Mourning the Death of a Spouse


When a spouse dies, your world changes. You are in mourning—feeling grief and sorrow at the loss. You may feel numb, shocked, and fearful. You may feel guilty for being the one who is still alive. If your spouse died in a nursing home, you may wish that you had been able to care for him or her at home. At some point, you may even feel angry at them for leaving you. All these feelings are normal. There are no rules about how you should feel. There is no right or wrong way to mourn.

Grief can bring both physical and emotional pain. In addition to increased sadness and periodic episodes of crying, many of those in mourning also experience:

  • trouble sleeping
  • little interest in food
  • problems with concentration
  • a hard time making decisions

As the grieving process progresses, while still experiencing feelings of loss you may also feel the need to put your own life back together. This can be hard work. During this time of mourning, you may be surprised by some of your feelings. Some people may feel better sooner than they expect. Others may take longer. As time passes, you will still miss your loved one, but for most people the intense pain will lessen. There will be good and bad days; you will know that you are feeling better when the good days begin to outnumber the bad.

For some people, mourning can go on so long that it becomes unhealthy and begins to interfere with daily functioning. This can be a sign of serious depression and anxiety. If overwhelming sadness stays with you and keeps you from carrying on with day-to-day life, talk to your doctor.

Oftentimes at the start of the grieving process, you may find that taking care of details and keeping busy helps. For a while, family and friends may be around to help get through the days. But there may come a time when their presence fades and feelings of loneliness increase.

Advice for Seniors in Mourning

  • Take care of yourself. Grief can be hard on your health. Try to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Be sure to take medications as your doctor ordered. Avoid coping by turning to or increasing bad habits such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking.
  • Talk to caring friends. Let your family and friends know when you want to talk about your husband or wife. It may help to be with people who let you say what you're feeling.
  • Join a grief support group. Sometimes it helps to talk to people who are also grieving. Check with hospitals, religious groups, and local government agencies to find out about support groups in your area.
  • Try not to make any major changes right away. It's a good idea to wait for a while before making big decisions like moving or changing jobs.
  • See your doctor. If you're having trouble taking care of everyday activities like getting dressed or fixing meals, talk to your doctor.
  • Don't think you have to handle your grief alone. Sometimes short-term talk therapy with a counselor can help.
  • Remember that your family is grieving, too. You may find that your relationship with your family members has changed. It will take time for everyone to adjust to life without your loved one.
  • Remember—mourning takes time. It's common to experience a rollercoaster of emotions for a while.

Do Men and Women Grieve Differently?

Men and women share many of the same feelings when their spouse dies. Both may deal with the pain of loss and both may worry about the future. But because many couples divide their household chores, there can also be differences. For example, one person may pay bills, clean house, and handle car repairs. The other person may cook meals, file income taxes, and mow the lawn. This splitting up of jobs works well until there is one person who has to do it all.

When adult children, family members or friends offer help, consider the division of household duties an important clue as to where you could use some assistance.

Some men are at a loss when it comes to doing household chores. Men are sometimes surprised and unprepared when they're widowed. Arranging house cleaning services or meal preparation may be an important step for a newly widowed man to ease the transition process.

Facing the future without a husband can be scary for some women. Women who have never paid bills or balanced the household budget will need to learn about managing their finances. Arranging outside assistance can be a temporary fix until a financial management system is learned, however for some women it is preferable to activate financial power of attorney at this time. Ensuring that finances continue to be handled properly is an important step in preparing for future housing and care needs.

Seniors who have never lived alone may worry about feeling safe. It's a good idea to make sure there are working locks on the doors and windows as well as an emergency plan in place.

How to Help A Mourning Parent When You are Mourning, Too

After years of being part of a couple, it can be upsetting to be alone. Encourage your surviving parent to partake in some of the following activities. Participipating in some of these things with a parent can help you stay busy, stay connected, and manage your own grief too.

  • Take a walk with a friend.
  • Go to the library to check out books.
  • Volunteer at a local school as a tutor or playground aide.
  • Join a community exercise class or a senior swim group.
  • Be part of a chorus.
  • Meet with old friends.
  • Sign up for bingo or bridge at a nearby recreation center.
  • Think about a part-time job.
  • Join a bowling league or a sewing group.
  • Offer to watch your grandchildren or a neighbor's child.
  • Consider the benefits of a pet.

Some widowed people lose interest in cooking and eating. It may help to arrange a noon meal at a senior center, cafeteria or with friends. When home, some people find that turning on a radio or TV during meals helps with loneliness. If extended family members are nearby, establishing a schedule of shared meal times can help diminish loneliness without placing the responsibility for all meals on a single family member. A calendar of meal "dates" offers something special to look forward to on a regular basis.

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Dealing with The Practicalities of a Loss

Following the death of a spouse, part of moving forward involves addressing practical matters to get your own affairs in order.

  • Write a new will.
  • Look into a durable power of attorney for legal matters and a power of attorney for health care in case you are unable to make your own medical decisions.
  • Put any joint assets (such as a house or car) in your name.
  • Check the coverage on your health insurance as well as your current life, car, and homeowner's insurance. Adjust beneficiaries as needed.
  • Sign up for Medicare by your 65th birthday.
  • Pay state and federal taxes.

When you are ready, go through your loved one's clothes and other personal items. It may be hard to give away these belongings. Instead of parting with everything at once, you might make three piles: one to keep, one to give away, and one "not sure." Ask your children or close friends to help. Think about setting aside items like clothing, a watch, favorite book, or picture to give to your children or grandchildren as personal reminders of your loved one. As the adult child helping a parent with this process, don't be afraid to indicate there's something you would like to have. Oftentimes, the emotion involved in letting go is eased by knowing a treaured item has a new home.

When is A Good Time to Go Out Again?

Having a social life can be hard. It may be scary to think about going to events, dinners, or parties alone. It may be even harder to think about dating. Some people miss the feeling of closeness and affection that marriage brings.

  • Go slowly. There's no rush.
  • It's okay to make the first move when it comes to planning things to do.
  • Try small group activities. Invite friends for a pot luck dinner or go to a senior center.
  • With married friends, think about informal outings like walks or movies rather then "couples" events that remind you of the past.
  • Find an activity you like. You may have fun and meet people who like to do the same thing in an organized group or club. Knowing everyone is there with the same interest makes breaking the ice easier.
  • Remember that friendship can come in many forms. Explore as much or as little connection as you are comfortable with.

Source: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH);

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