Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Let’s face it, when your spouse dies, whether you anticipated or did not anticipate his or her death, it can be a mind-blowing experience. To witness the love of your life take their last breaths on this earthly plane, is almost too much to bear.
No words could possibly describe what you are feeling: the hurt, despair, numbness, shock, and disbelief that can set in—once you realize that your sweetie pie is now gone. At that moment or soon thereafter, you may also encounter another most unwelcome “house guest”: Self Doubt!
Due to the intensity of your grieving experience, your mind may start to roam the “hallways of your conscious and unconscious memories;’ whereby self-doubt can cause you to start questioning or “beating yourself up” mentally.
On top of the despondency and sadness you are already handling, self-doubt can add a very heavy load of stress to your grieving process.
“If only I had done things differently, maybe my husband or wife would still be alive!” or, “I wish I had listened to his/her advice. We would have gone a different route or stayed home and none of this would have happened!” or “He/She was such a good parent! I’m not sure I can raise the children the right way alone; without his/her wise and loving help and guidance.”
As Dr. Sarah Williams says, because grief is disrespectful, if you are not careful, it can easily push you down the ugly emotional sliding board into states of helplessness and hopelessness. It’s critical to keep your head clear and not fall for “easy way outs” such as reaching for alcohol or drugs; in an attempt to numb yourself out. Putting in place a sensible stress management plan helps you steer clear of the shoals of addiction or worse.
The purpose of this article is to share ten (10) tips with you that help you proactively cope with the bereavement, grief and mourning phases that you must go through in order to recover and heal from the experience of losing your spouse.
When you travel down the grief path, powerful painful emotions are triggered. Below are the ten practical action steps you can take to soften and reduce your emotional pain as you recalibrate your life as a widow or widower.
Tip #1: Move Past Denial: As a first step, you must move past denial that your loving spouse is now gone. Acknowledging that you have crashed through a catastrophic bifurcation—a before and after moment where you realize that your life will never be the same again—helps you gain the emotional and physical strength and emotional clarity to move forward.
Doing so, allows you to be able to take care of the immediate tasks that need to be handled—funeral arrangements, locating important financial documents, caring for the children (if any), finding working User Names and Passwords for online banking and social media accounts, remembering to eat and exercise, etc.
The goal here is figuring out how to successfully negotiate the slew of business tasks that must be attended to without pushing yourself into states of high anxiety, overwhelm or stress burnout. By moving past denial, you allow yourself to focus on the “here and now,” without feeling guilty or allowing yourself to fall into the trap of being debilitated.
Tip #2: Use Your Social Support Network: Allowing others to help you can go a long way in speeding up your grief recovery process. If you are the type of person who feels and believes that “it’s wrong to lean on others,” then it’s time to let go of this seriously limiting belief.
After all, allowing others to assist you in your time of need is an excellent window into your true internal self-image. When you truly love yourself, it’s “A-OK” and feels good to have others “help you out” in your time of need.
So, when a family member or neighbor offers to do the laundry, pick up the children from school, or gas up the car, learn to say YES! For some of us, especially doers, this can feel weird or scary; since your negative self –critic may start chattering “Hey, I’m not an invalid; I get things done by relying on myself. If I let others help me, they’ll think I’m a weakling or worse.”
Unfortunately, this type of thinking hurts your grief recovery chances. In order to recover strongly, you’ll need to learn a new behavior since grief and grieving is a marathon experience. There is no quick way to make it across the grief recovery finish line. It’s helpful to have family, friends, and co-workers cheering you on and assisting your recovery!
Tip #3: Engage in Self-Care: After your spouse dies, if you’re not careful, you can easily slip into a negative emotional cycle where thoughts of taking care of yourself, head directly to file 13: the waste bin. When you barely have enough energy to get through the day, taking care of yourself can easily take a backseat to almost every other task you have to do.
But, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise, will all combine to make your life easier as well as increase your chances of staying sane; when the pangs of hardcore grief strike! And, if you have children or eldercare responsibilities, then most likely, you’ve been putting your self-esteem and needs for self-care last!
While grieving, it’s a good idea to follow the wise reminder that a familiar airline metaphor offers: “Please remember to put on your own oxygen mask first BEFORE assisting others.” Why? Because when you are still grieving, if you ignore this advice, then chances are pretty good that you’ll increase your risks for having an avoidable accident or making a silly mistake; you also heighten your possibilities for making bad decisions or poor choices that you’ll later regret or have to unwind. This usually happens because you were exhausted, overwhelmed, or said “I’ll do it later”—but if you had engaged in self-care, then you may have been able to handle each situation you faced proactively.
So, consider taking regular “time outs,” similar to how you might tell your own child or kids playing loudly outside to “chill out;” so that equanimity and calmness reign, instead of angst, anger, and frustration. In practice, this means saying YES to going to the salon to get your hair done; saying YES to that half-day at your local spa to enjoy your favorite massage treatment; saying YES once again to your movie buddies; saying Yes to taking that vacation you’ve dreamed about but have put off for so long!
An important point to remember: there is no need to feel guilty about engaging in self-care. Why? Because at the end of the day, when you think about it, self-care isn’t selfish—it’s smart!
Tip #4: Make Room for Self-Compassion: Learning how to “neutralize your inner self-critic” can measurably speed up your grief recovery process. Of course, unless you received training in how to do otherwise, it can feel natural to criticize yourself: the “What Ifs;” what you could or would have done differently.
To be honest, whenever you shift into your “negative self-critic mode,” most likely, you’re harder on yourself than any outside critic could be. For instance, making self-effacing remarks against yourself, such as calling yourself “Dummy,” “Idiot,” “Schmuck” or “What a dope I am! I did it again! I know better!”
When you are grieving, it can be hard to achieve the perspective you need: that whatever just happened, is not the end of the world; and, that you’re not the first nor the only person who has made such a mistake.” Learning to be gentle with yourself, the same way you might be gentle with a child will go a long way towards helping you feel better; so that you can handle whatever you’re up against with less stress and anxiety and with greater ease.
For example, instead of using “choice words” when you stub your toe while getting out of bed first thing in the morning, consider saying something like this: “That’s not like me. I’ll do better next time!” Then smile, and go about your day. By changing your words and choosing words that affirm your intelligence and ability to control how you interpret events, allow you to give attention to how to make things go better.
As the Law of Attraction demonstrates, what you give time, attention and energy towards, tends to increase. So choose wisely so that you stay balanced and calm. Instead of focusing on how your day started lousy (negative), you shift your attention to how your day will go well and get better (positive).
This technique is known as reframing, in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). When you reframe an event, you are purposely changing the meaning of an event to an outcome that better suits your needs. An advanced 6-Step Reframing NLP technique can acquaint you with the concepts of “parts” of yourself. This is beyond the scope of this article but you can learn more about how using the 6-Step Reframe can lessen your grief here. When you are already grieving, there’s no need to say or do anything that adds to your own sadness or state of overwhelm. Reframing allows you to shift the locus of control in any situation in your favor.
When you say “That’s not like me; I’ll do better next time,” your brain and nervous system interpret that positively and will tend to send you experiences that improve throughout the day. Don’t believe in the Law of Attraction? Then try it out! The proof is in the pudding!
The lyrics of George Benson’s 1971 originally recorded song “The Greatest Love of All,” can provide insight into how you can have more self-compassion and simultaneously boost your self-image by learning a little known secret: “The Greatest Love of All, it’s Easy to Achieve; Learning to Love Yourself, is the Greatest Love of All.”
So, when you have time to sit and reflect, consider giving yourself the ultimate gift: the same levels of compassion and empathy you would give a small child who is beginning to take their first steps—while learning how to walk! Giving yourself this type of loving patience as you move done your unique grief recovery path, will automatically alert you to the fact that it’s OK to go slow while grieving such a devastating personal loss. When you do so, your Inner Child will thank you!
Tip #5: Keep a Sleep Log: After the death of your spouse, you may find it hard to fall asleep or get enough sleep so that you feel rested and alert the next day. In today’s hectic “Push-Push” 24/7 world where almost everything now labels itself as URGENT or IMPORTANT, you can easily underestimate the important role that rest and sleep play in a healthy well-being.
Recent sleep studies and a major survey from the Centers for Disease Control concluded that an average adult needs a daily minimum of seven (7) hours of sleep per night to function properly. Infants, small children, and teens need much more sleep than adults: requiring from eight (8) to twelve (12) hours sleep per night.
As you may imagine, when you are grieving the death of your spouse or other close loved one, your sleep needs to increase because grief raises your allostatic stress loads. So, to get back to normal, you’ll need to get more sleep and rest than 7 hours per night to function efficiently.
Once you start your sleep log, you may be surprised to see just how little sleep you are actually getting! Often we think we are sleeping but we are not; keeping a consistent sleep log allows you to see when you go to bed and when you get up. As you analyze your results, you can also take into consideration how long it takes you to fall asleep.
If you find yourself “counting sheep” or tossing and turning for hours on end, then the time that you “went to bed” will be meaningless—it’s actual sleep time that matters. To get the “shut-eye” you need, take a close look at your log and make appropriate adjustments to your schedule. Remember to be gentle with yourself as you ask and answer the following questions:
Is my smartphone turned off and places outside my bedroom? The blue wavelength light emitted by smartphones interrupts your natural circadian rhythm—this is what tells your body to “Go to sleep”—since blue light delays the release of important hormones such as melatonin and growth factor hormone. If these hormonal secretions do not happen as they should, at best, you’ll end up with poor quality sleep. You won’t wake up refreshed and ready to go, and your body will not have entered restorative stage 5 sleep nor have produced the melanin your body needs to get a good night’s sleep. Over time, this can build into a huge and dangerous sleep deficit.Is my bedroom set up to encourage sleep? Do a check of your sleeping area. If your bedroom does not get dark enough, then you will not be able to get the best sleep possible. Consider getting curtains or shades that totally block out light from the outside. Also, be sure to turn off the TV and radios in your bedroom; and, cover any red light digital clocks too.
Of course, some of us need low-level night lights to get to the bathroom safely in the middle of the night. Better to be able to see, than to fall! Does my pre-bedtime routine encourage sleep? Last-minute checks of your smartphone for texts, emails and phone calls, playing angry Birds, Fortnight or Candy Crush video games, and regularly having discussions that lead to arguments or worries about money right before bedtime, typically delay sleep onset and most likely, you won’t sleep soundly. Setting up a bedtime routine that short circuits phone use, video game playing and arguments at least one (1) hour before bedtime, will soften your grieving experience—giving you the well-deserved “time out” you need to get a head-start on good night’s sleep; so that you do not deplete your energy stores. Imagine how much more centered you’ll become when you can say “Hey listen, I have a rule, no arguing or conflict before bedtime. We can continue this at another time.” When you respect your boundaries in this way, others tend to respect them too. This is good news since you’ll find that as you increase your locus of control in new ways, your stress and anxiety will start to subside, so you’ll start to feel better right away!Am I using Aromatherapy to Soothe away my Grief? Recent research demonstrates that the essential oils of Jasmine and Lavender can enhance sleep quality and improve alertness the next day. Placing a few drops of either of these oils onto a cotton ball and placing it near your pillow, helps you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling rested. I’m sure you’ll agree that when you’re grieving, anything that helps you easily drift off to sleep without effort, is most welcome!Am I using music to soothe away my aches and pains? Numerous studies have concluded that most people find certain types of music relaxing and calming. While grieving, it’s critical to use every method that helps you “keep your wits about you,” so that you can continue to recover and heal from your devastating personal loss. For instance, the music of Steven Halpern has demonstrated its ability to relax listeners deeply and consistently alleviate aches and pains. I started listening to his signature song Spectrum Suite while floating in a floatation tank in the 1980s. Once you feel the effects of Steven’s music, I know you’ll feel grateful and share this knowledge with others who may be grieving deeply too.
Tip #6: Learn to Guard Your Time: In the aftermath of your spouse’s death, you can easily become overwhelmed by fear and depleted if you say YES to every request made of you. A key piece of the grief recovery puzzle is learning to say NO. For some of us, that’s an easy “no brainer;” but, if you have a “Pleaser Personality,” then this may be difficult to do.
Why is it so important to learn how to say NO within the grieving context? Because to fully recover, you’ll need to monitor and guard your energy stores; to minimize your risks to become overwhelmed, sick or pushed into stress burnout or worse.
A surefire way to end up in the hospital is to severely overextend yourself after your spouse passes away. Trying to busy yourself with activities, as if you’re Wonder woman or Superman, is sure to catch up with you—usually at the worse time possible! Developing stamina and storing your energy—mental, physical, emotional and spiritual—is a necessary part of the recovery process. So give yourself the gift of time by guarding your time!
Tip #7: Seek Out Professional Help: When you are grieving deeply, it’s easy to underestimate just how much the death of your spouse has affected and changed your attitudes towards life. Your spouse’s death can easily trigger a loss of faith in God or a Higher Power, the desire to go to work, eat or care for yourself; or, it can take you to a place where “nothing matters anymore.”
Unfortunately, within some African American communities, there is still a stigma attached to seeking out mental health resources; especially psychotherapy or psychiatric resources, even when appropriate and much needed. Why this is the case, is beyond the scope of this article; but, should you find yourself in a state of complicated grieving over an extended period of time, you would be wise to seek out the assistance of a professional therapist or experienced grief coach. That way, you can get the extra help you need without feeling any sense of shame or hearing others say “Oh, there’s something wrong with you if you need to go to therapy.” Excuse me, Duh, my spouse just died! I’m in unbelievable anguish. I need help!”
The Grief Recovery Institute helps individuals grieving deeply to recover. Their approach is unique in that their focus is on assisting you to complete “Incomplete Communications” with your departed loved one in safe ways. In small groups, one on one with a Grief Coach, a Buddy System and writing final letters to your close loved one. You can learn more about the Grief Recovery Method here.
Tip #8: Proper Nutrition and Exercise: While grieving deeply, it’s easy to make poor food choices and shove almost anything into your mouth; that’s if you remember to eat at all! Losing your taste for foods you once loved can easily happen when you are in such an extra sad state. It’s also easy to go in the opposite direction: overeating foods high in sugar, salt, and empty calories.
Additionally, when you’re feeling “down,” thoughts of exercising or going to the gym are as welcome as the idea of getting a root canal at the dentist. But, recent studies all point to the same conclusion: that exercise and proper nutrition help lower your stress and blood pressure while simultaneously boosting your mood and immune system; thus, increasing your stress hardiness, resiliency and your ability to ward off disease.
So, even though you may not feel like it, ask a fitness coach or professional nutritionist to help you draw up a practical plan that will provide you with the energy you need so that you can keep your weight under control and feel good at the same time.
Tip #9: Become a Hugger: several recent studies show that the human need and desire for sympathetic touching is very high. This is especially true when you are grieving. In fact, when two people give each other sincere friendly hugs, both the giver and receiver benefit! Besides the fact that when you are grieving or mourning, words can get in the way of communicating heartfelt empathy, compassion, and love. But a hug is worth a thousand words!
Tip #10: Do a Dedication: When you lose your spouse, one key way to memorialize his or her memory, is to do some type of dedication. Perhaps you’ll want to set up a scholarship at the primary school, high school, college or graduate school they attended. Or, make a special donation in their honor at a church or other religious institution where a plaque or commemorative window is erected and engraved with their name in perpetuity.
Alternately, you might consider putting together a special ceremony a year or more after their death to honor them; or, have trees planted in their honor.
In my case, I have donated to a religious charity that is bringing potable drinking water to impoverished rural communities in Monrovia, Liberia. I have committed to installing five (5) wells on church property; so that the drinking water is free. The first well in my wife’s honor was completed in January 2019.
So there you have it: ten practical tips you can use to ease some of the painful burdens you must bear when your spouse passes away. Remember, others around you are suffering different types of grief too. I have found what a wise gentleman once told me to be true: “If you live long enough, you’ll know what grief is up close and personal.” How true! Again, there are no words but there are clear action steps you can take to lighten your stress load!
Dr. Bob, The Stress Relief Doctor, is an Executive Stress Management Wellness Coach, author, speaker, and the co-host of the popular StressFreeNow podcast series which is listed as one of the top 50 stress and pain relief podcasts worldwide. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Bob is the author of over 125 published articles and several books on ways to reduce stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and grief recovery. You can view his Amazon author profile here. You can learn more about how Dr. Bob can improve the quality of your life and help you live long enough to play with your grandchildren by visiting his website www.StressFreeNow.info