When you're under 50, it is a special kind of challenge to lose your husband or wife.
Five years ago, Oliver, 42, lost his wife. “In people’s minds, a widowed person is old. We never talk about young widows or widowers,” he says. “When people meet me, alone with my three children, they think I’m divorced.” Widowhood is often equated with the elderly, but some are widowed at the happiest and busiest time of their lives. How can you get through the loss of your spouse and all the difficulties that follow?
Do not repress your emotions
Upon the death of a spouse, young widowed parents go through all the phases of the grieving process, with an extra component: the presence of children, who have their own grieving to do. While still in the state of shock in the early stages, the living spouse face a mountain of administrative issues that must be urgently resolved. They can’t collapse or to give up their daily life; it can be very difficult to find time to express their grief, not to mention deal with financial pressures and immense exhaustion. The death of a spouse is at the top of the stress scale and can cause sleepless nights, disturbances in appetite, and a weakened immune system.
In a second phase of grief, anger, indignation, fear, and guilt, can assail the sole spouse. Some take refuge in being busy to escape the tsunami of memories and suffering. “To forget, I overloaded my agenda,” says Pauline, “I didn’t leave time for grief, which came back to me in a boomerang effect seven years later.”
Christophe Fauré, psychiatrist and author of Vivre le deuil au jour le jour [living through mourning day by day], notes: “It is very important not to repress these emotions and to talk about them with someone who is able to hear them. It’s a way of softening their intensity.”
Emptiness can set in with immense sadness and sometimes a bout of depression, which might be expressed through physical pain. Marie-Claire Moissenet, author of Traverser le veuvage [Getting through widowhood], explains: “My husband was always to my left, in the car, in our bed. And now I have pain in my left arm, as if a part of it had been torn off.”
Even after gaining a certain level of peace, widows and widowers face recurring difficulties. “For me, the most difficult thing is still the birthdays,” says Pauline. “I look forward to this day several weeks in advance and each time I feel an enormous emptiness, an enormous depression.” Christophe Fauré comments, “Reactivation of the past occurs even several years after the passing. Some birthdays are more painful than others; it’s completely normal.”
The hardest thing is the loneliness. “Having to do everything alone,” explains Marie-Claire Moissenet, “handling material problems, making all the decisions, educating the children, being alone at parties, being alone in sorrow, being alone in bed at night.” “The worst thing is never being able to tell someone about your day,” adds Olivier. “Especially the little things of everyday life.” With children, you have to be both mother and father, taking on all the countless daily tasks — a challenging burden for many men who often are not the primary care givers of their children.
The way others look at young widows and widowers will often lack compassion and doesn’t help them find their place in social life. The initial impulse of solidarity only lasts for a short time, by necessity. Sunday, a family day, can become a sad day: “No one ever invites us to lunch,” admits 40-year-old Mark, widowed for four years. “We see the families leaving together after Mass, and I leave with my children and my solitude.” Melissa adds: “Widowers and widows are scary because they represent sadness, an image of death. It took a long time for my friends to understand that I wouldn’t take their husbands away from them. One is wary of single women in need of affection!”
Where to draw strength?
How do they cope? “Even though I have tears at the corner of my eyes, I have to be strong for the children,” explains Anne. “They are my daily drive to get up (when I haven’t slept all night). Without them, I would stay in bed under the blanket. They give me phenomenal energy.” Work, too, allows you to move forward and think about something other than unanswered questions. “My job was the little corner of my life where I could breathe and continue as before, without talking about anything,” Melissa adds.
Another support is family and friends. “My network of friends has completely changed; it comes from the school, the parish, and is a wonderful support system for me,” says Pauline. For Solena, when her husband died, her brother paid the funeral bill. Her friends, through their generosity, and her doctor, were also very supportive.
For some widows and widowers, the indignation is still too strong to entrust themselves to God. Oliver blamed God and tore up all the books and religious articles he had: “I find it hard to believe in the goodness of God in all this suffering. How can I tell the children that He is Love?” For others, faith remains essential. “Prayer has always been my pillar in life and my husband’s death has changed nothing,” Melissa confides. “It has only taken on different colors: sometimes a cry, sometimes acceptance, the Fiat or the Magnificat, according to the state of my heart. It doesn’t prevent me from suffering, but it keeps me at peace.” Pauline has a Mothers’ Prayer group that keeps her at peace: “I don’t worry about my children, they are in the Lord’s hands.”
The bond with the spouse gradually evolves into a form of spiritual union, and many draw strength from this. “I lean on him completely,” Melissa confides, “I challenge him all the time. When things aren’t going well, I shout to him: ‘Take care of your children!’ Death does not take precedence over love.” Marie-Claire Moissenet confirms: “He is always with me, like a loving and soothing force. I pray to him and sometimes I write to him when I need him.” Pius XII, in a 1957 address to those who had lost a spouse, said: “Far from destroying the bonds of human and supernatural love contracted through marriage, death can perfect and even strengthen them. That which constituted its soul, which gave it strength and beauty, remains.”
An inner attitude that allows for rebirth
Eventually, healing comes, but it takes time. “Life is getting back to normal,” says Solena, “fatigue and sadness are fading, even though I still miss my husband. You have to be very patient with yourself and you have the right to feel bad, three or seven, or however many years later.” For Christophe Fauré, regaining interest in the outside world and in others, acceptingthat others are happy without feeling bitter, developing new projects, are all signs of renewal.
Certain inner attitudes allow this rebirth. “Since the death of my husband, I live much more in the present and enjoy it more. I’ve become more down-to-earth and simpler,” says Anne. Others decide to live a more altruistic life: “Turning in on oneself leads nowhere,” says Marie-Claire Moissenet. The real remedy for loneliness is to give oneself to others. Support groups are places where you can say everything and be understood. Indeed, for Christophe Fauré, “these sharing sessions, as they unfold, help each person to take back his or her life and adjust to the trauma of loss. These exchanges break isolation and create warm bonds between participants. They are places of revitalizing and hope.”
The idea of “rebuilding one’s life,” of envisaging a new marriage, can legitimately take hold, sometimes after a few years. But Melissa warns against being too hasty: “I have seen several couples form very quickly after a death, and break up after one or two years. They haven’t had time to mourn and the other one is, in fact, a crutch for their loneliness.”
Giving meaning to one’s ordeal remains the ultimate step in being reborn and finding true peace. Going from “why did it happen?” to “what did it happen for?” Marie-Claire Moissenet specifies: “Suffering is not willed by God. But Christ ‘uses’ evil to direct us towards God. It is up to each person to discern the imperceptible call that will decide the subsequent orientation of their widowhood.”