Moving On Through Loss: What You Need to Know When a Significant Other Dies

The essential work of grieving to help transition through death

Posted Nov 08, 2011

Not all deaths are alike. Death at the end of a long, full life is sad; we miss those we loved, those intimate others who shared a life with us and influenced us by their presence. Although the passing of parents is difficult, often bittersweet, it nonetheless is the natural, organic way that life progresses. Not so the death of a child---thousands of tomorrows, prematurely extinguished forever. How do we make sense of this? How do we move on with our lives when part of our own future is gone?

            We choose our friends and spouses. The death of friends, often closer than family, may come to feel like a "death" for those left behind, as if a part of themselves had died with the deceased. Perhaps the most complex of all relationships are those individuals we choose to be with for a lifetime---those "traveling companions" who share our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and tragedies, our triumphs and joys. The death of any spouse, even an ex-spouse, marks the end of a once-shared life, a life that no one else knows, and the absence of this may create a painful void.

            How well are we ever prepared for the loss of someone who has played such an important role in our lives and who has meant so much? For most of us, probably no amount of preparation will ever be enough to adequately cover the transition, beyond the basics, over the whole territory of loss. The death of a loved one must be experienced to be known and only then can we say how we feel and what we'll need to do for ourselves moving forward.

            While the external process following death seems to unfold in an almost linear way, the internal process has its own time frame. This is the work of grieving. In virtually ever culture and religion there are funeral practices and mourning rituals designed to move through the immediate experience. These rites and rituals organize what could otherwise be a chaotic experience, informing participants how to behave and orchestrating the appropriate actions necessary for the critical, but relatively short period following death.

            Although mourning and grieving are often thought of as the same process, there is  an important difference. Mourning, as we think of it, is the act of sorrowing. But the word literally means to be anxious, to be careful; to pine away. When people remain in the mourning process, pining away for the lost "other" and unable to move forward, it's safe to say they're energetically stuck; they remain attached to the past, unable or unwilling to close out that chapter of their life. They continue to live in the shadow of what once was, often idealizing it, memorializing it, even keeping it alive to justify their existence.

            The work of mourning, from a therapeutic point of view, is to separate or to de-cathect, from the deceased. More than physical separation, this is the process of detaching and withdrawing the mental and emotional energy with which the deceased has been invested. Once that separation is complete, one is able to attach to another object, someone or something that is equivalently significant.

            Grieving means to mourn, to sorrow for. But more accurately from the Latin, grieving means to burden, from the word gravis meaning heavy. We carry the burden of a heavy heart, not only for the loss of the loved one, but for ourselves, alone, without them. "Who am I if you are not here? How will I go on?" The 'living' grieve for the dead, but more, they grieve for that part of them selves that "dies" along with the loved one. Loss is really about how we experience the absence of those we love and how we process the emptiness we feel without them.

            Grieving is an entirely unique, individual experience; a process requiring patience and the ability to freely address and express the palette of varying emotions and feelings that will surely emerge. Grieving is a time to redefine the self. Looking beyond the pain and sorrow, it is a potentially rich and fertile period to revisit one's self, alone, and to determine the focus and direction of the life that is to come. While there is no standard, there are some general guidelines to help carry a person through this difficult, painful, yet powerful transition.

  • Take your time. Your time will not be ordinary time in the usual sense. The linear and logical will inevitably interweave with memory and reverie.
  • Give yourself the latitude to find your own rhythm and your own way. After all, you're finding out who you are once again without the attachment to another person. Think of it this way. It's as if you're attached to significant others by invisible ties or cords, and with loss these ties or cords are suddenly severed, leaving open raw wounds that need time to seal themselves off and to heal.
  • Don't let anyone set a standard or define a course for how, or for how long you should grieve. There is no right way, except your own. Don't assume that people know what you need better than you do, even if they've gone through the experience themselves. Often, people will tell you what's best to do because it makes them feel better.
  • Don't make major changes or decisions until you are finished grieving. There is no urgency about making immediate changes. A better, more realistic perspective is achieved by giving things time to settle themselves. Unless there is a very good reason for an immediate response, don't sell the house or business and don't feel compelled to get rid of anything that is a reminder of that person. Over the course of time, you will recognize what you need and what you don't.
  • Take care of yourself. The tendency might be to neglect yourself because you just don't care what happens to you now that you're alone. With the loss of a relationship comes the loss of love emanating from another that one has felt all along. Re-evaluating the meaning of love in your life starts with learning how to love yourself again. Everything always comes back to how you feel about yourself. 

            Both mourning and grieving are essential for healing to occur: to gather back one's sense of self, to let go, and to move on. Therapeutically, you can begin to see healing once you have shifted your perspective from asking why to determining how. Why keeps you mired in the past, searching for reasons that will not likely give you an adequate answer. Why leaves you in a situation beyond your control. How implies action. How gets you back on the road to recovering yourself. How begins the process of working through your loss, eventually finding a way to start your life over again, renewed. How lights the way to other possibilities that will, hopefully, restore meaning and purpose to your life moving forward.