WHEN DEATH US DO PART...

“Death is the veil which those who live call life: They sleep and it is lifted."

Percy Bysshe Shelley
The death of a spouse-- both a part and apart of life-- is likely the most stressful experience that many people face during the course of a lifetime. And the loss of a spouse generally impacts men differently from women.
Despite the best efforts of women to function more independently from men, they are still not always encouraged to develop financial and emotional resources when their spouses are alive. As a result, in addition to being exposed to normal grief and loneliness, they may experience terrifying doubts about their versatility and ability to survive financially. These various thoughts and feelings about an uncertain future compound an already painful mourning period.
However, there is a light at the end of this bleak tunnel. Mourning a spouse, though intensely painful a process is nonetheless a process. It has a beginning and an end. The goal is "reframing." That is, learning to change the meaning of a potentially devastating event so it leads elsewhere and is more easily accepted. In this instance, learning to perceive becoming widowed as not the end of your life, but as a time to develop personal resources and achieve previously neglected goals can alter its impact. Moreover, it often helps to imagine what your dearly departed would have insisted you do, then have "him" react to your progress.
Reframing, when successful, is often the culmination of a grief process which typically occurs in stages:


  1. Initial shock. At first there may be numbness and disbelief as well as a restriction of one's ability to act.
  2. Delayed reaction. Once the initial veil of numbness has lifted, a bereaved person may create a host of intensely emotional internal experiences in which he or she relives various scenarios with a loved one. One might cry for hours, talk about the loss to anyone and everyone who will listen; and often the survivor may feel guilty for not having done more while the other person was alive, or for experiencing relief if the departed had suffered a long illness.
  3. Acceptance of the loss. The surviving spouse begins to face the fact that a loved one is no longer there and life will continue without that person. Successfully completing this stage invariably requires mastering two interesting processes: Re-anchoring and reintegration. Anchors are like a "tab-set" on a keyboard. When triggered, they allow us to get back to a previous experience. Our lives are filled with anchors which may occur as familiar songs, feelings, scents, or scenes. For example, after a death, some people have difficulty entering and changing the deceased's bedroom. Yet, as part of the adjustment process, it is useful for a surviving spouse to establish new anchors such that familiar events will trigger more pleasant associations. This can be accomplished by renovating or redecorating a home, changing locations, acquiring new interests and friends. Frequently, acceptance of a loss is facilitated by allowing oneself to believe that a positive, kindly representation of the departed spouse is "with you" everywhere in all your new activities. In effect, he (she) is anchored to everything in a productive way. In so doing, you have removed the painful associations of a loved one and reintegrated the on-going memory of that person in order to re-build your life.
  4. Enrichment. By achieving acceptance, a bereaved spouse will experience considerably fewer periods of grief, and will be able to add a new enriching experiences to his (her) life.

Another dimension through which we live our lives is time. We constantly represent the various events in our lives as a function of past, present and future. You have experienced this many times, perhaps without even realizing it. Some people only know how to be miserable by "looking back." Others, in trying to avoid feeling disappointed live "one day at a time", and then there are those who "always have their heads in the clouds." To this point the grief process, in which one experiences then tries to overcome severe pain, largely involves sorting experiences for past and present. Following acceptance one can turn from avoiding pain to seeking pleasure in rebuilding a life with new interests and friendships, in the future.