Our relationships with our spouses are often a cornerstone of our own identity; our spouse’s needs, wants and dreams are intertwined with our own. Losing your spouse means losing your identity as a husband or wife and losing all of the plans you and your spouse had together.
Widowhood is difficult at any age, but young widows and widowers often find themselves especially alienated from their peers, who are in the midst of having children, buying new homes and in general building a life with their own spouses. There’s also the daunting prospect of living another 30, 40 or 50 years without your spouse by your side.
If you’re a young widow or widower, it can feel like no one understands the pain and turmoil you’re experiencing. Most people under age 40 don’t have anyone in their existing social circle who have experienced a similar loss.
Finding support, both in the form of professional counseling and support groups specifically for young widows, is an important part of healing and self-care for many young widows and widowers. You’ll gain tools to help you move towards recovery and realize that you aren’t alone, even if you feel lonely.
A note on vocabulary: For simplicity, I’ll be referring to both men and women who lose their spouse as “widows.” While it’s true that around 90% of people who lose their spouse are women, the gender ratio is more balanced among young widows and I work with both men and women who have lost their spouse.
Here are some of the issues young widows often face as they navigate grief from their spouse’s death and rebuilding their lives post-loss.
Young widows often find that losing their spouse snowballs into losses large and small that spread through their lives, adding to their grief. These losses can include:
- Loss of your child(ren)’s parent;
- Loss of your identity as a husband or wife;
- Loss of the future children you had planned with your spouse;
- Loss of financial security;
- Loss of your home;
- Loss of your plans and dreams for the future;
- Loss of friends and family.
As your work through your grief following your spouse’s death, it’s a good idea to cultivate awareness of all of the ways his or her death has led to other sources of grief.
Losing a spouse is the number one stressor on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, and the stress and loneliness of losing your spouse often has a concrete effect on your physical health. Many widows experience a serious illness in the year after their spouse dies, and widows are more likely to die—of all causes, from cancer to car accidents—in the three months after their spouse’s death than others in their age group.
As you’re recovering from your spouse’s loss, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the following common changes that can affect your health:
- Sleep problems, either getting too much or two little sleep;
- Changes in your eating habits;
- Your general activity level and exercise habits;
- Social isolation.
Working through your grief with a professional is an important part of taking care of yourself, and can help you manage these issues before they negatively affect you physical health.
Young widows often also face major practical challenges that can get in the way of taking care of their physical and mental health. Common everyday challenges that young widows experience include the following:
- Being a single parent;
- Handling your child(ren)’s grief and the behavior problems that grief sometimes causes;
- Managing your spouse’s estate;
- Financial struggles;
- Needing to move, sometimes with short notice;
- Handling all of the household tasks you used to depend on your spouse for, which can often involve learning a new skill or tackling a project that you’re not comfortable doing.
Support groups and counseling helps many widows find the stamina to tackle the overwhelming number of practical challenges involved in rebuilding their homes, their finances and their family’s well-being after their spouse’s death.
Lack of Support from Family and Friends
On average, widows lose around 75% of their social support network. Some people disappear immediately while others fade out of your life. Many young widows find that people they expected to offer support don’t, while people they didn’t expect to offer support do. Lost friends and strained family relationships can add an additional layer of grief, as you mourn the loss of friends you had together or of cherished family traditions that have been impossible to maintain. There are a number of ways that this can manifest itself, but here are common ways that young widows find they lose family and friends after the death of their spouse:
- Couples no longer invite you over for dinner or to events where there will only be other couples;
- Your in-laws no longer invite you to family events;
- Friends see you as a “threat” to their marriage and don’t invite you to any events where their spouse will be present;
- Your spouse’s friends stop inviting you to events that you and your spouse went to regularly;
- Your own friends fade out of your life.
Young widows often find that their friends and family, even the ones who are supportive and stick around, don’t understand grief and can’t relate to the practical challenges of being a solo parents, a solo breadwinner or just of rebuilding your life and readjusting your hopes and dreams. Support groups can help connect with a new peer group of people who do understand what you’re going through.
Many young widows find that although their friends, family and community members can’t relate to their situation, they are often eager to offer unsolicited advice or suggestions that come off as intrusive. Some examples are the following:
- Being told that you are crying too much or too little;
- Encouragement to start dating after your spouse’s death, or people saying that you started dating too soon following his or her death;
- Advice and criticism regarding your parenting;
- Family and friends who analyze every one of your decisions based on whether or not your late spouse would approve;
- Advice or comments about how to handle your financial situation.
Grief from losing your spouse can be debilitating, and can prevent you from taking the necessary steps to protect yourself, your future and your children. Working through your grief and exploring the full spectrum of your experience of loss is an essential part of having more happy days and building a life for yourself that is fulfilling, even if it isn’t the life you had envisioned with your spouse.
I work with young widows in both individual counseling sessions and through support groups.
Individual counseling gives you personalized attention and a private place to work through all of your emotions regarding the loss of your spouse.
Support groups give young widows a place to connect with others who “get it” in a safe place. Professional moderation ensures that these groups stay on-topic and focus on helping all of the participants understand and work through their own grief.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no timeline for being back to “normal,” and no playbook that one widow can give to another. Individual counseling and support groups will introduce you to a suite of tools to help you recover from the loss of your spouse as well as help you decide which techniques are best for you and your situation. For most widows, the grief never completely disappears, although with time (and counseling) it does become less sharp and stops getting in the way of a happy life.