How to Cope with the Death of a Spouse as an Older Adult

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More than 900,000 people’s spouses die in America each year; 75% are aged 65+.

When we enter a long-term relationship, we ultimately have to consider that our partner will die (or we will).

And yet, acceptance of this inevitability doesn’t make death any easier to deal with.

It changes our life as we know it.

We may be losing someone we’ve loved and relied on for decades. Someone we’ve built a family with, and experienced the best and worst of times.

Death is sad and scary and difficult. However, when we learn how to cope with the death of a spouse, we can make the process more bearable.

Feelings of Loss

There isn’t a universal reaction to a death. Everyone grieves differently, and that’s okay. But when our spouse dies, we’ll likely enter a period of mourning. Signs of grief may include:

  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Numbness
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Guilt (for still being alive, for unresolved issues, etc.)
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite

The Widowhood Effect

The widowhood effect is our increased risk of death after our spouse dies. Research suggests we may have a 66% chance of dying within the first three months following our partner’s death.

The exact cause of this phenomenon is unclear but may be explained by a combination of the following:

  • Biological grief-related causes
  • Chronic stress, which can cause many health problems
  • Lack of self-care while caring for a dying spouse, or after they’ve died
  • Social isolation and loneliness

Coping with Loss

Seek Support

Finding people who can support us through our loss is invaluable during the grieving process. Not everyone will be comfortable talking about death or handling heavier emotions. That’s why it’s important we find others who are compassionate and willing to listen.

Those closest to us may also be grieving the loss of our spouse. This may provide a great opportunity to cry, share memories about the deceased, and express our feelings.

We may also find it helpful to find bereavement support groups. Here, we’ll meet others who are also grieving and can get support and resources. We can access these groups in person, or online.

Have Self Compassionate

We should be kind to ourselves while grieving. It’s important that we acknowledge our emotions and embrace our grieving process. We don’t have to feel a certain way; each day may be different. There’s no set timeline for when we should “move on,” and we don’t have to move at anyone else’s pace.

Talk to a Grief Counselor

Grief counselors are specifically trained to provide us with a safe environment to process loss. They can help us deal with difficult emotions, and reflect on memories of our spouse.

A counselor can help us accept our loss, and deal with unresolved issues we had with our spouse.

They can also provide us with tools and strategies to cope, and help us plan for the next stage of our lives.

Practice Self Care

Typically, when our spouse first dies we’ll have help with daily activities. People will bring food, readily provide company, and make sure our needs are met.

But as time passes, people will return to their daily lives. At this time, it’s important that we continue to practice self-care. This keeps us healthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Self-care includes:

  • Healthy eating
  • Regular medical visits
  • Regularly taking necessary medications
  • Socializing with others
  • Staying involved in our usual community activities
  • Limiting alcohol and drugs
  • Sleeping well
  • Practicing good hygiene
  • Practicing spiritual care (i.e. religious activities, therapy, spending time in nature, etc.)

Find Meaningful Activities

For many of us, our spouse is the person we do activities with. They’re a large part of our daily routine and social interaction.

When they die, we often have to rebuild this part of our lives. It can be intimidating to do things alone. But we should try to find activities that feel meaningful to us, like:

  • Volunteering
  • Exploring new hobbies
  • Joining an activity group
  • Scheduling a regular event with friends (like a weekly coffee date)
  • Adopting a pet
  • Spending time with grandchildren
  • Visiting a senior center
  • Taking an exercise class
  • Going for a daily walk

Complicated Grief

Sometimes, grief doesn’t get better with time, regardless of the coping mechanism we use. The emotional distress may worsen with time.

It can become so severe that we can’t complete our daily tasks. This is called complicated grief. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty completing routine tasks
  • Self-isolation
  • Depression (inability to enjoy activities, trouble planning, deep sadness, thinking and memory problems, thoughts of suicide, etc.)
  • Avoidance of reminders of our spouse
  • Excessive fixation on things that remind us of our spouse

In this case, it’s best that we talk to a doctor or mental health professional immediately. They can provide the help we need to start feeling better.


We all hope that our spouse lives a full, long life. But even if they do, losing them isn’t easy.

There’s no guidebook for how to cope with the death of a spouse. But when we seek to support, let ourselves grieve, practice self-care, and find meaning in life, it can help us handle the loss.


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