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The Unique Loss of a Life Partner: 4 Universal Issues

Alone with grief

Photo by Greg Rakozy from Unsplash

By Ellen Sue Stern

The death of anyone we love is devastating.  But when it comes to dealing with grief, the loss of a life partner presents unique challenges. Here are four of the most universal issues shared by grieving widows and widowers.

  • Making the transition from being a couple to being single.
  • A growing awareness of life’s impermanence.
  • Feeling as if our world is upside down.
  • Living with uncertainty as we look toward the future.

“The worst possible thing has happened, and the one person—the only person—we can turn to is the one person who is absent and unreachable.”-Anna Quindlen, Living Out Loud

Our beloved filled a myriad of roles: Companion. Roommate. Lover. Protector. Provider. Ally. Co-parent (in some cases). The first person we told when something important happened. The one person we counted on to have our back, with whom we celebrated victories, trusted with our confidences, and felt safe letting down our guard.

Friends can be a lifeline, for which we are eternally grateful. But no-one is replaceable, least of all the person with whom we chose to share our life.I can’t count the times I’ve heard a grieving widow or widower say, “I feel like I’ve lost my best friend.”  Depending on the degree to which our day to day lives were merged, we also may feel as if a part of ourselves is missing. Where there were two, now there is one.

And so we feel bereft.  We come face to face with the profound realization that, however surrounded by friends, family, and community, ultimately, this is our loss, our pain, our path, which each of us travels alone. In our own time. At our own pace.

Life's Impermanence


“No matter how many times you hear the word final, it means nothing until final is actually final.”-Ruth Coughlin, Grieving: A Love Story

This quote, however stark, speaks volumes about the shock we feel as we begin to absorb the truth: Our loved one is never coming back.  We may have thought we were prepared. We’ve likely comforted others in similar situations. Doesn’t matter. Because when it happens to you, it becomes real in a way that’s impossible to anticipate.

For grieving widows and widowers, this realization is magnified by the physical manifestations of our partner's absence:  The empty chair at the kitchen table. Piles of unopened mail collecting dust on the counter. The endless times we pick up the phone to call or text, only to realize-yet again-that we’re permanently disconnected.

It takes time to adapt to a loss of this magnitude. For it to truly sink in.  A widower in one of my workshops described his reluctance to move his late wife’s shoes from the closet in case she happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to pick them up. In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the surreal quality of death; one minute our partner is there, then whooosh…...gone. How is that even possible? Magical thinking is a way to buy ourselves time as we slowly come to terms with reality.

Grief isn’t rational. Of course we know, intellectually, that no matter how much we wish and hope and pray, our beloved is not going to suddenly appear. That’s okay. It’s actually a natural, healthy part of reconciling the irreversible nature of death.


“I explained that my husband died of cancer and I recently moved here from California after quitting my job. I left out the part about wearing my bathrobe to work.”-Lolly Winston, Good Grief

I’m considering selling t-shirts adorned with the words Planet W. As anyone who’s “been there” will attest to, at times, we may actually wonder if we’re losing it.

We’re not. It just feels that way.

The shock, overwhelm, and feelings of being absolutely, positively delirious lands us squarely on another planet. Like the young widow in the hilarious memoir, Good Grief, (humor can be healing, too), we may question our sanity, our capacity to manage even the most basic interactions, to appear nominally functional in situations where we may, at any moment, lose our composure.  The passing of a spouse is especially disorienting because that person has been a stable, day to day fixture in the landscape of our life. Together we created a structure. Rituals. Routines.  

Now all that’s out the window. We think we’re managing okay and then go ballistic when we lose our cell phone charger. Or burst into uncontrollable sobs when they’re out of our partner’s favorite mango sorbet (never mind the two cartons in the freezer we can’t bear to throw out). Just days following his death, my friend Laurie, became hysterical when she couldn’t find her husband's treasured pocket watch, literally tearing apart the house until she discovered it safely on the dresser where he'd always kept it.

Grief’s hold on our psyche may also temporarily affect our ability to filter our emotions and interact with others.  We try to be interested in the details of other people's lives, which at times, is a welcome distraction.  But on Planet W, a short attention span mixed with preoccupation makes it difficult to think about much else. For at least six months following my father's death, the first words out of my mouth to anyone and everyone were: “My Dad died.” The clerk at the drugstore, the guy who fixed our roof, perfect strangers who didn’t know my father from Adam.

Crazy? No. Normal? Forget normal. Even the term “New Normal” is flawed. Because there’s no such thing as “normal”-new or old- when reality changes from minute to minute. When life as we knew it has become largely unpredictable. We move slowly, carefully, as we gradually regain our footing in this dizzying, nonsensical new land, trying to stay steady while getting to know the terrain.

For now, a little “crazy” is as close to normal as it gets.

Living with uncertainty


“Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books in a foreign language.”-Marie Rainer Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The past is the past, the future a blur, the present obscured by uncertainty.

We have more questions than answers: How do I go on without you? What will life be like without my love?  Will I ever be happy again?

Change occurs at a glacial pace when fear is the driving force. But ask grieving widows and widowers a year out and the majority will say that many, if not most, of their fears have dissipated, whether it's being comfortable in an empty house, re-calibrating finances, making dinner for one or getting used to being a single parent.

Living with uncertainty requires a giant leap of faith.  It may seem impossible to imagine right now, but a day will come when moments of pleasure grow into days and weeks and months. Still, that doesn’t stop us from railing at what’s been taken from us: Shared memories of which we are now the sole guardians. The sweet intimacy of touch and trust. Our hopes and dreams for the future, relinquished with the sorrow borne of having loved with all our heart.

Several years ago, I received a beautifully wrapped gift from one of my readers. Inside was a handmade framed picture of her favorite quote from Living With Loss/I Will Not Forget You, with words that speak, not only to grieving widows and widowers, but to anyone struggling to hang on:  

“Hope is the feeling that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.”-Jean Kerr  

We never stop missing our beloved; but with time - however long it takes - hope returns. Little by little by little.  It won’t bring our beloved back or diminish the longing or mend a broken heart. It will open the possibility for a brighter tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.

Ellen Sue Stern is the president of Stern Literary Enterprises and a bestselling author whose book I Will Not Forget You: Daily Meditation for Grieving Widows and Widowers is quickly becoming the gold standard in grief support. 

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