Though few married people would choose to be left alone, we all recognize that the death of a beloved spouse is a possibility. Hopefully we have prepared for the future by making our commitment eternal so that after a spouse dies, we can be comforted by the knowledge that we will be together again. Even with this knowledge, however, it is still extremely difficult to lose a partner. I learned this firsthand when my husband, John, died of heart disease while I was in my late forties. Losing John and living alone for years before I remarried taught me much about how to prepare for and survive the death of a spouse.
As we suffered through John’s sickness, the knowledge of his illness gave us time to prepare for his passing. However, death comes quickly to some, and we do not always have time to prepare. While we don’t want to be preoccupied with death, I believe it is healthy for everyone young and old to give some thought and discussion to what we would do if our husband or wife should suddenly die. We can prepare both emotionally and practically for the passing of our partner.
Just before his first open-heart surgery, John insisted that we visit the mortuary together and discuss his funeral. He didn’t die until some nineteen years later, but I was grateful to have already visited the mortuary. By the time John died, I knew what to expect regarding funeral preparations and expenses. I knew who John wanted to speak at his funeral, what songs he wanted sung, and where he wished to be buried. Most mortuaries can provide planning forms for this purpose, and it is much easier to file this information away and update it as needed than to come up with plans from scratch after a death has occurred.
We can prepare emotionally for the passing of a spouse by learning to express our feelings. We need to tell our loved ones while we still can how much we love them. Not only did our five children hear their dad express his love daily, but John also took time to write a special message in his journal for each of us. He wrote not only about events but about feelings, thoughts, and concerns, and he bore his testimony. John’s journal is something tangible and heartfelt that family members can read whenever we need to.
On the practical side, one way to prepare for a spouse’s death is to make sure that both partners know how to manage the household affairs. If one person is primarily responsible for a certain area, whether it be financial dealings, insurance policies, or car and home maintenance, he or she should store any related instructions and documents in a safe, accessible place. It is wise to make notes about people a surviving spouse might trust to help make important decisions and arrangements. Couples may wish to inform children or other close relatives of the location and nature of the household’s vital information, and this information should be updated as needed.
When they lose a loved one, most people go through specific steps of grieving, though at a different pace and to different degrees. It helps to be aware in advance of those steps, which include shock or denial (the “numbness” stage); guilt, anger, and depression; acknowledgement or acceptance; and finally adapting.
Grief is not bad, nor is it a sign of weakness or something to avoid. To take the grief out of death would be to take the love out of life. We need to allow ourselves to feel whatever is appropriate to the events and seasons of our lives. When our spouse or another loved one dies, we must give ourselves permission to grieve. It is okay to cry; in fact, crying is one of the healthiest things we can do. Tears of sadness can actually help calm us. It is no myth that a person feels better after a good cry.
Tears are only one of the signs that a person is beginning the process of recovery. Other signposts on the road to adapting to the loss of a loved one include a shift in attitude from “Why me?” to “Why not me? I’m strong enough to handle this.” Life is not always fair in the mortal sense, and if we expect it to be, we will be discouraged. However, life is always fair in the eternal sense. Instead of asking “Why did—or why will—this happen to me?” we can be asking “How can I grow through this experience and become a better person?”
Life was unexpectedly different for me after I lost John. Some of the things I thought would be the hardest turned out not to be, while other things were surprisingly difficult to manage. I thought I would be okay after a year had passed, after I’d been through the first Christmas without John, the first anniversary, the first birthdays. But I learned that no one can put recovery on a time schedule. To survive in the years after John died, I tried to change the things I could and learn to adapt to those I could not.
At the time of John’s death, my three daughters were still living at home, two of them attending college. My two sons were both married by then. When we gathered in the dining room for our first meal together without John, none of us could help looking at his spot at the head of the table. We all fumbled around for a few moments and wiped away some tears, and then I took a deep breath and sat down in John’s chair. But I didn’t feel comfortable sitting at the head of the table. Six months later, when I inherited my mother’s round table, I moved it into our dining room. Then there wasn’t a head-of-the-table spot to worry about!
Another thing that reminded me of my hurt was John’s truck sitting in the driveway. I finally sold it to a young man, and I felt somewhat relieved after the truck was gone.
Attending church was both a blessing and a trial in the months after the death. Most people wanted to help me, but I found that I had to be patient and try to communicate what I needed. Sometimes people inadvertently said hurtful things. I found it hard to sit through sacrament meeting when someone asked me to join them on “widow’s row,” or when the congregation sang “Families Can Be Together Forever,” or when I saw a couple sitting side by side and holding hands.
After a time, I felt ready to branch out socially again. Because I like to dance, I started attending occasional singles dances. When I planned my first real date, my six-foot-four son asked in mock seriousness, “Mom, do I need to meet this young man and ask him what his intentions are and what time he’ll have you home?”
Some time after the death of a spouse, a person may reach the conclusion that it is time to consider remarrying. This part of a widowed parent’s adjusting is sometimes hard on children, even grown-up children, but it represents one of the greatest needs of a surviving spouse: to get on with life.
Though I deeply missed John, I found after his death that life could still be good, exciting, and fun for me.
I learned that although I sometimes felt lonely, there were sources to which I could turn for help and comfort. First and foremost among these sources of help was my Father in Heaven. In the dark of the night, when I couldn’t have someone come physically to my side, I could always pray. I always knew that Heavenly Father would protect me. I felt blessed immeasurably by my understanding of the gospel and by the knowledge that Heavenly Father had a plan for me, even though I did not know all the details yet. I felt renewed gratitude, too, for the Savior.
During the years that I was without a spouse, I also received much help from my children, their mates, my family, and John’s family. My precious grandchildren have brought me much joy. Friends have stuck by me, included me, helped me, and loved me. People have served me by shoveling my sidewalk, repairing my car, fixing my faucets, phoning me, and inviting me to go for a ride and talk. When my daughter decided to get married five months after John died, things went very smoothly because of my support system of family, friends, and ward members.
In addition, I have discovered that in times of grief and loss, I must be a good friend to myself. It is my responsibility to turn the pain of my loss into a creative force. I can decide how I am going to act or react. I can decide to read and study and do other things that will help keep me progressing. Because I kept up my typing proficiency over the years, I was able to get a job when the need arose, though I had never had to work outside the home before.
By understanding and preparing, we can receive the strength we need to meet our daily challenges after the death of a spouse. The scriptures tell us, “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear” (D&C 38:30). Death is not the enemy; living in constant fear of it is. From my own experience I know that we can remove the fear of death and again be happy after a loving spouse has gone on before us.