Eighteen years a widower. I remember the day I became one so clearly. Oct. 30, 2003, early in the evening. Everybody Loves Raymond was playing on our 13-inch television. Heart attack. Aneurysm. Stroke. No one knows for sure.
I’m remarried now and happily so. It did get easier; it does change you. When a spouse dies, you become your grief. Time becomes a difficulty, something to dread, passing the day, warding off hideous thoughts. Every memory of your spouse gets worn out, slipping imperceptibly into an irrevocable past. Moments of desperation and moments of comfort slip into that past. And as soon as you feel a hint of hope, that unique, exquisite, personal kind of agony suddenly visits. Waves of sorrow wash over you. Some friends, especially occasional friends, will abandon you, and enduring relationships will change in unpredictable ways. This dismal tapestry shrouds tens of thousands of people every day — every day — in various levels of intensity. We should know how to behave around the bereaved by now, but we don’t because assuaging the bereaved is a skill that people, in general, lack (it certainly was never taught how to do it).
Also consider that witnessing the last breath and demise of a spouse compounds the grief, the guilt, the hopelessness — it also opens the door for PTSD, which, in my case, walked right in and made itself at home in my psyche. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, “The bereavement period is associated with elevated risk for the onset of multiple psychiatric disorders. . . ,” including PTSD and other forms of psychopathology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119479/). In other words, the bereaved are sick and need our compassion to heal. These people, on the cusp of becoming a new, somber versions of themselves, are fragile and need help getting over, around, or through the bereavement barrier. Here are a few ways to care for widows and widowers:
- If you know a widow or widower, shed a bunch of love on that person during holidays (not just Christmas). Make their new year a better one than the last.
- Use genuine language. It helps for widows or widowers to hear that people are interested in their welfare, that someone wants to know how they are doing and what they need. If you get no response, you may feel rebuffed, but don’t ruminate on it. Remember that this is highly likely to be the survivor’s worst period of life.
- If a widow or widower is looping the memory of the event (amplifying feelings of helplessness and guilt), encourage her or him to take EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I took the therapy, and it worked wonderfully (see “PTSD Following Sudden Bereavement,” https://sudden.org/tools/meet-the-expert-ptsd-following-sudden-bereavement/). Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another way for the bereft to cope with sudden loss. I hired both a psychologist and a psychiatrist (who is a doctor who can prescribe medication), to “fix” my broken brain. The psychologist talked to me and presented methods of pulling out the dents. The psychiatrist prescribed short-term antidepressants. Both were indispensable during my recovery. Encourage the bereft to seek medical intervention should traumatic grief overtake them.
- Try coaxing the bereft to talk about the event. Say, “I would like to talk to you about it. Do you want to talk about it?” because the one who survives the death of a spouse may reluctantly learn that most people you meet (excluding loved ones) would rather carry on than dwell in an unhappy past. Talk to them. Draw them out of the darkness. When someone asks the survivor to talk about it, that news of support frees thoughts that have been piling up and haunting body and brain, especially around the holidays.
- Monitor the progress of a widow or widower. Progress may be slow or sporadic, but praise the bereft for any progress at all and offer help if there is no progress.
- Encourage them to get out. Take them to church if a widow or widower is religious: church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship and prayer (or at least make sure that he or she has a ride).
- Encourage them to join support groups, chats, and discussion groups (see https://www.joincake.com/blog/widow-support-groups/ for a good discussion of accessible virtual groups). The folks at WidowNet have wonderful resources at http://www.widownet.org/, including discussion boards.