How To Navigate Loneliness After The Death Of Your Husband
When my father died 20 years ago, I lost a parent – a complicated, hard man who loved his family but didn’t really know how to show it.
My mother, however, became a young widow the moment he took his last breath.
She was barely into her 40s – the age I am right now – with a daughter in college and years of plans, hopes, and dreams seemingly gone with the man lying, for the first time in decades, peacefully in front of her.
He died right before I graduated from college, and when I headed back to campus, I felt like I was abandoning my mother, leaving her to grieve alone as a new widow.
The house would be empty, and she would be all alone without either of us.
As strong as I knew her to be, I couldn’t stop thinking, “My mom is a lonely widow, and I’m abandoning her when she needs me the most.”
In the twenty years since his death, we’ve shared memories of him – good and bad – but never what she went through during those first few years.
I finally gathered the courage to ask her how she felt in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death, and now, all these years later.
Even though she remarried a few years after he died, my mom admitted, “It was ten years after his death before I could talk about him without crying.”
Some pain never really goes away, even for widows who find happiness with someone else.
In this article, I’ll cover:
The Reality Of Loneliness As A Widow
A widow’s loneliness after the death of her husband doesn’t necessarily appear the same from person to person.
And from the outside looking in, the family and friends of a new widow may only see part of their grief.
From my perspective, my mother became invested in home renovations and retail therapy.
We did a lot of shopping in the first two years after my father’s death.
My mother, however, was living through her grief and loneliness in ways she simply wouldn’t allow her daughter (her only child) to see.
“There was a deep valley of grief and darkness [within me] for a period of time. I felt immense loneliness from missing my mate; I wasn’t suicidal but I definitely understood how some would see that as an alternative,” explained my mom.
“I cried every day on the way to work and on the way home for a solid year,” she continued.
“It was six months before I laughed for the first time, and 18 months before I took off my wedding band. I had to cut it off because it had been on for so long [24 years]. I told him I was ready to move on with my life, and I think he understood.”
The loneliness of widowhood is different for everyone, and it manifests in a variety of ways:
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Clinging to family and friends
- Showing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Health problems
- Weight loss or gain
- Dying soon after their spouse
Whether their spouse’s death was expected or unexpected, widows’ grief and loneliness may stem not just from the loss of their spouse but also from the anxiety and pressure of being alone for the first time, sometimes in decades.
Self-esteem and the self-identity of who you are now that your spouse has died can also be factors in your loneliness during the grieving process.
Instead of someone’s wife, you’re now a widow.
Instead of the life you’ve known – and possibly loved – you have to start fresh.
My mom had to process both the grief of losing her husband and the guilt she felt as his caregiver at the end of his life.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) just two years before his death, although he’d dealt with health problems for most of their 20-plus-year marriage.
Even though we all understood the prognosis – that he would die because of ALS – that didn’t prevent her from feeling conflicted about his illness and whether anything more could have been done, especially as his primary caregiver.
As she explained to me, “[After his death] I wondered what I could or should have done differently to help him. No one knew much about ALS and what to do at that point. One doctor told me to read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which I did, but that was the only advice I was given. But no one had much advice on how to help alleviate his pain or symptoms.”
“I felt guilty for so long because I could not understand why we could not do more for him. To this day, I still feel guilt but not as strongly,” she said.
How To Overcome Loneliness As A Widow
To some extent, overcoming loneliness from the death of a husband or any spouse requires time — whether you’re grieving alone or not.
In the beginning, it’s common to feel as if you’ll never get through the excruciating pain.
But with enough time and the ability to express your grief, you find that life continues to move forward, and the grief and loneliness become easier to bear.
One study referenced “Older bereaved spouses: Research with practical applications” (Lund, 1989), which found that 70% of widows found that day-to-day living is one of the hardest parts of the grief process.
Our lives, as wives, can be wrapped up in what we do every day to take care of our family, our home, and yes, our spouse.
With death, even an expected one, this is ripped away, and you may be left wondering what you’re supposed to do next.
One day you laugh again, maybe it takes six months as it did for my mom, maybe it takes longer.
You may be willing to take off your wedding band eventually as my mom did.
You may even meet someone else who makes you think of a new future, one you never imagined for yourself.
It’s not enough to sit still and let time do all the work, however.
There are things you can do as a widow to move through the loneliness and get to the other side.
Ways to deal with loneliness as a widow include:
- Talk To A Professional Or Seek Immediate Help
- Focus On Your Family
- Connect With Friends
- Find Something To Keep You Busy
- Find Others Who Understand Widowhood
- Allow Yourself Time And Space To Grieve
1) Talk To A Professional Or Seek Immediate Help
Because widowhood loneliness can lead to health problems and even death, it’s important to seek out professional help if loneliness becomes unbearable.
You may not realize how bad things have gotten but your children and other family or even friends may see it.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help in working through your feelings.
Having a therapist who can listen without judgment and give you a safe space to admit and process your loneliness can help you move through it.
There are various resources available to get you or your loved one through the next day, hour, or minute.
And if you or someone you know is in immediate danger (or you worry someone might be), always call 911 or your local emergency number.
If You Need Help Right Now
If loneliness or depression is leading you toward suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time, day or night, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you are Deaf or hard of hearing, you can call that same number using a TTY through your preferred relay service or by dialing 711 before the number, or connect via online chat.
There are additional resources available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website.
2) Focus On Your Family
While this won’t work for everyone – some family members are too toxic or overwhelming to be much help – if you find joy in grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or being around siblings, cousins, or your own children, lean into that feeling.
No, the rest of your family can’t possibly replace your spouse.
No one can.
But allowing yourself the joy of seeing other loved ones can be a reminder that you’re not completely alone, and that you’re still capable of feeling happiness.
After my father died, and I graduated college, my mom and I became inseparable.
We spent weekends together.
We met up for lunch.
It was a time when we needed each other’s company, to remember what it feels like to love and be loved without the all-consuming sadness of grief.
3) Connect With Friends
For some widows, your friends aren’t going to let you slip away too easily.
Probably because some of them are already widows themselves, and understand what you’re going through better than anyone.
Other friends may not know what to say or how to offer comfort, or they may worry about causing you more pain with a misspoken word.
Reach out to these friends as you can. And if those friends reach out, try not to push them away.
Like your family, your close friends aren’t a replacement for what you’ve lost, but they can be a source of comfort and yet another reminder that you’re not completely alone.
4) Find Something To Keep You Busy
There’s a balance to be found here.
It’s easy for some people to push down their feelings while they’re busy, only to have them surface once they slow down.
This isn’t always healthy or helpful.
But finding a project that allows you to take your mind off of your loneliness and grief temporarily can help you move through your feelings.
My mom renovated her home, from top to bottom.
A lot of it she DIY’ed so she had something to do while she took bereavement time from work.
5) Find Others Who Understand Widowhood
This could be part of your friend group who’s already been widowed.
But you can also find groups online, nationwide, and in your area that meet in person specifically for those who are experiencing the same pain.
It can be difficult to talk to family members about your grief, especially as they process their own grief of the loss of what may be their parent, sibling, etc.
Finding other widows who have been through their own loneliness and grieving process can provide hope that you’ll get through this.
They can also offer the empathetic support you need as you discover what life is like without your spouse.
Navigating all the things your husband used to do without him can be a challenge.
A fellow group of widows can provide the encouragement, support, friendship, and even humor you may need to keep moving forward into this new phase of life.
6) Allow Yourself Time And Space To Grieve
There’s no timeline for grief.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief were never meant to be linear, and grieving is much more complex than the five stages commonly discussed.
Repression of your feelings never ends well – as my own therapist tells me, “What you push down will come out in other ways.”
Telling yourself that you “should” move on or that you “should” be over it doesn’t actually help.
While reaching out to friends and family, meeting with a therapist, or getting to know other widows, you’re still entitled to your feelings.
Guilt, anger, fear – they’re all valid emotions to feel.
Like my mom, it may take years for you to get to anything resembling total acceptance, and that’s okay.
You’re allowed to feel what you feel, just make sure you use available resources and options to help you feel less lonely.
I can promise that there are people in your life who still need you, even as you confront this terrible loss.
As my father drew his last breath, my mother could never have imagined what life would have in store for her – a blended family with a new husband, multiple grandchildren, a satisfying professional career, and life as a retiree.
At the moment of his death, all that existed was pain and loss.
In the days and weeks after, the unique loneliness of a widow.
Twenty years later, the pain of his loss has never fully gone away for her – or for me – but the easing of that initial jolt allowed her to build another life.
You don’t forget the ones you love, and you never stop missing them.
But you can find happiness, fulfillment, and even love as you learn to breathe again, survive the days without them, and see the beauty in life again.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types that we might experience over the course of our lives.