt, relief, and anger are just a few of the emotions you may feel.  These are normal and healthy -- learn from them.
  • Find a support system.  Reaching out to others and accepting support is often difficult.  Find a support group that you feel comfortable with -- there is no substitute for learning from others who have experienced the death of their spouse. 
  • Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.  Your ability to think clearly and make appropriate decisions may be compromised.  Respect what your mind and body are telling you.  Caring for yourself doesn't mean feeling sorry for yourself; it means using your survival skills to the best of your ability.
  • Take your time with your spouse's personal belongings.  You -- and only you -- should decide what is to be done with your spouse's clothes and other personal belongings.  Take your time; don't go through these things until you are ready. Only you should determine when that time is right.
  • Be compassionate with yourself during holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and special occasions.  These events emphasize the absence of your spouse.  Learn from these feelings and never try to take away the hurt; that is part of the healing process.
  • Treasure your memories.  Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after your spouse dies.  Treasure those memories that comfort you, but also explore those that may trouble you -- even difficult memories find healing in expression.  Remember, healing in grief does not mean forgetting your spouse and the life you shared together.
  • Embrace your spirituality.  If faith is an important part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you.  To deny your grief is to invite problems to build up inside you.  Express your faith, but express your grief as well.
  • Move toward your grief and heal.  To restore your capacity to love, you must grieve when your spouse dies.  Grief is a process; it is not an event.  Be patient and tolerant with yourself.  Be compassionate with yourself as you work to relinquish old roles and establish new ones.  While your life is not the same, you deserve to go on living while always remembering the one that you loved, your beloved spouse.   

Wolfelt summarizes his suggestions this way:  "The experience of grief is powerful.  So, too, is your ability to help yourself heal.  In doing the work of grieving, you are moving toward a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life."   

Please e-mail me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com with your comments and/or reactions.  I will include them in a future column with your permission.  Please provide your full name and address.  In the column, I will only use your first name and the initial of your last name as well as your city and state.  Thank you. 

WORDS TO CARE BY . . . 

"For the Lord will be your light forever,

And the days of your mourning shall be at an end."

 Isaiah 60:20 (NAB)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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