When someone you care about is grieving the loss of a spouse, it can seem like there is nothing you can do to help. Losing someone you love can cause overwhelming feelings of loss and a time of grieving is normal. However, sometimes a person can get stuck in their sadness and have trouble moving forward in their life. 

There are ways to help someone move through the stages of grief and not get stuck in a downward spiral that leads to ongoing depression and anxiety. Helping takes time and a willingness to understand their pain.

The #1 Highest Stress Event

According to the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory, losing a spouse is the number one most stressful event that people go through. It is a different kind of grief with a higher physical and emotional stress toll than almost any other event. The intense and long lasting grief of losing a spouse puts a person at great risk for mental and physical health issues in the future. 

Physical Health

A person struggling with the death of a spouse can be at risk for physical problems.There are scientific studies that show losing a spouse can suppress the immune system. One such study in Immunity & Ageing showed that this type of long term stress can induce the secretion of cortisol, a hormone with immune suppressive effects… and have negative implications for immunity, including increased risk of bacterial infection.” This type of effect was especially seen in much older adults who lost a spouse. 

According to HealthGrades.com, “Panic attacks and stress following the death of a spouse are common. Keep an eye on heart health during the grieving process. Research has linked grieving and heart disease, with the mortality rate from cardiovascular disease increasing 10% for widowers and 7% for widows.”  

Ways to Help Physical Health

  • Help the surviving spouse to eat healthy and take any vitamins or minerals needed
  • Offer to sit in the sun to increase fresh air and vitamin D
  • Go for walks with them to make sure they are exercising
  • Bring healthy fruits and other groceries over
  • Make a healthy meal to share
  • If regular infections are an issue, talk to a medical practitioner about ways to increase immunity.

Mental Health

With the death of a spouse, a person can lose hope. If the marriage was good in most ways, they have probably lost the one they depended on to meet many, if not most, emotional needs. There is a void there that no one can fill and they are going to feel bereft beyond words for a time.

Even if there were many problems or much conflict in the marriage, there may be an overwhelming sense of guilt for words left unsaid or issues that could not be resolved. They could feel sad over losing their role as a spouse or a fear of being single again. There could be any number of emotions surrounding the death of a spouse and it is hard to know what a person who has lost a spouse is going through.

How to Listen

Sometimes just being able to talk about the death or the events of their life together can help soothe a person struggling with the loss of a spouse. A woman who lost her husband in 2016 remembers how a friend listened to her story about how her husband died over and over until she could tell it and breathe at the same time. Now, 4 years later, she knows that her friend helped her take the first steps toward hope by listening and validating her feelings. 

What a bereaved person says may not make sense to you or feel good to listen to. It may be hard watching someone cry so hard that they can no longer breathe or seeing them hyperventilate with a panic attack every time they sit down to have a cup of coffee with you. It may be difficult to watch someone try to shut you out completely because they don’t want to cry in front of you. Try to remember that they need steady people to just keep walking through life with them. 

It is not necessary to have the “right” words, but you CAN be a lifeline by just listening and letting the person know that you are not going anywhere, even if they are not “fun” anymore. Helping someone who has lost a spouse is not easy work, but it is fulfilling to know that you are making a difference in their life.

Ways to Help Mental Health

  • Listen without judgment
  • Let them know that any emotion is normal during this time
  • Encourage them to talk about their pain and loss
  • Do not discourage anything they may feel
  • Pray with them or attend a religious service with them
  • Offer to get out of the house and do something to get away from the grief for a bit
  • Help them have moments of happiness and laughter without feeling bad for “forgetting” what has happened
  • Watch a comedy with them to remember that laughter is still possible
  • Buy them a journal and encourage them to write memoirs or journal about their feelings

Complicated Grief

Because of the intense closeness of a marriage partnership, there may be an extended period of grief. According to HealthGrades, “Normal bereavement typically takes 6 months to 2 years to process and may not need formal treatment. Complicated grief can last much longer, includes three distinct phases, and usually requires group and individual therapy to work through.”

Encourage someone grieving the loss of a spouse to attend a counseling group or see a counselor online or in a private office. Talking to an impartial person can help someone work through the many feelings that may be keeping them stuck in the stages of grief. Many community groups offer counseling for the bereaved and support groups meet all over. 

Get Help

In the Triangle area, you can contact Transitions GriefCare, a trusted community resource offering bereavement support to people coping with the death of a family member, colleague, or friend. Their professional staff provides short-term counseling, support groups, workshops and is available at no cost to residents of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Orange, and Wake counties. 

Talk to Us

At Renaissance, we want to offer resources that help you understand grief and the bereavement process while you face these times yourself and while you comfort others. Death is a fact of life that we all face and struggle to understand. We are here to walk you through what to do when a loved one passes away and how to plan and prepare for funerals, memorials, burials, cremations, and the other uncomfortable facts surrounding death. 

We want to help you cope with the loss in your life and prepare for your own passing away. Contact us with any questions about death and what you can do in your situation, whether it is making your own end of life preparations or helping someone you love to cope with loss.