This article is designed to aid readers who have lost a spouse to understand better what they are experiencing and how to handle the issues that may arise.
By: Susan Adams M.Ed.
When A Spouse Dies
Summary: A parent who must go forward alone because of the death of a spouse is faced with all sorts of unfamiliar responsibilities at a time of shock, grief, and mourning.The grieving takes time to unfold, while the onslaught of responsibilities keeps coming. This is a time when family support is vital but must come from other adults and not the children. Things are confused and can be quite chaotic. This article is an attempt to bring some normalcy to the situation and some guidelines for structure at a time when people often feel out of control.
The death of a husband means that his wife now has to manage all the family affairs, perhaps take a job, seek financial assistance, or go to live with parents again. The death of a wife means that her husband has to arrange adequate care for children if there are any while he is at work, and often has to cope with unfamiliar household duties as well.
Underlying those issues of a practical nature, is the emotional turmoil that is likely going on. While feeling most alone and in need of adult companionship, a bereaved parent may be tied down by the care of young children. For the sake of the children, he or she may suppress any outward signs of grief and attempt to keep the household running smoothly.
This puts a strain on both parent and child. Silence and cover-up prevent everyone from dealing with painful feelings of guilt about the deceased parent and the loss and loneliness that goes with such a death. There are often feelings of rejection and abandonment as well. The dead parent has gone away and left others behind. The death of a spouse arouses all these emotions in adults as well as children but children experience these emotions much more intensely because of their dependency on the parent. Their ideas about death are often confused, as well.
Youngsters are much more likely to imagine that they are in some way to blame when a parent dies–just as in divorce. When a mother dies, for example, it is critical for the father to talk with the children often about their mother. The children need to be reassured that she didn’t leave them because she wanted to or because she had a choice. The ongoing conversation about the mother also helps children keep a sense of who their mother was as they grow. This is true for losing a father as well. The surviving parent needs to keep the memory alive in a matter-of -fact way so the children keep a sense of their father as well. This means a sense of who the lost parent was and was not so that the good that is left can be internalized and the parts of that parent that were imperfect can be let go.
A widowed mother sometimes feels that she must fill a dual role with her children. She may work all day only to come home in the evening and play ball with the boys before fixing dinner and tackling homework. A better suggestion would be to utilize extended family members if there are any to help with meeting the children’s needs and her own as well. There are usually “Big Sister” and “Big Brother” organizations in most communities.
This is important for all children but most especially for teens who have lost their same-sexed parent.
A woman who has lost her husband runs a risk of making her girls as well as boys the sole focus of her emotions. Men may do this too with daughters as well as sons. The burden from the surviving spouse can be overwhelming to the children and keep them from progressing normally toward maturity and leaving home.
The adult in such a relationship suffers as well. The parent should have friends and interests with other adults. This is true in the present after the death and also in preparation for the children who will go off, hopefully, to make lives of their own.
Mothers who must continue alone, need to do all they can to help children find a place among other youngsters. The kids need plenty of playmates. They need to see that mothers or fathers left alone, are rebuilding their lives and putting things back together.
This is done while matter-of-factly, keeping the memory of the lost spouse alive with the children. We teach them that it is possible to move on and remember at the same time.
When children get to be thirteen or fourteen, the parent might look for ways to widen their horizons. Summer jobs and camps are good vehicles for such endeavors. Start talking about these ideas early so that children can begin thinking about them.
When children have lost a mother it is best to keep them close and in the bosom of whatever family is available. This is said with the idea that mothers are usually the nurturers who are closer to the children in terms of time spent with them. This may vary but if often the norm. It is not advisable to up-root any child, let alone a grieving child, to place him or her in unfamiliar surrounding. The father might utilize a family member or find someone who can take charge after school. It is also important here if we are talking about widowers, that the father spend time with the children in the evenings to reassure them that he is interested in them and has not left them as well.
So, while a father may need outside assistance with the children, he needs to find ways to stay close to them as well at the end of the day and in the evenings just as a working mother would.
Issues of dating often eventually arise as well. Many times the children become upset and balk at the idea. They fear losing the memory of the deceased parent. If it has been a reasonable amount of time–say at least a year-the surviving parent may help the children find ways to remember their mother or their father while the need to have a life with new opportunities is explained to them by the surviving parent.That parent might also ask the children if there is anything that would help them adjust to this next phase of life.
The issues that arise connected to loss through a death can be overwhelming. However, with patience and support, families can move through this time successfully.