Eight Things that Nobody Tells You About the Death of a Spouse


1. Grief is physically painful. We always talk about grief as an emotional pain, but it actually has a physical manifestation. I experienced it as a dull ache which seemed to begin inside my bones and radiated outwards my muscles and joints. Really profound emotional traumas like this often have physical manifestations which no one ever talks about.

2. People are going to be weird to you. In a lot of cultures in widows and widowers are considered pariahs and while we do not officially have that status in the US sometimes it feels like it. You are basically a walking, talking Rorhschach test for people’s feeling about death and relationships. Long time friends may avoid you and perfectly well intentioned people will be extremely uncomfortable around you and this discomfort can lead people to say and do really inappropriate things.

3. Sad music helps. After my wife died I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of really sad and some very angry music. During the first few weeks I would cycle back and forth between Adele’s 21 and Slayer’s God Hates Us All with a little NWA thrown in for good measure. I know it is counterintuitive but listening to this type of music has a purgative effect and makes you feel less alone. My pick for the best song about grief Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” which she adapted from a Prince song after her mother died.

4. Kubler-Ross’ “Stages of Grief” are misapplied. I recently saw an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer believes he is going to die because he has eaten some poisonous sushi which features the requisite discussion of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. Kubler-Ross wrote developed these stages during her research at the University of Chicago Hospital on people who were coming to terms with a terminal illness, not about widows and widowers. Later, her theories were applied to everything from people whose pet had run away to idiots who cry when their favorite sports star retires. As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with her ideas but they simply do not apply to someone whose spouse has died.

5. Everyone grieves differently. Just as no two marriages are the same the process of grieving also varies from individual to individual despite attempts to turn it into a standardized “process”. I think that this trend is a very dangerous one. There is an entire branch of the self-help industry devoted to grief and I will not even discuss the funeral-industrial complex since I will just begin ranting and nobody wants to hear that. Following Kubler-Ross’ example these people want to break grief down into a nice, clean multi-step process and it is never that simple. In fact I think that this attempt to “normalize” grief and turn it into a series of steps or stages is really damaging to the bereaved since it makes them feel like they are not grieving in the right way and it gives more fodder to the inappropriate people in Item #2 since they will start comparing your grief to the grief they have read about in books or seen on talk shows. Probably the best book that I read on grief was Dimensions of Grief, a sociology book written in the 1980s which was drawn from case studies of hundreds of people. It shows the full spectrum of the experience of grieving and how different it is for each individual. Despite its grim subject matter, It paints a pretty hopeful picture of people working through their grief and successfully coming out the other side

6. No one who has not lost a spouse can really understand what you are going through. They just can’t. This is probably a good thing since no one wants to experience this sort of trauma .

7. You cannot really prepare for the death of a spouse. I was probably better prepared for my wife’s death than most widowers. When we got married in 1985 she had had Type1 diabetes since her early teens and her health gradually deteriorated over the course of our 26 year marriage; so I should not have been surprised when she died at the age of 49 since I knew that her life would probably be shorter than most people’s lives. However, her death and my reaction to it came as a real shock to me.

8. Being active and focusing on others helps. This may seem counterintuitive at first since the initial reaction most people have after their spouse dies is to shut themselves off from the world sit at home. I was tempted to do this myself but I found that taking care of my grandson and teaching my classes gave me a reason to keep going.


8 thoughts on “Eight Things that Nobody Tells You About the Death of a Spouse

  1. Thanks Jon for writing about this. A very good piece. It both educated me about the grief of losing a spouse to death (I will never experience that) and helped me think about how my own grief is (mis)’managed’ in my own culture, for example. I miss Mary terribly – so it’s good to hear you speak about her too, if that makes any sense?

  2. David Kendall

    Good to know that when PhDs grieve, it is appropriate to analyze and compare the literature on the subject. That will come in handy. Miss our conversations bro.

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