February 2020

Living After the Death of a Spouse

Author: Becca Edwards

For Connie Cappy, grief struck like an unexpected explosion. “John and I were married 34 years. He was 60 years old and in exceptional health. One Saturday, John golfed with his buddies in the morning, then later that afternoon started having chest discomfort and profuse sweating,” she said. “At the hospital, the doctors treated him for a heart attack. His condition worsened and progressed into four-organ failure without a definitive diagnosis. John collapsed and died 34 hours after entering the ER. An autopsy revealed a tear at the root of his ascending aorta—a condition that is hard to detect and almost always fatal.”

For Linda Fraser, grief struck “just when life was getting good,” she said. “Charlie and I were college sweethearts and married 34 years. Easter Sunday, he had a massive heart attack. I was semi-prepared. My children were not.”

And for John Howe, grief struck its first match with a diagnosis. “Carole and I met in college during our freshman year and were college sweethearts. During the summer between our junior and senior years, we became engaged and were married 12 days after graduation in June of 1964,” he said. “In 2002, Carole was diagnosed with breast cancer. A small lump was noticed during her annual mammogram. A biopsy confirmed breast cancer (ductal carcinoma, ER+, HER2+). A lumpectomy followed.” Although Carole appeared to be responding “positively” to her treatment, Howe recalled the tragic turn of events:

“Everything appeared to be going fine for the first 18 months, but then her tumor marker tests starting climbing. CAT and PET scans were ordered by her oncologist and indicated that cancer was now in her liver. A biopsy confirmed that it was the breast cancer that we thought we had under control. It had metastasized. ‘Real’ chemotherapy was ordered and was administered with Herceptin, a biologic that controls the HER2 gene. She endured this for the next six years, the only change being the type of chemo meds that were being used.

Herceptin remained constant until about six months before her death. Unfortunately, a side effect of Herceptin is a weakening heart. Carole’s heart could no longer tolerate Herceptin, without which, chemo could no longer control the advance of cancer. In the spring of 2010, Carole made the decision to stop chemotherapy altogether. I supported her decision. Dr. Thomas, her local oncologist, recommended that we bring in hospice to provide end-of-life care. Carole died peacefully on September 6, 2010.”

For Cappy, Fraser and Howe, as well as anyone who has experienced the loss of a spouse, grief is a fire that burns long after the embers are extinguished. To compartmentalize the pain and/or help with coping, we often refer to models like the five stages of grief: (1) denial and isolation, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance.

However, licensed professional counselor Rosemary Clark will tell you that people who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages of grief in the same order or experience all of them. “Losing a spouse is a very overwhelming thing. Most of us get that grief is intense, but no one gets how hard it is until it happens to them,” she said. “I am not going to say there are five distinct stages, but I will say there are five strategies/commonalties that could help facilitate the process of mourning the loss of a spouse.”

Clark’s five strategies/commonalties
1. Honor that it is hard. Talk about the process. Most people [who have lost a spouse] I do not see immediately. There are things to do, people to see. I see them a few months later. Grief is an expression of love without that person being present, and it does not follow a prescribed treatment plan. There is no answer that is sufficient. Make the unbearable bearable and define your new normal. Therapy helps cultivate a new life even when you did not necessarily want a new one. It helps answer the question, “How do I live in a world that I know can hurt this much?”

2. Learn to be in complicated place. Say to yourself, “I’m okay but not okay.” Know that there are places where you are around people or things that make you feel secure or normal or whatever words you want to attach to the experience and places where it is okay to not feel secure or normal. Be okay with the impermanence. Give yourself permission to redefine yourself. Trauma is transformative. We can go back to where we were before the trauma, but when we go back, we know new things about the fragility of life, love, loss, medical system, etc. Move through the world with a new knowing and be comfortable with your new knowing. Grief is not to be managed. It needs its own space. Individual experience. What my grief looks like will not look like yours, and neither of us is wrong.

3. Honor your spouse’s life. Call them by name. We do not need to forget or move on. We need to integrate. Know that you are not stuck in the death; you are honoring the truth. Also, know there are no tips or tricks. Trauma can be triggered by people, places and things. Do not fight that trauma. Emotions are like waves. No emotion is permanent. The intensity will ebb and flow. And the more you let it ebb and flow, the more you can ride that wave. Learn to live with this thing that is part of you but does not define you.

4. Accept there will be good days and bad days. You might not necessarily like it, and you are not required to like it. Dealing with the death of a spouse is hard work. You do not need to pathologize it. Do what feels good and healing, and sometimes that means saying no to something old or saying yes to something new. Meaning, you can say no to going out to dinner with the couple you and your spouse would regularly go out to dinner with and yes to something that is safe but new.

5. Practice self-care. Think of things that are pleasing to the body such as soft sheets. Find other people who are open to the subject such as a therapist, support group, and/or friends and family members. Some recommended resources include: It’s OK That You’re Not OK, by Megan Devin; “We Don’t ‘Move On’ From Grief,” TED Talk by Nora McInerny; and the Hospice Care library and bereavement counseling.

Other self-care suggestions include good nutrition, adequate sleep, physical movement, and mindfulness. Feeding your body and your mind nutritious food will enable you to practice additional beneficial lifestyle choices.

Sleep will help your body and mind rest and heal. From holistic options like tart cherry juice and magnesium to prescribed medications, work with a healthcare professional so you get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Movement can be anything from rigorous exercise to something gentle like a Yin Yoga class. Regular exercise will also help with sleep. Take a moment to walk in nature and just listen to the sounds. Keep a private journal where you can express all of your feelings or try writing down what you are grateful for.

“Death is part of life,” Clark said. “We are all going to deal with it in some sort of way. We are all afraid of it, but this is the price of loving. However, even knowing you will pay this price is worth it. Love with abandon.”

“After our loved one dies, we all feel things, think things, say things, do things that we judge as right or wrong, good or bad,” Cappy said. “Be kind to yourself. Accept that everything you feel, say, think, and do is coming from a place of profound grief. Allow yourself to just be in each moment and expect nothing from yourself.”

Howe spoke about finding love again. “While I never had any intention of replacing Carole in mind and spirit, our marriage experience was one that I hoped to rekindle with another individual. I once heard that if one has had a good marriage experience, they are more likely to remarry. Conversely, if the marital experience is not satisfying, then the individual is less likely to remarry.”

After Carole’s death, her friend Mary offered to make a scrapbook of all the condolence cards and letters Howe received. “Some common friends started suggesting that we go out with one another,” Howe said. “The first date was at the Arts Center, then an afternoon at The Heritage. After that, a whirlwind courtship culminated with an engagement in May and marriage the following February. I did indeed find love again and remain surprised to this day that it happened so fast.”

Fraser summed up life in general. “You do not have to be Mrs. or Mr. So-and-So. You always have the opportunity to fulfill your dreams and, you never know what life is going to bring you.” 

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and co-owner of Female IQ Podcast (femaleIQpodcast.com).

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LIKE PODCASTS?
Nora McInerny also hosts a podcast called, Terrible, Thanks For Asking. This is a funny/sad/uncomfortable show about talking honestly about pain, awkwardness and being human. You can find this podcast through the apple podcast app or through McInerny’s website, noraborealis.com.

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