Losing a partner is an incredibly difficult experience, and the healing path / moving forward process can be unclear, and at times seem impossible. The feelings of grief and loss can be all-consuming, and the pathway to lessening the pain of grief often seems so out of reach. I experienced a partner’s death in my 30s and I am still incredibly impacted by the tragedy and experience of his death to this day, almost 20 years later.
This week, a high school friend reached out to me with a clear but powerful and grief-filled question: “My spouse, the love of my life, died a few months ago and I am frozen. Any advice on how I move on?”
Amongst grief professionals, I have witnessed heated debates surrounding the question of “What grief or loss is worse: divorce or death?” Having experienced both personally and clinically within my practice, I can say they both are terrible, they both rip apart lives and hopes and dreams, but they are quite different in experience and in recovery. They all are incredibly complex, different, and never a one-size-fits-all.
‘Healing’ after death is a journey, not a destination
Nora Borealis, a comedian, speaker, and author, has shared beautiful, helpful insights about her grief experience after losing her husband. Borealis says that the ‘healing journey’ isn’t complete when you no longer feel grief, but rather when your grief takes up less space in your head, heart, and body, in your day-to-day life.
This normalizes the experience of so many grieving people when someone speaks as if time will take care of things and not feeling any grief is the goal. She draws four squares with a circle inside them. The square is you and the circle is your grief. In the first drawing the circle touches all four sides of the squares. With the three remaining ones, the circle touches one less side. She concludes the explanation by pointing out that grief never leaves you but it does stop bumping up against your life and heart and head along your journey. The intrusive thoughts are less, the debilitating sadness isn’t as frequent, etc.
For me, that way of explaining a grief journey normalizes there isn’t an end goal of ‘no more grief’, but rather a progression of grief’s presence reducing in size – it’s healthy, balanced, and realistic to recognize grief’s role throughout our lives.
Permission to grieve death on your own terms
There is no one way to grieve death, no one tip that is going to fix it, and no easy route through it. People will give unsolicited advice. Well-intentioned family and friends will offer ideas and give you the support that worked for them. Some offerings will be great and helpful, and others will be a total miss. Take all the advice and ideas as if you were the leader of an advisory committee – it’s good to get different perspectives, but you are in charge of deciding what feels right for you, when you are ready for something, and how all of that looks in detail.
The only constant in the grief journey is that feelings will surface, and you need to make room to feel them. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come along with your loss – sadness, anger, guilt, and loneliness, amongst others. Know that it’s normal to have these feelings, and it’s okay to express them. And please…express them. To save people. To people who have the capacity and skill to hold space for all the messy and confusing parts.
Grief doesn’t always make sense but in the upside-down world of grief, nothing really does.
Remember, that if you have children or other family members who are grieving alongside you, everyone’s grief journey will look, feel, and be timed differently. Allow that to happen with grace and compassion for everyone.
Agility and ambiguity through the grief process
What works one day may not work the next. What worked for one person may feel damaging to you. What sounded like a great idea last week may now sound horrible today. What felt impossible this morning may make you laugh and feel joy in this moment.
Be agile through it all and try not to become rigid when moment-to-moment things look and feel differently. Most likely it’s not 1+1=2 – in grief, the math looks different. Sometimes 1+1= I haven’t a clue and allow yourself not to know.
For example: Right now, you may feel certain you will never date again, and in 3 months you may be googling about sex toys. The support group may feel awful right now but help you tremendously in a year. You just don’t know, so be agile and open to it all.
Build a new nighttime routine to help you move forward after your partner dies
Most of my clients describe nighttime as the worst time in the aftermath of a partner’s death. It is a big change for most people and sometimes the time of day they dread most.
- Consider getting one or two long pillows so you feel the weight next to you or that you can cuddle. Don’t be embarrassed by this or think it is weird – for many reasons, many people of all ages do this and just don’t talk about the comfort it provides.
- Look into sleep aids to help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer. Just make sure you use reputable products, and make sure you don’t overuse any sleep aids as dependency which may open up other challenges to your life and health.
- Do things in a different order or try something new. Brush your teeth before you put your pajamas on if you’re used to the opposite, have a buddy to video chat with after you get into bed or before you get ready, have a noise machine or play music, say goodnight to your loved one out loud, listen to affirmations on a recording, do a guided meditation, read something you love, or something else that feels as nourishing as possible.
- Do what you need to do but be purposeful and intentional about a new routine.
- Write out one manageable thing you will commit to doing the following day.
Take what people say about grief carefully
I know that may sound harsh, but I already gave kudos to all the well-meaning people earlier. It IS true that most people really do mean well when they’re trying to provide support but…
- People have opinions and they aren’t always right, constructive, or welcomed – the people OR their opinions.
- People are uncomfortable with discomfort which in turn motivates them to say impulsive and not thought-out things. Sometimes these are hurtful, perplexing, or off-putting.
- If they haven’t experienced a loss of any kind they just may not understand what it feels like in any realistic context.
- You get to say ‘no’ or ‘not anymore’ or ‘not now’ to anyone or any idea/statement that doesn’t feel right to you.
- You may want to both expand your circle of support AND shrink your circle of trust. Be mindful of who gets to know what, who gets to see what, and who helps you and how.
- Have an emotional bodyguard who can do some kind-hearted course correction if someone just isn’t getting it. This person can help you get out of a conversation or commitment that isn’t working for you – choose this person wisely, they’re out there!
Moving forward after your partner dies
Once the initial rush of support dissipates and you’ve had more alone time with your experience, take an assessment of your daily and weekly routines. Do this with purpose and intention and with the data, change things as you need to suit the right now.
- Keep doing things you used to do that you like, support you, and feel safe.
- Spend time with people who know your person and your story, and spend time with people who do not. There are times it feels so good to have people saying your loved one’s name and telling stories, who just know how hard it is, and who want you to be happy in this chapter. There are other times it feels good to not have to answer any updates, to get ‘the look’ from anyone, and to feel some anonymity in the experience and relationship.
Seek Support through the grief process
Being isolated during this difficult period can intensify your feelings of grief and make it challenging to move forward after your partner dies. Reach out to people you trust, whether it’s family, friends, or professional support. Support groups for those who have lost their partners can also be helpful as they offer a safe space to share your emotions and connect with others who understand some of what you are going through.
- Seeking professional support really is a good idea. I’m not saying that because I am ‘professional support’… it really is true. It can be helpful to not feel like a burden to your loved ones, you have things you need to say to someone without it causing more worry and concern, and you need to get out of your own head to gain new tips and insight.
- When your loved one died, you didn’t get a grief manual because one cannot exist. The details of the death experience, the context of the relationship, and who you are is such a complicated brew, how in the world could one resource or support person get it all right?
- If you have access to a wide network, these are the kinds of people I suggest surrounding yourself with the person who does without asking and guesses right, the person who protects you from the people who don’t get it, the person who can make you laugh, the person who you can cry with, the person who leaves meals on your front porch without needing to visit, the person who organizes meals from others for you, the person who reminds you of things you will definitely forget, the person who will include you in things, the person who will not bother you or guilt you into doing things… find these people and change when necessary.
The loss of a partner can be overwhelming and seem impossible to move through but know that you are not alone in this experience. Give yourself time and space to move through this journey. The unimaginable will happen: you’ll find yourself feeling things differently than you do right now, you will laugh, you will feel sad, you will miss your person, and you will forget parts of your person.
Moving forward may be challenging, but it is achievable, and it’s okay to take things one step at a time.
Meet the Expert!
Dr. Juliana Hauser is a licensed couples and family therapist and licensed professional counselor. She is an expert when it comes to relationships, sex, and sexuality, and how they all holistically intertwine to make up the core of who we are. Dr. Juliana supports clients through her online private practice and exclusive courses, is a favorite of national media outlets, and is proud to consult with forward-thinking companies in the sex / sexuality sphere. Dr. Juliana serves as Content Counsel for FemmePharma, working to spread knowledge, information, and access to resources for those in the menopausal stages of their lives. If you’re seeking additional support through this stage in your life, or in any stage of life where sex, sexuality, and relationships intersect (hint: all of them), don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Juliana for a consultation.