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. 

Subscribe now to I Will Not Forget You and receive a complimentary page-a-day of emotional support and inspiration by email.


I lost my sweet husband 19 years ago and still think of him every day. I feel he missed out on our grandchildren and our daughter’s wedding. I just thank God for the wonderful years we had and know I truly was blessed with a wonderful man. Some never ever get to know what true love is all about.

My heart is breaking a million times over – my precious man went to be with Jesus in Dec – we knew in April he had a least a year , and we both were trusting for a healing from his heart disease…I want him back so much, but that is my selfish side talking b/c I know he is no longer suffering and is so happy to be with our Lord worshiping and experiencing the incredible love and light of Christ… but Im lost without him and miss him so very much…

My husband, Bill, of 50 years died suddenly 8 months ago. I was gone from the house only 1-1/2 hours, he was preparing to make tacos for dinner and I came home to find him on the floor. I called 911 and began CPR, but the paramedics worked on him for what seemed like forever before transporting him to the hospital ER. He never regained consciencenous. Just that quickly my life was forever changed. We met when I was 19 and married when I was 20. Now, at age 71, I am alone. I’ve never lived alone before since i lived with my parents until we got married. This is all so new and scary at times. Not that I’m scared in the house, just thinking about all the things that I now have to look out for around the house. All the little things taken for granted are now my responsibility. He took care of me and our children and our grandchildren. He was our “ROCK”. Not sure how, but I will keep going on. Now, my best friend’s husband, and the man for whom I worked 20 years, passed away suddenly just like Bill. We look at each other and say, “how is it possible we are both experiencing this pain”? I will pass this link along to her. Thank you.

Lost my husband 11 months ago, we were married almost 55 years. I miss him to the very depths of my soul. For months I lived in limbo ,but I talk to him everyday. Some days are better than others, holidays are the worst. But deep down I will get thru this, it’s another chapter in my life, so I am gonna make the best of it and make my husband proud of me.

I love the idea about that T-shirt – planet W !

I’m reading a sermon given by a reverend in 2002 . There are three key points to it – grief is love‘s inevitable Price, grief is life’s lingering echo and grief is Hope’s best chance .

Your post gives me hope.

I lost the love of my life suddenly, no warning. My whole world died with me that day, and a part of me with it. It’s hard to find hope in the midst of despair. However I’m putting my trust in God to walk me through this.

Still so hard without my husband of 47 years. He passed 2 1/2 years ago. It is getting a little easier, but still miss him everyday. I miss the human contact. Things like his bringing me coffee in bed every morning. Miss watching Jeopardy together.. Miss the kisses and hugs. Holding hands too. Time to clear out his closet……quess he is not coming back and doesn’t need them in heaven.

I lost Steve 12 years ago. I too feel robbed of the sweet years too. The best advice I wa given on the day he died was from another widow. You never get over it you just become better at it. I bought a dog soon after his death and that saved me. I was forced to get out of bed get dressed walk the dog 3 to 4 times a day. Leroy my dog taught me to live in moment

I lost my husband of 40 years just about 6 weeks ago. Many days it is a chore just to get out of bed. So often I have things I want to tell him….but he’s not here. I get so lonely sometimes that I just sob uncontrollably. Everyone says it will get better, and deep down I think I know that. But day to day it doesn’t seem so. Often I expect to open a door or go around a corner and see him. The last shirt he wore is still hanging on the door to our closet. I hug his pillow every night.

I lost my beloved life partner this past Monday very suddenly. I am broken and feel so very sad. We shared a wonderful, loving, peaceful home for 5 1/2 years and I’m lost without him. He died in his favorite chair. He looked at me and then he was gone in an instant. I know he’s with Jesus and no more pain, but I am broken. Thank you for the article.

When you have been married for 50 years, there are no words that can explain the loss. Losing a son prior just three years before at the age of 42 was a nightmare of its own. Having a heart attack at that age is horrific. I am still stuck in time, but am slowly trying to become whole again. Thank you for your article.

This has given words to my thoughts, encouragement and hope.
Thank you.

I lost my husband Dave 2/17/17. After101/2 years with Alzheimer’s . Just feel robbed of our retirement years. Harder then I thought it would be.

Everything in the article is so true. It has been nine months since the passing of my husband and I still hope to wake up from this nightmare.

I lost my husband of 46 years almost 23 months ago. Can use all the words of encouragement there are

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