No ‘Shoulds’ in Grieving a Spouse’s Death

On my commute to work this morning (by which I mean my walk down to my basement office), I started wondering about something that seems to be a common theme with all of us widows:  The ability to overcome what other people think of us.

When our spouses die, the surrounding public seems to think it’s their right–no, their duty… to tell us how things should be done.  They watch as we bumble our way into a somewhat normal existence after our lives have been completely turned upside down.  The people we know patiently wait until we “get our acts together” and get back to business as usual.

Little do they know, we have decided to close that business in order to go forth like a hippie in the 60s on a journey of self-discovery.

We get a lot of advice from the people we know about what we should do, how we should live, and the decisions we should be making.  Now, realistically speaking, these people usually don’t have a leg to stand on.  Most of our friends and family have never raised children completely alone.  They’ve never dated in later in life.  And most have never faced the hole that we now find in our lives.

In the face of all of these helpful tips, I’m reminded of some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from my therapist:  Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary. There is no reason why you “should” stop grieving at a certain point, even though some people expect you to.  There is no reason why you “should” spend your life alone, even if it’s hard for others to watch you date.  And there’s no reason why you “should” expect your life to go back to normal when deep down you know it won’t.

Our sense of normal has completely changed.  The way we make decisions has completely changed.  Most of us now make choices with the little voice of our spouse ringing in our ears.  And it’s hard enough to think, “Well, what would he (or she) have wanted me to do if he was here?” We certainly don’t need the added complication of wondering what everyone else thinks.

I think most of the people we know expect that there will be a time of transition from being married to being widowed.  What most people don’t understand is the change that occurs within us. It would be impossible to go through this kind of loss and come out as the same person.  I personally think that the changes are good.  We become more sympathetic to others and have a better understanding of what they might be going through.  We are (hopefully) less likely to say stupid and thoughtless things just to fill dead air.  And, thanks to the way we have been scrutinized, we are less likely to truly pass judgment on others.

I know that I’m a completely different person than I used to be.  I may walk and talk the same, but my thought processes are completely different.  That girl who would have been completely happy being a homemaker while she watched her husband’s career take off has left the building.  The girl who so deeply cared about what everyone else thinks has taken a permanent vacation.  The girl who couldn’t make a decision before she asked 10 other people their opinions is on a freighter to China and we’re not really sure when she’ll be back.

That’s right everybody.  That girl that you went to high school with and college with or have spent every holiday with since she was born has changed.

It’s not a bad thing.  I think it’s pretty natural.  Very few people have the opportunity, early in life, to really look at things–where we’re going, what we’re doing, and what the hell the point all of this is anyway–and decide what’s truly important.  Loss cracks open a door and gives us a glimpse of what is important in life.  Some people choose to kick the door open and see what’s really possible and some people just quietly close it so as not to disturb anybody.

Most of the people we know won’t benefit from this kind of self discovery until they’re much older. Think of it this way: what we have been through, everyone will go through at some point in their lives.  It is impossible to get through life without a taste of tragedy.  We just happen to be overachievers and have gone through it first.

Catherine Tidd 2010

Catherine Tidd

More Articles Written by Catherine

Catherine Tidd is a widow and the Founder of www.theWiddahood.com, a free social support network dedicated to anyone who has lost a significant other. She is also a writer, public speaker, and mother to three young entertaining children. She received a degree in English from Rollins College in 1998 and has since worked as a writer, editor, Marketing Manager, and Event Planner. Originally from Louisiana, Ms. Tidd currently lives in Denver, CO. To read more of Catherine's work, visit http://widowchick.blogspot.com

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  • sandy says:

    thats true but they seem to go away i guess they think i am ok my husband died less than three weeks ago

    • Jay Cosnett says:

      Sandy, I’m so sorry. I had the same experience and about the same time frame. The week my wife was in hospice, and the next few weeks after she died, they were all there–old and new friends of hers, ours, helping so much, so kind and caring. And then, poof. Gone. The only thing I can figure is that once they could see I wasn’t, I don’t know, suicidal, their own pain in seeing me and being so painfully reminded of the person they loved who was no longer there with me became too much to bear, so they drifted away.

      When and if they come back, they’ll find someone possibly quite different than they remember.

      Three weeks *is* so soon (it will be 5 months for me on Friday)–I really, *really* feel for you, as do so many others of us in “the club” do, I’m sure. I cannot imagine how I could have gotten this far without the support of the online widow/widower community, on blogs but especially Facebook. If you “like” Open to Hope on Facebook, you’ll see others of us there. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. We need each other.

      Hugs,

      Jay

    • Catherine Tidd says:

      Sandy–

      I’m so sorry to hear that this is so new for you. A loss like this is so emotional and it is such a rollercoaster ride. I hope that you are finding the support you need.

    • Dara says:

      I’m sorry to hear that and I understand it,others move on with their grief they dont truley understand how much your life has changed.They still have their spouses to lean on,their kids still have their dads ,they are sad when they think of him gone but they aren’t hit with his loss every time they have to make a decision, every time they have to do the mundane like pay a bill, do the lawn, take out the trash all the little things that to a widow are constant reminders.A couple months after mine passed my sister said to me “enough with the widow thing allready it’s getting old I have plenty of single mom friends you aren’t the only one doing it” This was my own sister, she didnt apologize til I stopped speaking to here for a month and my daughters therapist told her how wrong she was to say that……people unfortunatly don’t get it so its nice there are these groups where we can share together.

  • Julie says:

    I don’t know what to think, feel or say, it just hurts too much. Too many people are telling me to sort this, organise that and get on with things for the children, and yes in some ways without the children I don’t think i’d get up again, but I have too, but I want the pain to stop. My husband died suddenly a week ago today and I really feel lost, I just want normal back and there will never be normal again.

    • Oh Julie. I know that you are at the beginning of a painful journey. I can promise you that some day, the pain will lessen, but I know that right now things are just too fresh. My husband died very suddenly too 3 years ago and even now, I sometimes can’t believe it.

      I realize we don’t know each other, but I am giving you FULL permission to ignore what everyone is telling you to do. You don’t have to do one darn thing until you’re ready. I have friends who have kept clothes and personal belongings for years and some who get rid of them right away. NO ONE does the same thing. You do not have to get on with things to make others feel better. You don’t have to “get on with it” until you feel like YOU can. You need to do what will help YOU get through this ordeal. If there is ever a time to be a little selfish in your life…this is it.

      And the number one thing you “should” do is take care of yourself. TAKE YOUR TIME.

      Thinking of you….
      Catherine

    • Jodi says:

      Dearest Julie,

      I was married for 18 years and recently divorced in 2007. February, 2009 I met my true soulmate and we had the best year of my life. He died suddenly, May 3, 2010.
      I have 2 children, and I know that without them, I would want to be with him. The pain is excruciating at times, and I wonder how I am going to make it through another day without him by my side. I know exactly how you feel. Reading Catherine’s posts gives me some tiny bit of hope. I would do anything to be normal again. xo

      • Susanne Sodo says:

        Susanne

        I lost my soulmate on April 22nd 2010, and we had only had 5 years together. Your words Jodi rang so many bells with me, and I felt also that Catherine posts have also given me some hope. I am lucky that I have a close friend who is always there when I need her. What I would give to be free from this heartache, I look around and the world seems to be carrying on as before when I feel like my whole world has crumbled around me. xx

    • Jennifer says:

      Julie,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m just over 10 months out and life does come back into color. There are amazing women that have been through what we are going through and they will help. Even if it is virtual help. Reading about what others are going through helps me so much. You need to just take care of the kids. If they are feed and relatively clean, you’re doing great. Fish sticks and ketchup count as a full meal!!! Try to enjoy the little moments with them. Don’t do anything you don’t feel ok about. I still have my husbands hamper full of his clothes from before he went into the hospital, A YEAR AGO! It doesn’t smell, so I’m leaving it!!
      God BLess, Jen

    • Mary says:

      Julie,
      I lost my husband 18 months ago and my heart goes out to you right now. I remember what you are feeling. I wrote a journal of my thoughts everyday and I still am unable to read it. I wish there was something I could say to make life easier right now just know that someday you will be able to smile when you think of your husband. I wish I could give you a hug right now.

    • Becky says:

      Julie,
      Hang on, your journey is just beginning. I lost my husband suddenly a year ago and I don’t think my head came out of the fog until recently. It’s a long hard road, one many of us are still trying to figure out. Many of days, my kids are the reason I get out of bed and they truly keep me going. However as time goes and the fog lifts, you will begin to see a change. A wise person told me that this is a long journey and we no longer walk in a straight line. Our line is a crooked and we walk in a zig-zag line; sometimes it feels like we are going backwards, but we aren’t. Just know that there are many of us out here and you will never be along on this journey. I am finding a lot of truth in this blog. I find myself doing things I would have never done before. I too am on a freighter to China and I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I know I am in good company. Hugs to you, you are not alone on your journey. <3

  • Julie says:

    Thank you for taking time to read my post, I actually feel suffocated, We had a life pretty self contained, My husband, our 4 children and 2 fostered babies. The babies have been taken, my husband has been taken and the world has fallen apart for my children, everyone is here trying to help, but we were used to it just being us and I still want it to just be us, I can’t even pretend he is here with everyone else here, I still have the chance to see him in the chapel of rest but no one will let me go alone, I am not allowed to be alone for any time. I am being told to eat, told to clean, told to organise and I have said over and over I am an adult and I know these things, I don’t need to be told but how can I tell people to just let me be without hurting them.
    I know my husband would have told them all to **** off by know and fallen out with everyone, but I can’t, they are hurting too.
    I just want to feel safe again and that can never be, I will never trust in anything not to go wrong, but everything does go wrong.

    • Nicola says:

      Julie, I am so sorry for your loss.

      I know that there is very little I can say to you right now that you want to hear; my husband died a little under two years ago, and at first I simply didn’t want to hear anything. But know that there are people out there who can support you and can offer hope for life.

      For now, do what you can, when you can. And know there is somewhere you *can* turn, if you’d like, when you want to.

      One minute at a time.

      *hugs*

  • Jay Cosnett says:

    Julie, if you haven’t, check out at my comment up thread from a few weeks ago. One thing became clear for me pretty early on (though, of course, everyone and everyone’s situations, feelings, and the right way to respond ARE different) is that some (many) people may be so uncomfortable with the situation and how they imagine you are feeling that they respond in pretty strange and ultimately inappropriate ways. Like telling you what to do every minute of every day; like disappearing from your live; like acting as if you don’t exist because they “don’t know what to say.” That was really, really hard for me, until I found this community of online widows and widowers who don’t do any of that. We get it.

    One blog I highly recommend from a recent widow is califmom: http://www.califmom.com/ Leah blogged all during her husband’s battle with cancer. I discovered her shortly after my wife died, and her descriptions of what she and Bob and her kids were going through was like a window into my own life a month before. And as hard as it was to read about someone else going through that, it was good for me. Very good. And she has continued to write, and has written about experiences (good and bad) and people’s reactions and efforts to “help” (also good and bad). Hopefully you will find it helpful. There are of course many, many other excellent and amazing widow blogs, and the people who write them are amazing, and despite everything, I feel so blessed and lucky to know them.

    Please feel free to friend any of us on Facebook; it’s become a bit of a hub for many of us to share with our widow and non-widow friends. For me, I need both, and to be able to connect with everyone in one place has been wonderful–because it is easy, I do it more, and the more I do it, the better I feel. And even if “better” still sucks a lot of the time, it is still, well, better.

    Take care, love,

    Jay

    • Mrs Hulya Santini says:

      Hi Jay

      I am trying to create a website dedicated to my husband Fernando Lungs but I have trouble with my Mac so it needs a repair after that hopefully it will make a little impact for meeting people and sharing my husbands life. I go to another good website http://www.legacy.com/NS/ and it is a very good website just like this one but what is sad that England does not have this kind of websites.

      Also with the friend reactions I guess it is with some that they are lost for words and with others just plain stupidity.

      H

  • Kim Go says:

    To all who are hurting: It is important for you to get peer support, beyond anything else. It helps you know you are not crazy and gives you a sense of hope because you see people who are farther along than you are and that they are surviving this kind of loss.

    I lost everything when Brian died, EVERYTHING. Including access to his children, whom we had had shared custody of.

    It is a motherlode of pain. And it should not be gone through alone or only in the company of those who have no clue what it all means.

    There are numerous support groups. I have one on Facebook that anyone is welcome to join, there are others on Facebook – I think these work well because the traffic is high enough to get connection. Also, Open to Hope has such great podcasts – they got me through some very isolating moments.

    It will not take the pain away – but it will give you strength and nourishment.

    I empathize with your journey. Know that there are others who are here and care…

  • Deborah Redden says:

    I’m so sorry Julie. I lost my husband of 20 years to cancer almost two and a half years ago. I wasn’t as closely supervised as you though during the first few weeks. My family does not live near me and I have been taking care of a house, two teenaged boys, a dog, and working full-time with little or no support ever since.
    I can tell you that the numbness and eventually the pain you feel from the loss lessens with time. Grief is a rollercoaster you ride until the ride ends. We never know when that will be or for how long the peaks and the valleys of the ride will last. Be patient with yourself and listen to your inner voice. You can make the decisions you need to when you need to; you can care for your children and rebuild your life, but it will take time. You will move forward and backward at once first in small steps and then perhaps in leaps and bounds and come out a different person when you started.
    Please join Facebook groups for widowed people…we are an amazing bunch. I can also suggest an electronic bulletin board that helped me a lot for young widows. http://www.ywbb.org/forums/ubbthreads.php
    I did until I “qualified” for grief groups at several months out.
    Grief groups are helpful too and you can often meet other widows to begin rebuilding your social life in the “real world”. They can help you maintain your equilibrium when it feels like you no longer have one.
    It does get better…you will never feel as disoriented again, I promise.

  • Julie says:

    Thank you everyone, I am in an empty state and scared, I can’t cry anymore and am sure everyone now thinks i am heartless. We have the funeral on Tuesday which scares the life out of me as I have been able to visit his body daily and then next week will end that. I will look on facebook as that used to be normal. Thankyou all again and I only wish I could feel strong as you seem to be.

    • Nicola says:

      Julie, your strength will surprise you. Most widows I know will tell you they do not feel strong; they are just doing what has to be done. You can feel weak, beaten, lost, confused and alone. People will tell you that you are strong and you will not understand why. That’s what used to frustrate me most of all. I wasn’t strong, I was just alive.

      Time and perspective changes.

      And I didn’t cry for most of 18 months. It’s not heartless. It’s whatever you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it. There is no “right” way to grieve.

      I hope you find some comfort. *hugs*

  • Grace says:

    Hi,

    I just lost the love of my life, June 15th, 2010. His name was Rich Webb age 32. I am 27 and have been in a serious relationship with him for 4 years. We were young, living life, making future plans. We did everything together. I barely have any family living here in northern Va but I do have a lot of friends. This is really hard to bare. He was the best times of my life and sometimes I can’t believe this is real. I am trying to seek grief counseling, anything right now to help my mind from racing. I can tell my friends are supportive but I am sure after long months of this they will get tired. I feel lost.

    Grace

    • Oh Grace. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. This leaves us all scrambling to find the right support. I felt the same way…like sooner or later everyone would get tired of hearing from me. But I have found the old friends who will still listen and have made new friends along the way.

      I know right now your life is a blur and that you probably feel like you’re coming out of your skin. The best advice I can give you is take your time and take care of yourself. Be selfish if you need to. You’re doing an amazing thing right now by just looking at this website and reaching out to find someone who might understand. And there are a lot of us who do.

      Thinking of you…
      Catherine

    • Nicola says:

      Grace, I am so sorry for your loss.

      I can still never find the words to say to people; they simply don’t exist.

      Look after yourself. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute.

      There are people who understand out there, when you are ready for them!

      *hugs*

  • Mrs Hulya Santini says:

    My Baby pas… can not and will not say it till I am ready. It has been four month it feels to long but at the same time it feels like yesterday he is gone away and may came back at any minute. I am at this stage where I am a bit angry at everyone at everthing life, Dr, people etc… My future and my whole life is somewhere……floating in …
    I just can not fact the real world and so pleased that the bad apples are out of the basket so I can be free from that. My life is empty with all my emotions going nowhere I have gone before, the pain is something I have never felt before although I lost my nan, best friend too. I have to do all these thing on my own now, bills, getting kids ready (they are not that young, that helps)etc,,, to many. What next…? I am terrified, scared, angry, confused, weak, not talkative (only with my closest friends, not many) this goes on.

  • Patricia says:

    I lost my husband, the love of my life, my soul mate 6 weeks ago. It was sudden. He was getting ready to go to church, and then pick up a friend to come to our house for dinner. My grandson (age 8) and I were going to the corner gas station to fill an air tank so my husband could fill his bike tires. While loading the car my husband stepped in a bed of fire ant. His life was gone in 20 minute and mine too.

    It is so hard to go on. We did everything together. That day we were making our next five year plan until he retired. Everything ended.

    Some days I wake up and do not know how to function. People expect me to just carry on, to get on with my life. How can I when my life ended with his. Sometimes I just sit on the kitchen floor where all this happened hoping to somehow be closer to him. I still cannot go into his home office. His clothes and things are still in our room. I even keep his place mat and remote for the TV on the kitchen table. It is hard to make changes. But everybody thinks I should, except the kids (all grown and out of the house) they have been very understanding but they are grieving heavily too. They lost the best dad in the world.

    I miss David more and more everyday. I still think that I will come in the house one day and he will be sitting there laughing at me telling me it was all a joke. But I know it is not.

    • Dara says:

      I understand how you feel, it has been a little over 4 years for me,I had people in my life that thought I should move on faster too,they just don’t understand and so you have to let that go, don’t worry about their opinion and grieve at your own rate.There are things I let go of over time and things I still haven’t..there are movies I can’t watch without him, I still have his clothes in a storage container,I go back and forth about my wedding ring….but when I felt strong I also moved to a new home and sold our old one, have taken vacations alone with the kids moved on and made more memories…it will all come with time,there is no right or wrong amount of time

    • Kimberly says:

      Dear Patricia,

      So sorry…..of course it’s hard for you to go on! Part of your life has been ripped away suddenly. It’s a shock to your system that affects *every* part of you!

      You don’t need to make any changes til you’re ready to. It may feel like you’ll never be ready to, but you probably will – eventually- in your own time. Eventually we realize we don’t need things to stay exactly the same. But it’s at a different time for everyone. For example, some of the clothes I wanted to keep 2 months ago I don’t need anymore.

      Like this article says – there are no “shoulds”. When I called my aunt (who was widowed at a young age) to tell her my husband had passed away suddenly, she said “The first rule of grieving is ‘There are no rules!’.” So take it easy on yourself. Each moment you make it, you’ve made progress!

      Feel free to contact me through Facebook for anything. You will get through this!! And I’m willing to help you! Praying for you!

      Kimberly

  • Sandra says:

    I just lost my husband, Charlie, on June 18, 2010. It was sudden. In some ways I’m still reeling with disbelieve and in other ways the reality has set in. I’m overwhelmingly sad. He was the love of my life and I miss him.

    • Dear Sandra,

      I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you’ve had to join our club. I know that right now things are so fresh and raw and that your emotions probably change every second. Please do your best to take care of yourself and take things as slowly as you need to. And know that there IS support out there when you are ready. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right…only YOU know what you need to get through the day right now.

      I’m thinking of you….
      Catherine

    • Debra says:

      Sandra,
      I am so sorry for what you are going through. I know that there is not much I can say to help the hurt go away, but please know you are in my thoughts and prayers. My husband also passed away on june 18 (2006) hearing that date just sends a pang to my heart. This is a wonderful community to connect with and hopefully you can find friends here that will help guide you through this journey. Please let us know how we can help.
      Hugs,
      Debra

    • Dara says:

      Try to hang in there and stay strong,you will never stop missing him but you will fold the loss into yourself little by little day by day,it will become part of who you are….some days will be painful other days it will give you strength…there will be times you don’t want to do anything and times you want to do it all….just know you are not alone and any widow will tell you we are here when you need us

    • Debbie says:

      Sandra ~ I wish I had the magic words to make all your pain go away ~ I truly do ~ It will be three years in September that my husband passed away very suddenly as well ~ When I read what you wrote all of the memories of those first few week & months came flooding back to me ~ My husband was also the love of my life ~ my world ~ my everything ~ A very dear friend at the time came up to me and said something to me that I did not at the time realize would be some of the most comforting words any one had ever spoke to me during that horrific time in my life ~ they said, “You will find your spirit again ~ give yourself time ~ you will find you again ~ it will just be a new and different you” ~ I was still in so much shock at that time that those words she spoke to me really did not register ~ I now know what she meant ~ I did find my spirit again and I did find myself again ~ and I am a new me ~ I will never be the one I was before when I had my love in my life ~ but I do like and even now love the person I have become since my husband passed away ~ I never thought in a million years I would ever be able to say that ~ but I can now ~ one day you will be able to as well ~ I promise you ~ stay with us on this site ~ we will all be there for you ~ anytime & forever ~ love to you ~ Debbie

    • Kimberly says:

      Dear Sandra,

      So, so sorry to hear of your loss. I lost my husband suddenly 10 months ago today. Reality is a lot more set in now, but sometimes I still can’t believe he’s gone. You have every right and reason to be sad.

      Although it is still really hard to live without him, the habit of it has become easier.

      Please contact me via Facebook (I added the link to my profile) if you need someone to vent to or whatever. I’m praying for you – I’ve been there.

      Kimberly

  • Debbie says:

    Oh, Sandra, I’m so sorry. I remember how it felt to have the loss so close. Mike has been gone 2-1/2 years now and some days it’s very surreal.
    I too wrote a journal of sorts and even organized my thoughts into chapters in hopes of writing a book. I haven’t looked at it in more than a year. Most of me doesn’t want to return to such a painful memory.
    To all of you here, thank you for your words of support and encouragement. To the one who said we’re so strong, not really. We still have so many weak moments. We just keep stepping forward. Little by little.
    My father-in-law, Mike’s dad, died six months after he did. I remember his mom telling me that the remaining siblings were telling her what to do with Pa’s clothes, belongings, etc. I gave her permission to take her time. One day I would swear I’d never get rid of anything and the next I was packing up clothes and socks and sweatshirts taking them to one of our rescue missions downtown. These things happen in time.
    Much love and hugs,
    Debbie

  • Sandra says:

    Thanks to all who replied. I really needed your comments tonight.

  • Phathu says:

    I lost my girlfriend three weeks back on a sudden death. She was at a work year end function when the boat that they where on toppled over and she drowned with 5 other colleagues.

    I am still struggling to come to terms that she’s gone. We have been dating for 5 months and our relationship was growing so fast. We did everything together, she was the perfect love i’ve ever had. In the few months that we have dated we have created a lot of memories together, had a lot of first experiences together. I feel so empty inside that i wont see her again.

    Rendy i miss you more and more everyday, the pain inside me seems to get worse

  • Nancy says:

    My husband of nearly 10 years died a month ago. I miss him so much and I find myself in a fog most of the time. Some days are better than others. He was very ill with congestive heart failure for the last year and a half and I was his sole caregiver. I had accepted the fact that he would probably just pass away peacefully one night in his sleep, but at the end of January he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and 6 weeks later he was gone. He wanted to be at home, so with the help of hospice I had him here at home. Although he struggled for a bit, his final moments were very peaceful and I was there at his side.