Preparing for the Death of a Spouse

When people ask me how they can prepare for the death of their sick spouse, I can only shrug helplessly because there is no way to prepare emotionally for all the painful and chaotic feelings that grief will throw at you.

I thought I was prepared for Jeff’s death, so after he died, I truly was stunned by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might have been dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

As I discovered, there is a world of difference between presence and absence, and an eternity of difference between dying and dead. Because of this difference, you simply cannot know, cannot prepare for how you will feel.

There is one thing, though, that you can do to prepare, and that is to make sure you are familiar with all the little chores that come with modern-day living.

Even if we don’t have a traditional split in chores, such as the woman doing the cooking and cleaning, the man doing the outside chores, we do tend to gravitate to certain chores and over the years, they become habit. So still, in a time of — perhaps — more equality around the house, the person left behind is also left learning how to do things that are generally simple to learn. When you are grieving, however, when you are caught in the never-ending spiral of pain and stress, helplessness and hopelessness, befuddlement and utter bewilderment, learning such tasks becomes almost impossible.

One woman I know was frantic when it came time to take her car in for an emissions test. Because it was something her husband had always done, she had no idea what to do. Another woman had no idea how to balance her checkbook, had never even been to their bank. One man didn’t know how to make coffee or even how to cook simple meals. In another case, it was the woman who had done minor chores around the house, and the poor husband was ashamed to admit he didn’t even know how to change a lightbulb or tighten a doorknob.

Those of us who knew how to do these things found it almost impossible to garner the energy to do them, so I can only imagine how these people were nearly done-in when confronted with such tasks.

Preparing ahead of time is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes it is the dying person who wants to teach the person being left behind how to do all these small things, and the soon-to-be survivor resents not just the lessons, but the very idea that their mate is leaving them.

Sometimes, the one dying is resentful. They already feel helpless and the survivor, by taking an interest in “their” chores, seems to be pushing them further into helplessness.

None of this is easy. We humans are odd creatures — so very fragile, and yet at the same time, so very tenacious. It’s hard to die. It’s hard to survive. And yet each of us manages to do what we need to do, prepared or not.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator