Advice on Grieving the Loss of a Spouse
During the Holidays and Beyond
Article by Gina Peyton
Interview with Gregg Natkowski reprinted from Brighton Patch
The holidays are full of cheer—for many. For others, especially those dealing with the loss of a loved one, the season is far from jolly. Gregg Natkowski of Living Life Counseling in Brighton offers advice on coping with loss, and helping others in their grief.
Are there stages of grief, and if so what are they?
GN: Some therapists, such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, describe grief as a series of stages. At Living Life Counseling, we see grief as following more of a spiral pattern rather than fixed stages. Much like climbing a spiral staircase, the frequency, intensity and duration of periods of grief decrease in relation to the passage of time.
Upon losing a spouse, grief is at its most intense shortly after the death, and as time passes that intensity lessens. While the pain never completely goes away, it does become more manageable over time.
Those who are mourning their spouse may move up and down the spiral staircase—they will have good days and bad ones. But gradually, over time, they learn how to live with their loss and adapt to life without their loved one in a way that their grief is not all-consuming like it was in the beginning.
Does the ability to cope with grief change with age?
Typically we see the older someone is the better able they are to cope with the loss of their spouse. As someone ages, they have the wisdom that comes with life experience to help them handle loss. They are also helped by having a better sense of mortality and from having developed coping mechanisms through experiencing other losses and disappointments in their lifetime. Also, an older person will commonly have adult-aged children who can help them not only with the practicality of making arrangements, they can also lend a listening ear.
For younger people who lose a spouse, it might be harder for them to move through their grief as they will often have young children who require their time and attention. It is harder for a younger person with small children to take the time they need to grieve when they feel a great responsibility to "keep it together" for their children, and they are busy with everyday tasks like making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Do men and women react differently?
We find men commonly have a more difficult time moving through grief upon the loss of a spouse when compared to women. Men in our society are conditioned from an early age to be tough and to hide their fears. Men are taught to be strong, to hold their hurts and fears inside and if they don't they are considered "sissies." Men are often not taught healthy coping skills before their spouse dies and subsequently are not equipped to handle the loss in a healthy, healing way.
Often, after the loss of a wife, a man is praised if he holds his hurt inside; he is praised for showing outward calm and, for example, not crying but remaining stoic. The problem is that inside he is imploding.
For women, they are conditioned from an early age to show their emotions and are taught the coping mechanisms early on that men often are not. In general, women in our society are more relational than men and will commonly seek out others to share their hurts with and can express their grief in a healthy way. This often makes it easier for women to move through their grief more quickly than men.
What advice can you offer to those dealing with the loss of a loved one during the holidays or at any other time?
We tell our clients that although their spouse has passed, their relationship hasn't; they now need to adapt to a new type of relationship with the deceased. In that process of transition, we advise people to take the time they need to mourn the loss of their spouse and not to do anything before they are ready. Grieving never stops, it is ongoing—but it will lessen over time.
We encourage people not to discard their spouses' things until they want to and are ready to. Often people regret discarding clothes or jewelry when they later realize, "she loved those earrings," or, "that shirt was his favorite."
Do you have any concrete tips?
One technique we use is to have someone make a "grief box." We tell our clients to take the items their spouse held most dear and place them in a box. Then, over time, they can discard things from the box one piece at a time and only as they are ready to part with the item. It can often be overwhelming to someone who has lost their spouse to face getting rid of a lifetime's worth of their spouses' possessions all at once. With the grief box, they can hold onto what was most important and take the necessary time they need to let go of them.
During the holidays, we also advise people to continue doing for their deceased spouse what they used to do when they were alive. Hanging their spouses' stocking or putting a place setting out for them at the dinner table can help them cope, particularly if the loss was recent. We also encourage things like writing a love letter to heaven — things like this can help make the transition in the changed relationship easier to get through.
What advice can you give family members and friends to do or say to a loved one who is experiencing grief at this time?
I once had a client describe returning to work after they had lost their spouse and their coworkers avoided them to the point that when they saw her coming down the hallway, they would change direction, or dart down another hall so they wouldn't pass each other.
People don't know what to do when their friend, loved one or coworker has lost their spouse—so they avoid them. Instead, it's far better to acknowledge the person and their spouse. If you see someone at a Christmas party who has lost their spouse, you can say, "I remember [spouse's name] and how much fun he had at the party last year. I'm really going to miss him." You can send a Christmas card to someone that says, "we miss [spouse's name] very much and will see you soon."
What should one NOT say or do?
It's good to acknowledge the person's spouse, but to be careful not to use words like "expired" or some other anecdotal term. Parking meters expire, not people. It's important to use words like "died" or "deceased" when referring to someone's lost loved one. It's also important to remember you don't have to offer advice. Saying something like, "God needed him more than you did," can be incredibly hurtful and counterproductive to someone who is grieving.
It's also important to initiate contact with the person who has lost their spouse, but to not force them to do anything before they are ready. Give them a choice. For instance, you can say, "Can I take you out to lunch on Saturday?" and let them determine if they are ready to get out. If someone who has lost their spouse hasn't put their Christmas decorations up, it's important to ask them before you take the initiative to do it for them; it may be too soon.
The most important thing to remember when your friend, loved one or coworker has lost their spouse is that you don't have to fix them—you just have to listen.
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