By Cindy Sproles
Grief. It took his breath and pressed against his chest.
Thomas stood at the side of his wife, Marie. He grasped her hand and held tight. She opened her eyes and a tear seeped from the corner. Marie took in a deep breath, then relaxed. She was gone.
Thomas and his two daughters were prepared, or as prepared as they could be. After sixty-five years of marriage – a lifetime together, he felt Marie’s fingers loosen from his. They stood quiet, staring at Marie, unable to speak. The nurse rushed into the room and immediately began to search for a pulse. She blew on the stethoscope to warm it and placed it gently against Marie’s chest. Within seconds, she glanced over her glasses and nodded.
What now, were the only words Thomas could muster together. “What now?”
Marie’s daughters stood firm by their dad. Together they walked him through the funeral arrangements and burial, but when the day arrived to leave their dad alone at home, both daughters were distraught. Though Thomas had managed well through the formalities of Marie’s death, the girls knew that first night he was to be completely alone grief, could overwhelm him and take his life as well.
Death is hard, regardless of the circumstance. It’s a little easier to accept when a loved one has lived a long life like Marie, but even at best, it’s difficult. Statics from Harvard sociologists say men are 22% more likely to die after the death of a spouse, compared to 17% for women. “Women seemed to be wired differently when it comes to coping with loss. It’s part of their nurturing nature,” according to sociologists.
Families find it sadly true, that after the loss of one parent, the second will pass away within months. According to Harvard’s sociologist, this is not uncommon. Aptly named, widowhood effect, physicians find true physical changes happen in the surviving spouse. Weakness leading to falls. Stress leading to heart issues, lack of appetite and failure to remain properly hydrated, all translate to a decline in the surviving spouse that often leads to death as well.
The question then becomes, how do families help prevent the widowhood effect? First and foremost, families should encourage and allow the remaining spouse an opportunity to grieve naturally and fully. This process is different for every individual. Spend time talking about the loved one. Discuss the circumstances around their loss, reminisce joyful moments, and encourage healthy tears. Often, families assume a time frame of grieving on the surviving parent, expecting them to pass through the phases of acceptance, and then move forward. Sadness, loneliness, broken-heartedness is normal. Should this time exceed a reasonable amount of time, talk with your parent’s physician to decide, according to that parent’s health and personality, how to move forward. Don’t rush to clean out personal effects as the process of sorting through these things tends to be very therapeutic.
Provide nutritious meals and stress the importance of good exercise and proper rest.
Finally, spend quality time with your remaining parent. Involve them in family activities, encourage them to reconnect with friends, even become involved in community activities. Helping parents re-enter their normal life’s activities is important. There is nothing stronger than the bond of a life-long marriage. The stability found inside these relationships is a life force. When it’s suddenly taken apart, adjustment is difficult.
Take time to discuss end-of-life decisions as a family. Learning the desires of your parents will help you guide them through a difficult season.