From We to ME

When A Partner or Spouse Dies

Living With Bereavement  Alex James

From We to Me 

The relationship between two people is unique and the death of a person within that relationship and the feelings experienced by the remaining partner are as individual as the relationship itself. We all hide our true feelings beneath a shell, only showing people the parts of us that we wish them to see, but it is only to our chosen partner do we reveal the real person beneath the façade, and the whole truth about our relationship is only known to the two of us. We assume that we know a great deal about the lives of family and friends because we may have known them intimately for many years, but sometimes we can find ourselves shocked by revelations about the private lives of people who we thought we knew well. Many bereaved partners have told me that they feel that assumptions have been made about their relationship by those on the periphery and other people’s perspective on their relationship can appear judgmental or devaluing. Our assumptions and interpretations may cause the remaining partner to feel unable to share their grief and innermost feelings and become isolated. It may difficult for the husband whose wife died of terminal illness to talk about his sense of relief, or the partner in a new relationship to feel acknowledged as an important part of the deceased person’s life. In this chapter I hope to explore the diversity of grief for bereaved partners. When a partner dies, whether they are young or old, the hopes, dreams and plans for the couple’s future are brought to an end. For young and old alike, the death of a partner is the confirmation of mortality. Death comes in many guises, and where it is sudden or unexpected the bereaved partner may have to cope with many personal emotions, the grief of other family members and the sense that much has been left unsaid. It does not seem to matter how expected or planned a beloved partner’s death is, its arrival can bring the sense that life is unfinished or passed too quickly. Men and women manage their grief in different ways and the differences in how they grieve are enormous. There may also be secret areas in the life of the deceased which were not disclosed to partners or family members, undisclosed financial affairs, debts and in some circumstances unknown loved ones or other families whose presence is only revealed after the death. Discovery of such hidden secrets can greatly add to the burden of grief of the surviving partner as they often feel they cannot discuss them with anyone, but have to keep the knowledge locked inside themselves to be taken out and examined only when they are alone and vulnerable. A male client whose wife of fifteen years was diagnosed with terminal cancer told me that he felt he lost her the day her illness was confirmed.

“I felt out of control – this sense of not being able to do anything to help her or change things, that we were both heading towards something so scary and there was nothing we could do. I felt angry, angry at her and at the doctors, angry that our lives were about to be messed up big time. I wanted to get away from it and, I feel ashamed to say it, I wanted her to die quickly. I didn’t want her to go on dying slowly while I observed. I was scared of what lay ahead but not so much of after her death, strangely that didn’t seem to come to mind much. I was scared of going through her illness with her. As time went by I felt excluded, she began this journey towards death and I was just there, not able to offer much at all, and as more doctors and nurses became involved I felt useless , I talked to her about our lives, everyday stuff, but I couldn’t join in her conversations about death. I felt angry that she seemed to accept it although I knew there were no choices. As she grew more sickly she spent more time in hospital where she befriended other people who seemed more able than I to communicate with her. I started to go out with the children alone. Our lives began to change. Before her illness I thought she would need me but there was nothing that I could do for her”. 

The confirmation of his wife’s illness brought with it a realisation that this wasn’t something that could be resolved. He felt trapped by the illness and afraid of his own limitations. His anger that life had suddenly changed and the future that they planned was not going to happen. He was isolated by a sense of powerlessness and loss of control and ashamed of his vulnerability and fear of what was to come. His observations were that his wife had become part of a world from which he felt excluded and that medical professionals were now part of her life and that the other patients were now her familiar and new social contacts. She had planned her funeral, talked about her hopes for the family after her death and appeared to be ‘doing death well ‘. This led her husband to feel frustrated and more useless because he couldn’t stop this death thing that had slipped unexpectedly through the back door whilst they were busy living. He couldn’t protect her from it, bargain with it or change places with her. There were days when he wanted to leave and never come back, days when he wanted to shake her and make her fight it and days when he wondered if it would be her last. The family were riding an emotional rollercoaster and no-one knew when or how it would stop.

“As my wife grew more ill there was an air of impending death in the house, sometimes I felt I could smell it, touch it. Friends visited less frequently. I felt isolated and alone, nurses were a welcome relief with their cups of tea and sensitivity but I couldn’t tell them how I really felt. As my wife became more incapable I wished her dead. I looked at her once and thought ‘Who are you?’ She didn’t look like my wife anymore. Letting her go to a hospital was not easy. I felt so guilty as they took her away, she had wanted to die at home but I couldn’t go on with it any longer and although I felt guilty, there were feelings of relief. It was coming to an end. For the next few days I sat with her, I felt guilty for not crying, for not desperately wanting her to keep going, I remember praying on every breath that it would be her last. After she had gone it seemed suddenly too soon. I began to think all about how for most of the time I had distanced her and her death. I started to think about all I didn’t do or hadn’t said, I missed her. Sometimes I long for the closeness of her I know it sounds bizarre but I have climbed into the wardrobe just to smell her clothes”.

The impact of discovering that your partner has a terminal illness is a shocking and often isolating experience. The need to understand and accept what is happening alongside the fear and the knowledge of the changes to come maybe overwhelming. Often the focus is on the person who is terminally ill and partners and other family members can feel alone and disregarded. The feelings that they are experiencing may be alien to them and emotions such as anger, resentment and self pity may feel too awful to share. Another husband talked about feelings of freedom after his wife’s death, his contemplations about his attractiveness to other women and a sense of excitement that he might meet someone else swiftly followed by huge feelings of guilt because it felt like he was being unfaithful.

“I think I got used to my wife not being here quite quickly and I feel guilty for that. I felt a sense of pleasure being able to do things and consider only myself. I missed her of course but I felt ok alone. In the beginning I tried to keep things the same, the garden, the household chores but after a while I started to move things, change things and do things my own way. I enjoyed the changes.”

“I feel guilty about the garden mostly because my wife loved it so and it was neat but gardening was never my thing, I mean I only did it to please her. I sometimes wonder what the neighbours think”

The change from ‘we’ to ‘me’ can be a very emotionally complicated process. Often within relationships couples give up parts of themselves in order to gain togetherness so when a partner dies there is conflict between the need to be the same, to continue without the partner and keep things going in their absence and with the need to find oneself. When death occurs in any circumstances it creates a permanent change within those it touches. The most common thoughts are on the bereaved person’s diversity of feelings – on the one hand feeling lost and needing continuity to keep the sense of security that existed because of the established relationship, but on the other hand the finding of new interests which are pertinent to you alone.

 “My husband bought this chair; he loved it and used to fall asleep in it every night in front of the telly. I never liked it, monstrous thing, it isn’t even that comfy. I really want to get rid of it but I have this feeling that if I do, I’m going against him. My daughter says ‘Oh Mum, you can’t get rid of Dad’s special chair’.” 

“My wife said she wanted me to move on, maybe find someone else, not to be alone. It’s like she’s given permission but I still have these feelings of guilt. I was going to take off my wedding ring but it felt like I was leaving her and all our marriage stood for behind.”

“I always wanted to travel but my partner wouldn’t; now I can and I’m trying to get courage to go alone”.

“My husband and I had a rocky marriage, we argued most days, I miss him so much. I wish we hadn’t spent so much time arguing, but I also feel guilty because I feel better without those arguments.”

The feeling of guilt is frequently experienced by those who are bereaved. The self-recriminations of ‘should haves’, ‘would haves’, ‘could haves’, ‘wish I had said’ and the ‘wish I hadn’t said’.

“I was too busy that day, she said she didn’t feel well but I said ‘Oh get up and get about you’ll feel better then’. I didn’t kiss her goodbye; I didn’t tell her I loved her. I just stuck my head round the bedroom door and said ‘You’ll feel better if you get up’, then I said something ‘Like see you later’ and left. If I’d taken more care, if I’d waited with her, if I’d been there, if, if, if. I ask her sometimes ‘Just come back. It’ll be different’. I know that sounds stupid but sometimes I think it’s all a cruel joke.”

This husband felt that by leaving his wife, by ignoring her symptoms of illness, he was responsible for her death but even if had he stayed his wife would not have survived the sudden, massive heart attack that killed her. Bargaining with a deity or begging for the return of the loved one is also common. The immediacy of being alone, the lonely future stretching far, far ahead and the cessation of all hopes, dreams or plans for the future are all that seem to be available to the bereaved partner at that time. 

It is a common assumption to think that all deaths are mourned and a devastating blow to the surviving partner. One wife told me that although she gave the impression of a grieving widow, she actually was glad her husband was gone from her life.

“My husband was a bully, for years he was aggressive and made our lives miserable. I often fantasized about life, without him how much better it would be to be rid of him. I will cash the insurance policies, sell everything and do what I’ve always wanted, to make a new life with my sister in Australia. I won’t have to argue for a divorce any more”.

This client experienced deep feelings of guilt because she was not as devastated by the loss of her husband as other people assumed she was. We spent many sessions working through her turbulent relationship with her husband and her frustration and anger with herself for not dealing with it while he was alive. Another common assumption made by ‘outside’ people is that elderly people who have been married for many years accept the death of a partner as a natural occurrence and therefore the bereaved partner is not the recipient of as much consideration and understanding as a younger widow/widower. People justify these assumptions using such phrases as ‘Oh well, he/she was 70, 80, 90, he/she had a good innings’. A client of 80, whose husband died unexpectedly whilst asleep, told me.

“We were together forever, I can’t quite believe it was 63 years, it has flitted by all too soon. I can’t imagine going on without him, no amount of time would have been long enough for us. I wasn’t ready for it yet and I want to slap those who keep saying he had a good innings.”

Society treats the young widow very differently from the older widow, but who is more deserving of our compassion? The young widow gains sympathy for her perceived loss and for the years she did not have with her husband. The older widow is the recipient of such comments as ‘Well, you had a long time together’, but which of them is going to find grieving easier or death more acceptable? The older widow has a confirmation of the finality of life and her sense of isolation and loneliness can seem unbearable. Her family’s lack of regard and understanding caused her greater distress and depression all largely unacknowledged because after all ‘they had had a good innings’! Who is the judge of how long is a ‘good innings’? Does age alters the depths of emotion and feelings? Do we become less sensitive to loss when those we love and are long standing parts of our lives take their leave and depart? Does age bring quiet acceptance of our own mortality? If we were married for a hundred years would that make letting go easier? It may be the nagging suspicion that perhaps the aged do not march joyfully on leaving those they love behind and that those they love do not willingly accept their passing that keeps us uttering such banal statements as ‘he had a good innings’ or ‘life was very difficult for her after the last stroke’, all too often assumptions are made and the true feelings of those grieving the loss of their cherished partner are neither heard or acknowledged. A loving partnership can also involve those who were not married but committed within a relationship and following the death of one partner, the surviving partner can often find their position disregarded. In law perhaps the blood family of the deceased person may take precedence as ‘next of kin’, but both emotionally and morally a partner needs to have their links with the deceased person acknowledged and considered. A young fiancé of a woman killed in an accident told me

“I had no say at all about anything. I wanted to arrange the funeral and I wanted her buried nearby but her family made those decisions. I feel angry that they said ‘You’re young; you’ll meet someone else. Thank goodness you weren’t married or there weren’t any children”

Words of comfort and hope for the future offered by people who are meaning to be kind can unintentionally trivialise the depth of commitment between the partners. They may be trying to be positive and show the bereaved person that there is a future for them laying it before them with enthusiasm and optimism, but who are they trying to reassure? Themselves, maybe? The focus for the grieving partner in this relationship was the loss of his beloved fiancée and he still needed to acknowledge his loss of being part of a couple and the loss their future together. Well-meaning people trying to comfort a bereaved person sometimes say ‘Well, at least they didn’t have children’, not realizing that this the lack of a tangible proof that once there was someone who loved them enough to have a child with them, is yet another twist of the knife in the raw wound of grief. It can be thought that a future life may be less complicated because the couple didn’t have family and the assumption that youth gives the bereaved time to heal and they may find it easier to make a future if they carry no outward baggage from the past. This may be true, but in the immediacy of their grief, the thought of any future, let alone with a new partner is unthinkable. 

“When my partner died I felt as though everything went with him, I know this might sound strange, but I’m also grieving the children we often talked about having. We used to talk about the future and having a family, we even gave the children, we hoped one day to have, names – I feel they have died too. I can’t tell anyone this they’d think I was crazy”.

Partners of the deceased often struggle to gain recognition of their place within the life of their loved one. The devaluation of the relationship can cause added anguish and create a greater need for acceptance. Sometimes there is no recognition or acceptance of the partnership from the relations of the deceased.

“We were together for just over a year, we’d just moved in together. I feel as though I’m not important. My girlfriend’s family said they are coming to collect her things, I feel powerless”

A married client who had been having an affair with another woman told me

“I feel like this is my punishment, I have been denied everything”.

He was faced with grieving alone, unable to share his loss with anyone and clearly felt that his deceit was to be punished by death of the woman he loved and exclusion from the closed circle of shared grief. Secrets are often revealed about a person after their death, most often by reading a diary and revelations about thoughts and feelings both past and present can be either comforting or the cause of added distress to the bereaved partner and their family

“After her death I started to go through old photos and keepsakes. I knew she kept a diary but I wasn’t expecting it to be so intimate or so revealing. Initially I found comfort in her words but there were also graphic accounts of arguments, her thoughts about me, and her anger and, in some passages, her hatred and plans to leave me. These were very distressing. I feel angry with her for dying and for not being here to talk this through – I’m just left to deal with it”.

It is very important to not only face the impact of any negative discoveries but also to accept them. It is also necessary to have balance and for the bereaved partner to realise that some of the writings in the diaries were loving and comforting for him whilst and others caused him distress. The reality was that this was the truth about this relationship as the deceased saw it. As human beings we often focus on the negative aspects of a situation and place the positive aspects as those of less importance. Those who are emotionally devastated cannot find the capacity to rationalise alone, often erring on the side of self-recrimination. It is very beneficial to encourage exploration of the whole relationship accepting both the imperfections and the glorious moments that create a balance of perspectives.

Sex and New Relationships

There are many instances where newly bereaved clients have disclosed rather shamefacedly, that they felt the need for sexual satisfaction within a very short time of the death of a partner and felt guilty for having thoughts at such a time.

“I feel so ashamed that after my wife’s funeral I relieved myself by masturbating. I went to bed and just had this need for comfort. I haven’t masturbated for ages, but it felt overpowering, afterwards I felt guilty. I seem to need this like a comforter”.

“I don’t understand why I have this need, sometimes when I think about my wife I feel guilty and if I think about other things – fantasise, I feel guilty too”.

These feelings and actions are not unusual or disturbing as the craving for comfort is, I believe, the driving force behind the sexual need. Young children often rock or caress their genitals when they are distressed which seems to provide fulfilment of their need for comfort. These feelings can resurface when we feel threatened, stressed or traumatised and all of these emotions are very strong during the period of grieving and self gratification can be comforting. Sometimes clients disclose that they have sought the comfort from another person and feel deep regret or confusion about their need and actions. Attachments can be formed to those involved, for instance with nurses who may have been closely involved with the dying person and are perceived having a sympathetic and caring nature. They may become the confidante of the very private and personal thoughts of the surviving partner and consequently may become a focus of their attention. The bereaved are vulnerable and often emotionally insecure and their need for contact with others can be misinterpreted and lead to complicated situations that they do not have capacity to manage at that time.

“I nursed my husband at home until he died. His brother and I had never been close and I certainly never thought of him in any way other than as my brother-in law. In my husband’s last days I found his brother so supportive. After his death I longed to be held and I don’t quite know how or why but I ended up with my brother-in law. He stayed over with me and I just so needed the affection.Now I feel guilty, I don’t know how to live with myself, I just feel like I’ve sullied my husband’s memory”.

“I was so lonely, my neighbour, a single mum had been amazing while my wife was in hospital. She’s a really lovely person. I did find her attractive – who wouldn’t? When my wife was ill she sat with me till the early hours, just keeping me company, and I knew I was getting attached to her. I even fantasised about asking her out. Anyway we have slept together just once and straight away afterwards I regretted it. I feel like I’ve been unfaithful, but I needed someone so much. Now I can’t bear to see her, it’s all too unmanageable”.

When we are in crisis and vulnerable to our emotions we may be unable to think as clearly as we usually do. We may make decisions that we regret. It needs be remembered that the period following the death of a beloved partner is a time of immense emotional turmoil and these are not ‘normal’ times and that our needs and desires can be in a confusing jumble. Those that are the focus of attention of a bereaved partner need to be aware of this and whatever their needs at this stage, concern and regard for the vulnerability of the bereaved still need to be the main motivating factor whilst in their company. Jumping into an intimate encounter or relationship with a bereaved person whilst in the early days of their loss can be the cause of greater devastation and added complications and anguish, not only for those immediately involved but also for the extended family.Family and friends may sit in judgement on the remaining partner. There can be complete confusion about the how things ought to be. Often friends and family try to jolly the bereaved out of grief, invitations here and there and introductions to new friends. However the partner who takes a new partner may be judged and talked about as though he/she are doing this so soon, but what and in whose opinion is ‘too soon’? The Victorians had a set period for mourning to show ‘proper respect’ to the dead. The length of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased. The different periods of mourning dictated by society were expected to reflect your natural period of grief. Widows were expected to wear full mourning for two years. Everyone else presumably suffered less – for children mourning parents or vice versa the period of time was one year, for grandparents and siblings six months, for aunts and uncles two months, for great uncles and aunts six weeks, for first cousins four weeks. These days there is no set length or correct pattern to a period of mourning and if you are bereaved, then yes, you do need time, space and support followed by a gentle introduction back to a different and perhaps intimidating life which, for you, has changed from the familiar ways of the past. If this future does include a new partner, as long as this happens in your time and when you are ready, then welcome the opportunity.

Supporting a bereaved partner

If you take the decision to support the bereaved partner then you need to first ask yourself why you are seeking to support this person, be aware of your own personal needs and be guarded about your motives. The bereaved person needs to work through their feelings before they are capable of thinking about another relationship, so even where you feel physically attracted to them try to use your capacity to manage your feelings thus allowing time for this person to complete their pathway through the grieving process. If you hope the relationship will eventually develop, it will benefit from time, space and a more emotionally solid foundation.

“I met my partner almost a year after my wife’s death. I feel very anxious about any sexual relationship. I enjoy cuddling her but I just feel it’s wrong to take it further, I don’t think I am capable of sexual intimacy with anyone else. I do fancy her but I just feel like I’m being unfaithful. Also, I know it sounds silly but I keep thinking of my wife watching me and I don’t want to hurt her. I sometimes get aroused but can’t bring myself to orgasm either, it just feels wrong”.

Just as increased sex drive is not unusual after bereavement, the anxiety and stress which are usual at this time can cause a lack of sex drive or impotency. Feelings of guilt and unfaithfulness and thoughts about the deceased partners and feeling that he/she may be watching them are also usual and often unspoken for fear of being ridiculed. The communicating of these thought and feelings to a trusted friend or counsellor can help tremendously with the manageability of grief and self permission to live alongside loss.