The Surviving Spouse: Now What?

Painting in California, Richard Alther, 2020

There is nothing new about the depth of grief for a person who loses their beloved. Death is a fact of life. It doesn’t matter if the soul passing is an elder, someone middle-aged, or young. But because of the present pandemic, families and communities are suddenly encountering this heartbreaking situation with disturbing frequency.

Many things can round out the sharp edges of such loss. Families are central, of course. But are they near or distant? Either way, is there someone with time and inclination to offer solace? If that relation is a wonderful caregiver, he or she may have their full load of work, commitments, children, or dependents who come first.

A surviving spouse may be reluctant to burden a loved one with added responsibility. There is a strong streak in many folks to be either independent or thinking they should be. The mindset of a survivor can fix on the entrenched notions of digging in and carrying on. That’s what their deceased spouse or partner would hope for them, so there is that directive added on. Men, especially, must mind the weeping.

Psychological counsellors universally encourage the confronting of grief head-on, whenever, however. It is through acceptance of the terrible loss that can open a path forward to eventually slacken the grip of desolation.
The isolation of current Covid-19 patients has made “saying goodbye” a second crisis unto itself. It can seem inhumane to disallow the final words, a last embrace. Perhaps this is why so many not enmeshed in this plight are having to at least think about it. What if…

Is half the couple or both parties willing to talk about this eventuality? Is it overly negative to bring up the subject of what would happen to a survivor if the one of the two dies first? Steeped in our culture is the tendency to avoid all of this. Day by day, live life to its fullest. And yet, it seems reasonable, not obsessive, to focus on the topic for several practical matters. They of course concern financial considerations — life insurance and saving vehicles, for example, are bedrocks of our planning. More to the point: will or should a survivor live alone? At home or another option? A dying person who has the mental wherewithal and emotional footing might wish for the survivor to enjoy life with another companion someday — to give her or him the blessing, the permission to help make up for the sudden and painful aloneness.

Loneliness is often reported in the press as an increasing issue for Americans. No longer a tribe, often no longer an extended family, people are becoming so drenched in social media and entertainment on their own that the interaction of socializing, the give-and-take of mutual support — “catching up,” “checking in” — can be less common. Ages and decades ago, get-togethers were the way to have fun and to help one another. Bowling leagues, barn raisings, fire department barbecues, faith-based organizations, bridge clubs, poker nights: they almost sound quaint to the contemporary ear.

Companionship to a couple, at least a couple for whom intimacy is primary, can define their bottom-line. Some couples may never say much at all. But for those who do, or even for those who are silent but are soundly bonded, the surviving spouse must experience the deepest well of loneliness.

Confronting loneliness takes initiative. It takes courage for many who never “put themselves first.” Joining a group or inviting a friend to visit requires energy which often a survivor sorely lacks. It could work in reverse: being open to an invitation, to a hand of friendship. Of course, a person with a desire to help others exercises compassion, a sure-fire way to move beyond one’s self as the main reason for being.

Counselling is an obvious venue for a survivor to receive assistance. There could be a personal counsellor or membership in a group of fellow survivors. Airing one’s grief is good. Denying it is not. This is common sense, but survivors can understandably be “not in their right mind.” Over time, listening to all sorts of advice might let one thing that rings true seep in. Listening to oneself honestly is probably the best remedy of all.

Survivors are typically cautioned to not rush any important decisions. Allow for the grief to take its course, and postpone a serious life-change.

Medication is another item to consider. The comments of several doctors and psychologists I read said one among multiple variations of antidepressant will not stifle the grieving process, but can soften the burden to allow forward motion, to breathe more peacefully through the day, and night.

Presently I am a recent surviving spouse. My wonderful husband of twenty years held the most virulent form of lymphoma in remission for a year-and-a-half but succumbed to another battle with metastatic melanoma, the lethal form of skin cancer. We were privileged to have two years to prepare for his inevitable death and my loss. We were fortunate for so much time “to say goodbye,” to assure him he could “let go” when the time came, that I would be okay.

Tasks minor to major for me are therapeutic distractions. They help me get through the day. For example, I have been painting all my life, even as breaks of caretaking during Ray’s final months — at his insistence. One of my abstract oils done at that time is pictured at the beginning of this essay.

But after his death, at any time, especially driving alone or simply out of the blue, I will think of Ray and burst into tears. It could be the memory of us in a lab waiting room for another of the endless weekly blood draws, him sitting erect with a smile that was genuine and brave. He was going through this, and we were going through this. I can break down glancing at a favorite chair we found in a junk shop and he refurbished…recalling the reaction of a stranger to his kindness…the thought of us harmonizing singing “Happy Birthday” on the phone to one of our grandsons. There are waves of grief, luckily layered with ordinary life. I know full well my grief will persist for years, if gradually ebbing in intensity.

One line that came to from so many loving well-wishers: imagine that when you are crying, you are in fact embracing Ray in that moment: proof that he is present for you. I like this and it has helped.

So there is grief, and there is loneliness. They overlap. Missing this wonderful man, which is shared by so many others, is one thing. He is no longer here, and that is, for now, devastating. The other element, loneliness, can border on self-pity: I am alone. Am I spoiled by the level of intimacy I had with my spouse? Am I rightly justified to suffer this void?

Of this I am sure: the best of our relationship boiled down to day’s end, each of us having been preoccupied with respective projects and activities, and finally we open the wine or fix a drink, feet up, relax, unwind, and let our conversation wander the world. One writer has said the sharing of love is one unending conversation. That described us to a tee, which I also relished with my ex-wife many years prior. Talk — expressing oneself and listening above all — can be the glue of soulmates.

There are no two relationships alike. I’m sure the grief for a survivor whose spouse dies suddenly…who never “said goodbye”…who never had the gift as did I of a lingering, dying partner easing the burden of loss in myriad ways: what to with this account, how to operate such-and-such …I know an abrupt death brings every ounce as much grief as any other. Gone is gone. It may help a tad to acknowledge that death is a terrible but normal part of life, that others go through it and reach a gentler place to reside, and even live fully once again.

I have another, much lesser qualification to write of these thoughts. A month before Ray, healthy as an ox, was diagnosed with lymphoma two years ago (his likelihood to survive was 20%), I completed the rough first draft of my new novel. Ray said: “Richard, you keep working on your book.”

And so I did. The themes of my story, entirely fictional, ironically deal with death and dying. I wanted to explore a possible end-of-life scenario for a terminally-ill man. Divorced, having been a slave to his business and giving limited attention to his children and the wife who left him, Walter my protagonist for the last year of his life is, in a fashion, “a surviving spouse.” He recalls the best and the worst of his time when married, now navigating the solo trek to his end.

Writing this novel helped clarify many of the dynamics facing a person who loses their loved one. But it did not diminish the grief when it happened to me for real. Grief is fundamental to being human, and one clings to it for dear life.

Richard Alther’s fifth novel, Bedside Matters, will be published by Rare Bird Books on March 9, 2021.

Richard is an artist and the author of five novels. His new book, Bedside Matters, will be published by Rare Bird Books on March 9, 2021: www.richardalther.com.