Surviving the death of a spouse
Surviving the Loss of a Loved One - a young widow's story
My name is Tanya Clapshaw, and I was widowed after 16 years of happy marriage. My husband Dwayne died after a year-long struggle with melanoma cancer. Less than 40 years old, I was completely unprepared for people's reactions, the legal and financial craziness, or the breaking of my own heart.
Honey, I've been through it, head down and plodding, but made it. I've come out the other side, and after eight years still miss my first husband every single day. I am here to let you know that you can survive being a young widow or widower, that life is worth living, and that you are not alone. Let's talk together, and see if my experiences (and my mistakes) can ease any of the burden you're feeling right now.
P.S. My husband Dwayne's eulogy can be seen here .
I did not put much in there about our relationship--those of us who knew us, knew what we were.
The best advice I ever got
Everyone seems to want to give you advice when you're widowed, whether it is financial or relationships or living situations.
The best advice came from my hospice chaplain, who told me I only had to do three things:
-- Get out of bed at least once every day
-- Take out the trash at least once a week
-- Keep breathing.
All the rest is gravy.
Take your time, don't let anyone push you. Even if your well-meaning friends and family have been through what you have, they still aren't YOU. Everyone grieves at their own time and in their own way, and everyone has their own story. I offer the information here to you knowing that, and hoping that you might find at least one thing on this page to help make your journey easier.
Why People Used to Wear Black Armbands
alternately titled, "Don't Mess with the Crazy Person"
After living through the loss of a husband, I now know why people used to wear black clothes or armbands during a formal mourning period. I used to think that it was kind of quaint, and was a way to honor those who have died. Maybe that is true, but I think it is more than that: it is a warning.
It shows others that we're not ourselves.
It warns others that if they do something wrong, we have the right to be irrational and holler at them. We may even thank them for being the target of our pent up feelings.
It announces that we may cry at the drop of a hat, and forget things, and may be wearing two different colored shoes.
It let's them know that we need love just the way we are, as crazy as we are, as we try to heal.
I vote we bring this practical custom back.
If you read one book on widowhood, make it this one
This book was so practical, and was written by people who had actually been through the horror of losing a spouse. It was very helpful to read it and know I wasn't losing my mind, other people had gone through the same problems, and gave me ideas on how to cope and deal with situations. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Weirdness and the Opposite Sex
A Young Widow's Survival Kit
WARNING: When you're young and your spouse dies, some people seem to think it is kind of like you two just broke up. People will try to do what they think will help, and to many of them, that means asking you questions about who you'd be interested in, or trying to set you up, or making a move themselves.
In classic literature, young widows wound up taking poison or joining a monastery--they didn't stick around to wonder what to do next. With older widows, people expect them to grieve gracefully and be alone, but the younger ones just confuse them.
When my husband died, I just couldn't cope with well-meaning people, or those on the prowl, so I took a vow not to worry about men for a solid year. That took the pressure off me, and let me concentrate on just trying to make it through the days and nights. It gave me something to tell people to deflect them, and was a tremendous relief.
Another trick? Got people bugging you? Get a protector. I mean a friend who is a wonderful PIT BULL of a person, ready to step in and talk to people if you need it. I did this, and it saved my sanity. He was able to have the strength to put his foot down with people who wanted to interfere, take advantage, or bully me. I'd simply tell them to talk to him about it, and left it at that. No other explanation was necessary.
Stick or Run?
You'll start finding out who your friends really are.....
Being widowed is a crucible, and you'll find out pretty quickly who can stand the heat. I found that people almost universally broke into four different groups:
--RUNNERS--it was almost like they thought cancer was contagious, and once my husband had passed away, the rest of them ran so they wouldn't have to deal with me, or their own uncomfortable feelings, or whatever. I say, good riddance.
--MEAN WELL-ers--say they want to help, and genuinely feel bad about things--for awhile. This is human nature, that other things in life happen, their schedules and priorities don't mesh with yours, or that they get tired of always seeing you cry. I don't bear them any ill will, because I understand exactly why it happens.
--LOOKY-LOOS--who want to be part of your story. The drama appeals to them, either to live it with you, or so they gossip to others how much they know, and how much they've helped you. You can either weed these people out, or just ignore them and keep your personal business away from them...........unless you want it broadcast to the known world.
--JEWELS AND GEMS--those rarest of rare friends, the ones who understand that if you call at 11 PM saying, "I can't stand to be in my house alone tonight" that means they need to get in their car, bring a toothbrush, and sleep on your sofa. These are the rare ones that go out of their way to include you in their holidays or their outings (even if you do kill all the conversation the moment you show up), who check in with your answer machine every day (because you're so demented you don't answer the phone anymore) just to say they're thinking of you , and that they love you. or who surround you as a buffer at those tough social situations.
Eric, Sam, Bob, Lara, Rob, Jerry, Damon, Alison, Misty, Dawn and Mark--love you guys. So many others held my hand through those first months--THANK YOU.
For Widows with Children
I didn't have children when I was widowed, but I have friends who did. I've been told this is an excellent book, with some solid common sense ideas on how to live through such dark times.
What works (and what doesn't)
A few simple rules can help you heal
--Take one day, one breath, at a time. Grief comes in waves, and how you feel one day may not be how you feel the next. Much like labor pains, it sometimes helps to look back and think "Well, one more behind me that I don't have to do again.".
--Know your calendar. Anniversaries, birthdays and Valentine's Day take on a new, difficult meaning for those of us working through grief. Also, several months after the death, it becomes apparent that the loved one is not coming home, and it all becomes real. Timing may be different for different people, but most of the widows I've talked to mention this time frame again and again. When you feel those tough days coming up, cut yourself some slack.
--Protect your health. Take a good multi-vitamin (I lost about half my hair that first year, due to stress). Make a promise to try to have one really nutritious meal everyday, and to limit drinking alone.
--Try to maintain a semblance of a sleep schedule. For example, you could have a goal of being in bed by 11, with the TV turned off by 12.
--Getting out of town has benefits, and problems. Many widows travel quite a bit that first year after the death, trying to have some peace away from all those memories. This works somewhat, but flying back into an airport, when you know they're not going to be there to meet you, can be devastating.
--Friends and Family--can be either a blessing or a curse. You'll find people will say "if you need anything, let me know," but that you won't call them, because you don't want to intrude, or ask too much of them. It is hard for us to learn that LETTING them do something for you is giving THEM a gift--it lets them try to do something useful, and express their own grief, too. Let them help, if you can. Tell them you could use someone to trim your lawn, or wash your dog, or just answer the phone those first few days. One of my friends simply stayed in my home during the afternoon of the funeral, as he'd heard that sometimes thieves read the funeral notices in the paper, and target houses they know will be vacant during that time.
Money and Other Monstrosities
Nothing like working through intense grief....and then having money complicate the issue. Big fun.
FUNERAL EXPENSES--you may have cash or a credit card in reserve to pay for this, or you may not. Prices vary widely, and funeral directors often will not take an IOU, while you wait for life insurance payments to arrive.
LIFE INSURANCE--some people have it, some don't. Check through all the paperwork to see if you do, if your spouse did not tell you beforehand. If they were employed, check with the employee assistance department to see what benefits you're entitled to.
WORKING WHILE GRIEVING--many of us have to work while we are dealing with legal, emotional, and personal matters. If you can, find an advocate/friend at your company, who can help deflect well-wishers who just want to pepper you with questions, or who can cover for you if you need a bit of time to yourself. This isn't weakness--it is a survival tactic, especially if you plan on keeping your job.
FINANCIAL COUNSELING--if you get a good financial advisor, they are worth their weight in GOLD. Especially if you're going to have a chunk of money from a settlement or a life insurance payout, see a competent financial advisor to get advice. Almost every young widow I met blew through much of their inheritance before they knew it, and wish they'd been more frugal, or set up annuities. I mean it--go back and read this paragraph again.
Want to HELP someone who's been widowed? - Advice for friends and family
Trying to help someone who's been through loss can be tough. You may offer help, and they may turn you down, they may cry a lot or not show up when you've invited them somewhere. Here's a few ideas on how you can help:
--Don't lead, FOLLOW. The new widow may not know where they are leading you, or what they'll need tomorrow, but you can just be there when they need it.
--Give advice cautiously--Don't tell the new widow what to do, unless absolutely necessary (like nuclear disarmament necessary) or unless they ask you. Really. This is their story, and their grief may lead them in all sorts of directions that may not make sense to you, but may be part of their healing.
--Let them go at their own pace. Different people grieve different ways, at different speeds. She may be having a great week, then suddenly have a very tough time with grief. This is normal.
--Be aware they're not going to be "themselves" for awhile--It's nothing personal, but you may look at your friend or family member and wonder where they've gone, and who is the alien that has taken their place. Grief, like any major life event, changes people.
Full of practical advice and tips on how to help someone who's just lost a loved one. An excellent source for common sense ideas.
Don't get suckered
Beware of those who want to take advantage
I'd love to say that all people are truthful, with good motives and pure souls, but that just isn't so.
Nothing brings out the pond scum of the world as much as a perceived weakness or opportunity for gain. As a widow, is is very common to have people take advantage during those first few months. This could include
--developers or real estate agents who pressure or cajole you to sell your home
--"psychics" who tell you they can contact the dead
--"friends" or family who suddenly need a loan (especially if there's been a life insurance payout)
Do yourself a favor--don't do anything in haste. The classic advice is not to do anything BIG (i.e. moving, changing jobs, etc) for the first year after your loved one's passing.
What Kind of Support Do YOU Need?
Different strokes for different folks
Yes, you can go it alone, but WHY? People who have been through grief, or who are professionals who understand how to help people going through loss, can truly help.
--COUNSELING--I never used to believe that old adage about how bottling up your feelings could cause problems. After Dwayne's death, I believe it in SPADES. Counseling, whether with a group or one-on-one, can vent out those toxic emotions, help make sense of what's going on, connect you with resources, and let you choose when and where you'll have your big meltdowns. Weird, but true, and worth the cost and time it takes.
--FRIENDS--Remember what I said about those gems in your life who may not understand what you're going through, but want to support you anyway? God love 'em!
--SUPPORT GROUPS--can be good or bad, depending on which one you get into. It seems to work best if young widows form their own group, often after meeting in a larger grief group. Also, people who are widowed at about the same time go through a lot of the same problems and pitfalls at the same times, so it is wonderful to talk with others who really understand what's going on in your life, and in your heart.
--OTHER PEOPLE vs. SOLITUDE--sometimes, it feels good to be alone, and sometimes you're going to need people around you. Listen to that little voice inside of you that tells you the difference.
--ONLINE RESOURCES--there are online groups for widows, but I'd be cautious and do some research before joining one. It is very difficult to be dealing with one's own tragedy, and have a daily email deluge of new widows, telling their stories and asking for help and advice. It is best to be part of a group, in person locally or online, made up of people who started their journey about the same time you started yours. The stages, problems, and phases will make a lot more sense to you, without the crushing weight of seeing all those new widowhoods unfold.
When looking at widows.....
...DON'T JUDGE THEM.
Some will get in a new relationship and be remarried within weeks or months of their spouse's death. Some will blow their money, or neglect their kids, or go through men like potato chips. Some will request meds for depression, and some won't.
To you, the behavior may make no sense, but to them, it is their way...THEIR WAY....of surviving.
Love them anyway, and only interfere if they're doing something really, really stupid (recreational drugs, etc).
The Stupidest Things People Said to Me
Figured these deserved a category of their own....
Ahem. Isn't it amazing how your nearest and dearest can sometimes mean so well, and still be so THICK? God bless their pea-pickin' little hearts...
--"Is there anyone you'd be interested in?"--said four days after I buried my husband
--"Why don't you move in with your parents?"--my parents lived in Alaska, and I was nearly 40.
--"You're still crying over him? What's it been, three months?".
and, the all time stupidest thing said to me, actually said at the reception after the funeral....
"I know how you feel. My dog just died".
People, I can't make this stuff up.....I won't even go into the story about the man who tried to kiss me four weeks after my husband's death, or the guy who asked me out the week after that.
Stuff You Don't Want to Hear
...but I'm going to say it anyway.....
I know what it's like to have so much grief it feels like if you explore it to its depths, you'll be sitting on the bottom of the ocean, wondering if you'll ever see the sunlight again. You worry if you go that deep, that you'll never come out.
The truth is, yes, someday, you will.
Things will get better. Slowly. There may still be days when the darkness swirls around, but someday you'll find yourself being startled by hearing a laugh---and it will be you.
We never forget, but slowly the wound doesn't hurt quite as bad. I felt guilty when that pain eased up a bit, but after awhile I realized that this is part of the way things play out. I had chosen to survive, and to live again. Love does NOT die, but luckily for us, pain does ease.
I wish for you laughter and joy in in the future.
I wish for you peaceful sleep and true peace in your heart.
I wish for you HOPE.
Love to you all,
P. S. I have been so touched by the amazing and heartfelt comments that people have left here! I am now putting together some resources for young widows, including writing a new book specifically addressing the unique issues we have. If you are interested in being interviewed via email for this project, please GO HERE to help others by sharing your experiences and wisdom. Anyone who provides a quote or idea that is used in the book will receive a free copy for their Kindle. I respect your privacy, and will only pass along what you tell me if you give me your permission. Thank you, Tanya