Suggestions for Widows and Widowers

Losing one’s life partner is a huge wrench. Not only do we lose a partner, but also a friend, confident, pal, someone whom has walked with us on our much of our life’s journey, sometimes for years. We lose someone we shared children with and now we must journey on alone, without the committed other half of the equation.

The following are some suggestions for widows and widowers to consider when faced with the devastating loss of a life’s partner. It may be possible that you will encounter other situations or feelings. Grief is personal and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Doing what feels right for you and your children, is the right thing to do. These suggestions are listed in no particular order.

  • Focus on today. Don’t feel that you have to immediately plan the future. If the day is too long, focus on the next hour. Focus on yourself and your children.
  • It is not unusual to experience many different feelings while working through your grief: numbness, denial, fear, disbelief, confusion, anger and panic (how dare they leave me alone with young children!). One widow remarked – “I know nothing of being a single parent. Heck, I know nothing about being a widow.” All of these are normal feelings. You may even laugh at a remembrance or joke, as strange as it sounds, but laughter even when grieving, is a normal human response.
  • If someone offers to help out, either with the children , cooking, errands, etc. accept their help.
  • People want to help and don’t always know how. If you need something, ask, e.g. I’d really love a cup of tea, or could you drive the kids to their swimming lessons? This is no time to feel shy.
  • Keep memories of your spouse alive and allow your children to do the same. You all might fill a decorated jar with pieces of paper on which you and your children have written your favorite memories.
  • Do not feel rushed to clean out your spouse’s clothing, books, photos or knick knacks. Doing so quickly will not relieve the pain and may, in fact, cause even greater pain in the long run as treasured memorabilia are no longer present. Take your time in this matter, there is no rush.
  • Depending upon the ages of your children, you may or may not involve them in the funeral arrangements and/or take them to the Funeral Home for visitation. When not included, children may internalize their parent’s death. Making them apart of the funeral arrangements can be helpful to them in coming to terms with the finality of death, and reassure them that he/she has not moved, or driven away, never to return.
  • Don’t use clichés or euphemisms when discussing death with your children. “Mom/Dad has gone to sleep” may produce a fear of going to bed for your children because they fear the same thing may happen to them. Even using the word “lost” or “gone” can plant the idea that the parent may eventually be “found.” These may increase the children’s anxiety levels. It is perfectly alright to use words like “died” or “dead” to describe what has happened.
  • Watch for scam artists. There are people out there that will willingly take advantage of you. You can be extremely vulnerable over the mourning period. Some people will go as far as to read obituaries to know where to strike next.
  • Let your children know that nothing they did could cause the death.
  • Reassure them as often as necessary, that people die for various reasons, never because of an argument or mean thoughts.
  • Allow your children time to work through their grief. Don’t try to make it go away. Grieving is an important part of life that they will have to experience from time to time. It is part of being a living creature.
  • Make new happy memories together as a family. Start new family traditions. Holidays can be rough but you cannot celebrate every holiday in their memory.
  • Have fun. Both you and your children need to enjoy the simple things. Revel in each others’ company, walk in the rain and blow bubbles in the sunshine.
  • Leave yourself open to new things. Your whole life is still ahead of you, enjoy it and don’t feet guilty about enjoying it.
  • Keep yourself open to new friendships. You may be open to future pain but you are also open to new joys. Be alive.
  • If you feel overwhelmed and cannot find your equilibrium in all of the pain, ask your doctor for a referral to an appropriate grief therapist. Sometimes we might need some help in getting through some of the tougher times. It will be of help to yourself and your children to seek professional assistance if you need to.
  • If you feel that your children may benefit from a children’s bereavement support group, don’t hesitate to ask you doctor for a referral. Connecting with others in a like situation relieves the sense of isolation and can add perspective, e.g. Mom/Dad didn’t die because I was naughty.
  • If your spouse was terminally ill, do not feel guilty if you feel somewhat relieved with his or her death. To someone we love in constant pain and discomfort is very hard to bear. To know that the pain has ended for them can be a relief. This doesn’t mean that we don’t miss them terribly but don’t feel badly about feeling some relief that they are not longer in pain.
  • As impossible as it may initially seem, life can go on without your partner. Enjoying a new life will not erase the love that you once shared.
  • Make sure that you are not in too much of a hurry to find a substitute partner. Someone new may temporarily fill the void or dull the pain but will not make the pain go entirely away. You need to complete the mourning process and forgoing ahead too quickly does not complete the mourning process and quicker.

Adapted from an article written by Becky Burrell.

When a multiple birth parent dies…

I’ve been working with bereaved multiple birth families for many years now and the focus of that support has been about the babies and children. However, two other areas have emerged in the past couple of years: the grief of survivors of a multiple birth situation and, more recently, when a multiple birth parent dies. While any pregnancy can present with difficulties for the mother, multiple birth pregnancies can present with additional risks (see my article Possible Risks to the Mother of a Multiple Birth Pregnancy on this site).

The birth of a child is initially disruptive to all families as they (the parents and baby) must achieve a balance and routine. Add twins or triplets (or more) to the situation and both balance and a routine take longer to work out as each family member is in a steep learning curve. Add the loss of a parent and the situation takes one’s breath away!

The surviving parent, whether Mom or Dad, has to attend to the needs of two or more newborns, make funeral arrangements for their beloved spouse, perhaps attend to other children in the family, maybe deal with work outside the home, deal with their spouse’s grieving parents and make some room to grieve the loss of their partner. Talk about trying to find balance!

Some thoughts come to mind when Mom dies as a result of her multiple birth pregnancy…

  • When a planned pregnancy has gone terribly wrong and Mom has died while the children have survived, the initial feelings are of numbness, shock, denial, “this can’t be happening”, “what am I (‘we’) going to do? How will we cope?” are normal. One can expect a roller coaster of emotions. In addition, it is going to be difficult to push aside grief feelings in order to take care of twins or more.
  • What if I feel that my wife has died and it is the babies’ fault? What if I feel that I can’t love them as a result? These are normal feelings and a natural consequence to such a dire situation where children survive while the parent does not. Over time, the surviving parent will come to love their babies, while still mourning for and loving their wife, the babies’ mother. The mother’s death may have occurred because of her pregnancy, but the babies’ aren’t to blame. Her death isn’t anyone’s fault but rather a painful and very unfair occurrence.
  • Fathers don’t always feel terribly comfortable sitting in a bereavment support circle if they are the only males present. It may be more prudent to connect with another widowed father. Check out a religious affiliation, ask your doctor, or your local Bereaved Families Chapter. Some bereaved fathers have reported that time spent in a social setting rather than a bereaved setting worked better for them and made it easier for them to talk about their feelings. Some social settings to consider are on the golf course, breakfast out, perhaps a picnic with the kids. Use your immagination for what might work for you…and for when either parent dies…
  • Babies need to nurtured, cooed at, smiled at, held, cradled, rocked, fed, bathed and changed. Through these actions, babies learn to trust those who are looking after them and bonding occurs. None of these things may initially be possible as the surviving parent is working through their grief. The surviving parent may experience a need to ask someone else to provide some of the nurturing care of the children for at least a part of the time. The surviving parent may ask the grandparents, other family members or friends to help out. It is important in this circumstance for the parent to stay involved in some part of the babies’ daily care. Sometimes holding a wee baby enables us to grieve, as their small bodies are cradled in our arms or we hold them during a feed. For some, knowing that we are needed can be helpful.
  • Grieving parents need to be kind to themselves. They have received an enormous shock. It will take time, gentleness, support from family and friends to even begin to feel normal again. Expect setbacks. Grief is a journey, not a destination.
  • Grieving parents should not set huge goals for themselves. One step at a time is the best approach: “I just need to feed them this meal; I just need to eat; I just need to rest; I just need to sleep.”
  • The surviving parent should accept all the help they can get. They need reliable, comforting people around them. They may need to defer some elements of the funeral arrangements or babies’ care to someone else.
  • The grieving parent should not be afraid to speak up if they need something. People want to help but they may not know how or what to offer. The parent might ask someone to bathe a baby, take them for a walk, play with them or make the parent a cup of tea, if that is what will help. Asking someone to do the grass cutting or snow shoveling can mean a great deal to a parent faced with the duress of grieving and caring for their children at the same time.
  • If feelings of grief are overwhelming, it is appropriate to seek professional help and grieving parents may benefit enormously from an appropriate professional. Their doctor can either assist directly or provide a referral to a professional grief counselor. Grief is not the same as clinical depression, however, even if it feels incredibly painful. It is a normal human emotion and the goal is to mourn rather than stifle feelings. Surviving parents faced with the demands of grieving and simultaneous child care may really only grieve when all the work is done and the children are asleep. In other words, grieving may occur in spurts rather than continuously because of the unique life situation in which the loss has occurred.
  • The grieving parent may find it very helpful to have a safe place to speak about their feelings. They may wish to join a bereavement support group in their community. Sometimes, however, grieving people do best when they mourn on their own in a private space. Indeed, there is no formula for mourning that fits everyone.
  • The surviving parent should go forward slowly. They should expect setbacks and realize that adjustment will resemble a roller coaster more than a steady incline. Bursts of sorrow will occur, sometimes at very unexpected moments. That’s normal. The surviving parent must take it one day or hour at a time.Over time, there are other things to consider for the surviving spouse ..
  • It is advisable not to clear out their partner’s clothing or personal items in a hurry. Doing so will not relieve the pain and may, in the long run, cause more grief as cherished memorabilia is donated or given away in haste.
  • Leaving out photos of the lost parent and speaking to the children about them is very important for helping children process the grief of a parent they did not know. Relating how much both parents looked forward to the children’s births, how each considered names for them, how much the parents both looked forward to being a family is important for the children to hear. Such communication and openness about the lost parent helps children fill in gaps in their own identity and promotes self development. It will make it less likely that they will feel guilty for their parent’s death.
  • Expect your children to ask all sorts of questions regarding the death of their parent. If the surviving parent doesn’t feel capable of answering them (example: Why did Mommy die?), the parent can respond that they will think about it and answer the child later. Counselors or bereavement groups can provide assistance on how to answer difficult, pointed questions from children. A medically accurate answer, using appropriate words for the age of the child, could also be a good approach. Even when there are more than one survivor of the multiple birth, such questions are usually posed by one child at a time. Of course, the same question may be posed by another in the future or by the same child who has a need to hear the same answer once again.
  • The goal of mourning is to find our way back to life with its joys and challenges. Children who have lost parents in infancy need to laugh and enjoy life as much as any child. It is the surviving parent who must lead the way. It is OK to laugh and to have new possibilities, new experiences.



By Lynda P. Haddon and Arthur S. Leonoff Psychologist/Psychoanalyst/Training Analyst