The Post-Caregiving Life: How To Prepare For the Death Of An Aging Spouse

Dr. Eboni Green

One of the realities of life over which you have no control is losing someone you love. Coping with the death of a spouse, is among life’s most challenging experiences.

For a time, you will likely be heartbroken. You may not know how to move forward with your life or how to address your sadness. Yet, as we age, we are one step closer to our end. If you are caring for your spouse with a chronic or life-threatening illness chances are you are already experiencing some measure of grief.

Although you won’t be able to avoid the pain of losing someone with whom you have shared your life it is possible to develop a plan that allows you to focus on working through your sadness.

Consider implementing the following six strategies as you prepare for the death of your aging spouse:


6 Ways To Prepare For The Death Of An Aging Spouse


1. Grant Yourself the Gift Of Grace as Accept Your New Reality

It doesn't matter how healthy or sick a person gets; we should all acknowledge that our time on the earth is limited. This is hard to do because even if you acknowledge in your mind your spouse is no longer with you, you may not be able to accept it in your heart. 

Your mind will likely allow you to simply go through the motions. In fact, when enough time passes and you look back on the time when you lost your spouse, it may seem like a blur. 

Grant yourself the gift of grace until you are ready to accept your loss fully. 

While acceptance is necessary for your mental health and well-being it will likely be difficult after the departure of the one with whom you hoped to live happily ever. Remember there are no time limits when it comes to the grieving process.

While grieving is essential, so is taking care of yourself. As soon as reality hits you, it may affect your physical and mental health. 

For example, you may not feel like eating or drinking, and you might have trouble sleeping. In such difficult times, it is best not to be alone and be in the company of family members or close friends. Should you feel that your sadness is unresolved or that you are experiencing complicated grief you will want to reach out to your doctor or a therapist.

You will know your grief is complicated when your sadness lasts six months or longer and if you display a general disinterest in participating in normal everyday life activities. This could mean you are burying your feelings or when you generally feel hopeless.


2. Remember that Your Grief Belongs to You

When a loved one dies, there are no rules to follow in regard to how you grieve.

You will grieve in your own way. While some people are able to move on with their lives sooner, others may require more time. If you find yourself taking more time compared to others to deal with the loss of someone you love, know that your grief belongs to you. It is absolutely okay to take as much time as possible to grieve.

Some days you will feel as though you are okay and the pain will seem as though it has lifted. Then after putting in your best efforts, something may trigger your sadness and make you feel as though the never-ending pain won't go away.

Holidays, family events, and anniversaries can trigger your sadness. In truth, you often don't have control over your feelings.

You may find it helpful to talk about the memories you made with your husband or wife. Some find taking time to reflect, participating in a hobby, journaling, or volunteering helps to relieve their feelings of sadness. You are encouraged to do what works best for you.


3. Do Not Self-Isolate

If your loved one has a terminal illness you may feel hopeless, depressed, scared, or anxious. These feelings are associated with anticipatory grief or feeling of deep sadness prior to your spouse passing away.

The fact that you are going to lose your spouse regardless of trying everything to care for them is enough to make you feel as though you are going crazy. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to a complicated grief response after your spouse passes away.

That's why it is important to take care of yourself. As much as you may wish to be isolated, it's not a healthy way to grieve a loss. 

Include your loved ones, such as your close relatives and friends, in your loss. Share your thoughts and fears with them. If someone offers help, accept it.

Stay in touch with people who care for you to remind yourself that the world is full of amazing human beings who make life worth living. And if you don't have such friends, join a support group.

Aside from self-care, consider getting a pet for grief support. Not only will it accompany you throughout the period of depression, but it will also keep you busy, thereby distracting your mind from constant grief.


4. Make Every Moment Count

Be as expressive with your spouse as possible. Say “I love you” more than once a day and show care to your spouse whenever you get a chance. Oftentimes, we take life for granted and avoid expressing how we feel.

What needs to be remembered is that one day, you will only be left with these sweet memories after your loved one is gone. Therefore, make as many beautiful memories together as possible.

A dying person doesn't only need access to hospice care or palliative care in their last moments; they need love and affection. You can provide your spouse with comfort during the end of life by being easy and loving.

In addition, avoid the mistake of waiting for the “perfect moment” to express your feelings. Some have the tendency to wait for the perfect time, place, occasion, or event to acknowledge their love for their spouse. What you must realize is that every moment is amazing when you are with your spouse. Therefore, make every second count.

Making memories is not all about expressing your love; it also means living a life full of happy and adventurous moments and experiences. Ask the healthcare provider if you can plan a short vacation with your spouse to spend quality time together.

Watch movies, have dinner dates, and go for long drives. If their physical health doesn't allow a lot of travel or they are receiving hospital care, they can just go to a nearby park, eat snacks, and just talk about life.

Taking advantage of these important moments will help you cope with the sadness when your spouse is gone. At least the memories you made with them will last forever in your heart.

5. Have a Plan Outlining Final Wishes

It is important for you to have sufficient knowledge about your spouse’s living will, property, life insurance, or assets of any form in their name, ahead of time. Assets may include finances, personal items, property, or others.

You also need to know the name of any lawyers or financial advisers/asset managers responsible for the distribution of property.

Moreover, you will also want to ask your spouse to share financial information, such as account numbers and banking information. This might not be an easy conversation, but it is much more difficult to address final wishes as sometimes, one spouse takes responsibility for the finances without sharing any information with the other, leading to potential problems after they pass away.

Therefore, having sufficient knowledge about the assets and where they are located will save you from future distress.

You may find the Five Wishes document useful to document your spouse’s end-of-life preferences including funeral plans.

6. Plan Your Life Afterwards

Have you ever heard of the term “the widowhood effect”? You may have seen in movies that a person would die soon after the loss of their spouse.

Well, it is not just fiction; the concept of dying from a broken heart is a medical condition. The phenomenon of the widowhood effect can be described as a condition in which the mortality rate among adults increases due to their grief after their spouse’s death.

In fact, a study conducted in 2013 and published in the Journal of Public Health found that individuals had an increased risk of dying within the first 90 days of their spouse’s death regardless of sex (women and men).

The initial time after the memorial service or during funeral arrangements is always difficult for the spouse and adult children who can realize who they have lost. The grief, depression, and hopelessness you experience are painful.

It will be difficult, but it is imperative that you find purpose in life. Discover new hobbies and learn new skills. Do something that you had always wanted to do but never got a chance to do. Set small goals and put forth your best efforts into achieving them.


How To Cope Even When You Feel Unprepared

While you may be hurting now and continue to experience some measure of grief for the rest of your life, remember that there will be moments when you can still experience some measure of joy.

Preparing for the loss of a spouse can be emotionally exhausting. It will require you to accept how you feel in the moment. Acknowledge that it is okay to feel grief and not feel guilty when you do.

Remember to share the beautiful memories you and your spouse shared.