How to Maintain Your Wellness After the Spouse You’ve Cared for Dies

The health effects of widowhood can be especially damaging for caregivers, so self-care is critical.  

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Posted in , Nov 17, 2021

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Julie Hayes is the Content Manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

As a caregiver, your overriding concern is to protect the health and well-being of your loved one. Dealing with the fear of losing that person is one of the greatest challenges of the journey. It can be shattering when it actually happens. When that loved one is your spouse, it can be especially tough to process your grief. After all, this is the person you’ve walked through life with, one who is at the core of your very soul.

An old adage maintains that widows often “die of a broken heart” soon after the loss of a spouse. It may seem overblown, but there is truth to the saying. Older adults actually do have an increased risk of dying after the passing of a husband or wife. This is called the Widowhood Effect. According to research, older adults have a 66 percent increased likelihood of dying within the first three months of a spouse’s death.

For older adult caregivers, this phenomenon can be particularly challenging. They are already at risk for poorer health, including increased stress, strain, anxiety and depression compared to older adults who are not caregivers. Grief compounds these factors, further straining an older caregiver’s physical and emotional well-being.

Yet, it’s important to process your grief as you take steps to combat the Widowhood Effect. The juggling act is in working through that frequently very trying grief while still maintaining your wellness.

Self-care after loss

It’s a safe bet that throughout your caregiving journey, you prioritized your spouse’s well-being and often put your own on the back burner. What your loved one needed may have felt more pressing and important, with your own needs serving as a distraction from your focus on caregiving. Maybe you also thought you had to suppress some feelings that were harder to accept—sadness, anger, anxiety—so as not to make your spouse feel bad.

This tendency to put another’s needs above your own can be habit forming, and can be hard to break even after your loved one has passed. Your close friends and family members may also be working through the death of your spouse, and you may feel that it’s not right to bother them. Additionally, your grief may be clouding your ability to even see your own needs, whether that means you’re too tired to cook for yourself or that you’re not feeling well for reasons that may not be directly associated with your loss.

Remember that communication is key to coping. Research suggests that the issue of widows not seeking help is a leading cause of the health decline seen in the Widowhood Effect. These tips may help you to maintain your well-being as you grieve your spouse:

  • Speak with professionals: Begin by making an appointment with your physician. Following your loss, you may feel like avoiding the doctor’s office, but getting a read on your health is the most important first step. Make sure to be up front about your symptoms, stemming from your caregiving challenges as well as your loss.

If your emotions are making it hard to perform day-to-day tasks, or if you simply need a person to talk to, consider carving out time to see a therapist who can help you process your many feelings. 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.

  • Create a support system with friends and family: A number of your loved ones may be processing this loss alongside you. Consequently, it can be both easy and tricky to communicate with them; easy, because you’re on a parallel path, and tricky because everyone works through grief in his or her own manner. While communicating may be soothing for one person, it may be hard for someone else who simply isn’t ready.

Building a good support system offers a wealth of additional advantages, enabling you and your loved ones to assist one another in whatever ways you truly need. Even though you may need to take time for yourself, try to open yourself up to accepting help in various ways—like sharing recollections, having someone check in on you regularly or getting a hand with chores you find it hard to handle. Give yourself permission to rely on others, and allow them to find solace in being with you, as well.

  • Establish a wellness routine: Self-care is crucial during this period. It can take a variety of forms. Eating nutritious foods, remaining hydrated, developing a good sleep routine and engaging in favorite hobbies and activities are all relatively basic steps, but can have a major impact on your well-being.

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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