Outliving a partner is a nightmare for most people. It may feel impossible to continue without one’s spouse, especially if the relationship had lasted for decades.
But a spouse’s death does not mean that the remainder of the surviving partner’s life has to be spent in mourning and despair.
There is a plethora of mental, social and financial steps one can take to not just survive, but thrive in the wake of loss.
Dr. Laura DeRubeis-Byrne, a licensed clinical psychologist who frequently works with patients at the Margaret Tietz Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Hills, said the grieving process is multilayered, multistaged and different for every person.
The grieving process does have a natural end in acceptance, she said, but that may feel impossible when one is in the midst of dealing with the loss of a loved one.
“There may be a sense of a hole they can’t ever fill,” DeRubeis-Byrne said, advising to allow oneself to feel all the emotions that come with death, and to “make space for a hole in your heart.”
There are 10 self-care strategies that DeRubeis-Byrne advises her patients to follow when grappling with a loved-one’s death. The approaches are valuable to anyone dealing with grief, she said, whether one is a spouse, a caregiver, a child or a friend.
• Making time for yourself to pause. Dealing with grief is fatiguing, especially if you served as a caregiver. Take a moment to relax and rest.
• Practice deep breathing. In addition to fatigue, the body often becomes emotionally overwhelmed and stressed, so slowing down to inhale and exhale can calm the mind.
• Listen to your favorite music. “Music is useful to get us out of the slump and remind us that we can feel differently,” DeRubeis-Byrne said.
• Practice physical exercise, even if it’s as simple as going for a walk or even dancing to your favorite music. Activity releases endorphins, a happy hormone.
• Eat healthy. Comfort food is especially appealing when dealing with grief, but can negatively affect one’s mood.
• Engage in physical touch, even if there’s no one else around. Hug yourself, DeRubeis-Byrne said, or even a pillow or a weighted blanket.
• Schedule positive activities that made you happy before the death of your loved one. “Meeting a friend, or a daughter can be a great way to shake us out of feeling down,” said DeRubeis-Byrne.
• Laughter is a great, natural immune booster, she continued. Watching a comedy or reading a joke can help remind oneself that there are feelings to be felt beside sadness.
• Create a memory jar. This project can be started before your loved one passes, so that you have something to reflect on when they are no longer with you. You can pull out a happy memory or a photograph whenever you want to connect to that person.
• Seek professional help. Losing a loved one is hard, especially for seniors who have been with their spouse for a majority of their life. Don’t ever be afraid to get your feelings out and into the open, DeRubeis-Byrne said.
Engaging in community events and becoming socially active should only be considered once a grieving spouse feels ready, emphasized Shelly Channan, the director of adult and senior services at Commonpoint Queens.
Channan recommends joining a bereavement group first. Commonpoint runs such groups for those who lost their spouse, specifically, which meet once a week. The sessions are meant to help clients deal with their loss alongside others who are coping with similar struggles.
“We also see where they are — are they ready to join another program, like an art class, like a discussion class, a book club? It depends,” said Channan.
Every client has a unique journey through grief and the timeline for everyone is different, she said. It can take some four months, some six months and others a year to get to a place where they feel ready to engage in happy, social situations.
Channan and her staff pay close attention to their clients as they begin to open up and get to a place where they can re-explore what life means to them without their spouse by their side.
“The ultimate goal as counselors is to help an individual come to a place where they don’t necessarily find closure, but find meaning and purpose for themselves,” said Channan.
Commonpoint Queens hosts an Adult and Senior Services Center at its Central Queens location in Forest Hills, and offers social, recreational and educational activities designed for the needs of older adults. Many programs include healing groups, but others are centered on fun, such as art classes, karaoke, bingo and “chat with friends Friday.”
“It shows them that there’s still purpose for them. There’s still joy to be enjoyed. There’s still life,” said Channan. “Many of them who go through the bereavement process and get to a healthy place, many will say, ‘I want to live,’ and that’s really important ... Having them get to a place where they want to do things and live their best version of life, that’s the goal.”
Taking care of oneself mentally is especially important when dealing with the loss of a loved one, but grieving people should not forget to take care of themselves fiscally, especially if they are seniors living on a fixed income, or if they are living on their own for the first time.
The good news is that one doesn’t have to get every financial detail squared away immediately, said Kerry O’Shaunessy Montaigne, an estate lawyer with offices in Rego Park and Floral Park.
“The first thing I would say is to basically take a breath,” O’Shaunessy Montaigne said. “Don’t feel pressured to have to finalize everything right away. It’s a difficult time.”
Giving oneself the time and the space to come to terms with the situation will make it easier down the line to focus on the complicated, mundane task of sorting out one’s finances, she explained.
When one is prepared to do so, the most important part is finding the right professional to make the process as smooth as possible.
One of those professionals could be a financial planner, O’Shaunessy Montaigne said. Those professionals advise clients on investments, insurance, tax, retirement and estate planning, most of which will change when a partner passes away.
“Sometimes there may be a need for some court intervention for a court or administration proceeding for the spouse who passed,” O’Shaunessy Montaigne said, pointing to one example. A planner can also help determine whether one is entitled to the spouse’s pension or Social Security, she continued. “That’s why there’s times you need professional help.”
O’Shaunessy Montaigne also advised seeking the assistance of an estate lawyer in order to update one’s own documents, such as a will. A lawyer is crucial in navigating which surviving loved ones should act as a healthcare proxy or hold a power of attorney and other positions of authority.
“Looking for assistance and the right assistance in making sure they’re getting everything is important,” O’Shaunessy Montaigne said. “People feel overwhelmed and lost during this time, so that’s why realizing not everything has to be done overnight is important.”