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From Caregiving to Widowhood: Balancing Grief and Wellness

By Julie Hayes | 08/15/2022

A widow looking a photographs of her husband

One of the biggest challenges of being a caregiver is coping with the fear of losing a loved one. When that loss becomes a reality, the effects can be devastating. Those who provide care for their spouses can have a particularly difficult time coping with grief, as they are losing their life partner, someone of central importance to their heart and happiness.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of older adults “dying of a broken heart” shortly after losing their spouse. And although these stories can be sensationalized by the media, there is a very real phenomenon known as the Widowhood Effect, in which older adults have an increased risk of dying after losing their spouse. According to research, older adults who have experienced such a loss have a 66 percent increased likelihood of passing away within the first three months following the death of their spouse.

The Widowhood Effect can especially impact older adult caregivers. Older caregivers are already at risk for poorer health, including increased stress, strain, anxiety and depression compared to older adults who are not caregivers. Grief adds upon these existing difficulties and can have a damaging effect on an older caregiver’s physical and emotional wellness.

Even so, processing grief is important. The challenge comes in coping with that grief while still taking care of your own wellbeing.

Widowhood and wellness

During the time you were a caregiver, you likely placed your spouse’s health ahead of your own. Their needs may have seemed greater and more urgent, and it would have been difficult to focus on their care while worrying about yourself. You may have even needed to suppress some of your more difficult emotions—sadness, frustration, fear—because you didn’t want to make your spouse upset.

This tendency to prioritize other things over yourself can be habit forming, and can continue into widowhood. Your other loved ones are also coping with the loss of your spouse, and you may feel it would be wrong to trouble them. On top of that, it may be hard to see past your grief and recognize your own needs, whether it’s that you don’t have the energy to prepare meals or that you’re not feeling well for reasons other than your sadness.

However, communication is key. Research suggests that widows not seeking help is a leading cause of the health decline seen in the Widowhood Effect. To avoid this, consider the following tips:

  • Talk to professionals: Start with visiting your doctor. After losing your spouse, this may be the last place you want to go, but it’s important to know right away if your health is in a good place. Be sure to be honest about your symptoms, including the effects of both your caregiving and your grief.

    If your grief is making it difficult to function, or if you just need someone to talk to, look into an appointment with a counselor who can help you work through your many emotions. Along with licensed therapists and counselors, many local organizations offer grief support for caregivers, such as Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s Behavioral Health Services. Grieving is natural, and it’s important to do it at your own pace. However, grief that keeps you from living your everyday life is harmful and should be treated as soon as possible.
  • Build a support system with your loved ones: Many of the remaining loved ones in your life have experienced this loss alongside you. This can make it both easy and difficult to communicate with them; easy, because you’re going through something similar, and difficult because every person tends to process grief in different ways. Talking may be healing for one person, but may be difficult for a loved one who just isn’t ready yet.

    But support systems aren’t just about talking: they’re about helping one another in whatever way is best and most needed. It’s okay to take time for yourself, but consider who can help you with your different needs— such as sharing memories, checking in on you or providing support with tasks you’re struggling to keep up with. Don’t be afraid to rely on others, and have them in turn find comfort in the time they spend with you. 
  • Develop a self-care routine: Looking after yourself is so critical during this time. Self-care can take many different forms. Eating well, staying hydrated, making an effort to get a good night’s sleep and keeping active with hobbies and activities are all basic forms of self-care, but can make a significant difference to your health. 

If you’re experiencing a significant and persistent lack of interest in any of the above things, call for help right away as this may be a sign of depression. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) can help you seek treatment in your area.

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Coping Strategies for Caregivers After the Death of a Loved One

Preparing Your Home for Hospice

Understanding and Coping with Ambiguous Grief as a Caregiver