Carole Brody Fleet always loved to write. But when her husband Mike’s battle with the nervous system disorder ALS ended in 2000, the widowed mother of a 9-year-old really thrust herself into writing, focusing on a topic she never would have imagined covering.
“Nobody grows up saying, ‘I want to be a writer and I’m going to be in the bereavement genre,” jokes Fleet, who lives in Lake Forest, California. “I started thinking about all of the information that I had been looking for at the time of Mike’s death, and couldn’t find – it just wasn’t there.” The internet was still in its relative infancy and severely limited, Fleet says, in what it offered her to handle challenges she faced. “Basically you had your choice between chat rooms and porn, and I really didn’t need either one of those things,” laughs Fleet, who has retained her sense of humor through it all. “It wasn’t an avenue of support and information and education like it is today."
So, just 40 at the time of her husband’s death, she set about writing books to fill the void, including “Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical and Emotional Guide for the Young Widow” and “Happily Even After.” She covered topics from the ongoing healing process to making ends meet, as she found herself in financial ruin along with being in emotional ruin, she details.
Those familiar with the profound impact the loss of a spouse or partner can have on a person – both individuals who have lived it and researchers who’ve studied the effects – point out that it’s extensive, wide-ranging and varies significantly from one person to the next. Along with deep, prolonged sadness, some face a higher risk of a range of emotional and even physical health issues, from depression and anxiety to heart attack and stroke (as cardiovascular risk can increase).
Research published last year in the journal JAMA Psychiatry finds that risks for issues from sleep disorders to mood disorders (which include depression), post-traumatic stress disorder and deliberate self-harm are higher for a surviving spouse, when the partner dies by suicide. “It’s an extreme stressor,” says the study’s lead author Annette Erlangsen, an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health in Baltimore and an associate professor at the Danish Research Institute for Suicide Prevention in Denmark, where the population research was conducted. The exact reasons for the impact are tough to parse out, but suggested factors that might explain the association include that there are some links between mental disorders and unhealthy lifestyles. “Another thing is that we know that stress impacts the immune system, so stressful life events are likely to lead to a lower activity level of the immune system – so you’re more prone to a wide range of disorders in this manner also,” Erlangsen says.
Even so, experts are careful to point out that uptick in risk is just that: It certainly doesn’t mean anyone grieving the loss of a partner to suicide or another cause will deal with mental or physical health issues. Far from it. But it’s important that individuals are supported in getting treatment for mental and physical health concerns that arise. And the visceral, layered and long-lasting impact the loss of a spouse or partner has, say those who’ve experienced it or studied its effects, make it all the more critical that well-meaning loved ones don’t in any way try to bracket grief.
Find support and express your emotions, experts advise.
“You don’t get to dictate somebody else’s healing timeline. It’s impossible, and it’s not OK,” Fleet says. “Because unfortunately what the grieving person hears is, ‘Well, I’m not over it, so something’s wrong with me.’” That can make the grieving process much more difficult.
“It’s not good ever to talk about getting over this, or pulling yourself together and getting on with it. That’s useless. In fact, it’s detrimental and harmful,” says Elizabeth Harper Neeld, an independent scholar and author of “Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World,” now in its fourth edition. Rather, there’s an opportunity “to integrate this into one’s life in a way that you always have been changed by it but are no longer dominated by it.”
The gift of time – providing support not only around the time of the funeral but after the “lasagna parade” ends, is especially valuable, points out Amy Ambuske DeGurian, an adjunct professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, who teaches a class on grief and loss. The immediacy of a death garners attention and focus, and “we as a collective are very good I think about making sure that we’re doing what’s appropriate or expected,” DeGurian says. While certainly cultural approaches to supporting those who’ve lost loved ones differ, she and other experts point out that frequently support for loved ones drops off fairly quickly following a person’s death.
[See: 9 Ways to Fight Loneliness.]
“Everybody is supportive in and around the funeral. Make a note on your calendar: Three weeks after the funeral, pick up a phone and say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’” Fleet encourages. “Because everybody else by then has gone on.”
Another thing you can do, which many avoid but shouldn’t, experts say: Talk about the deceased. DeGurian emphasizes that people who are grieving want to talk about the person they lost. “For many people, that is probably one of the most therapeutic opportunities,” she says. “It supports the idea that the person may be gone, but the memories aren’t. And if I have someone to share those memories with, that’s a gift.”
Fleet says it’s of course normal for others in that person’s circle to pick back up with what they were doing, say, at work and home, and not to be impacted in the same way as a partner is by the death of a spouse or partner. “There’s responsibility on the part of the bereaved as well to be understanding of other people,” she says.
But frequently Fleet stresses that people who are grieving find themselves marginalized or isolated. Invitations to couples’ events stop, oftentimes people not knowing what to say fade into the background or disappear from that person’s day-to-day life. “One of the things that we do see in the bereaved community is abandonment – and it can include members of families as well – sadly,” Fleet says.
She suggests being proactive to counteract that. Though it’s good to ask what a person needs, if you’re not sure, experts advise against waiting on a phone call from that person. “People make assumptions: ‘Well, I don’t want to bother them or they might be resting or they might not want to go anywhere, rather than actually picking up a phone and saying, ‘Hey, you want to go get a coffee or a lunch or a drink, or do you just need an ear to listen?’” Fleet says. “Don’t say, ‘Call me if you need anything,’ because the call will never come. To a bereaved person, that phone weighs 100 pounds. They’re not going to pick it up. Because we don’t want to be a burden on you.”
All things considered, making time to spend with a family or friend who has lost a partner – even if for brief, regular interludes, and not just now but over the long term if at all possible – is particularly helpful. “One of the greatest gifts you can give people is to be there a year from now, to be there 18 months from now,” Neeld says, “as long as it takes – to be willing to be available and understand that this process is still going on and has not reached a place of integration.”
You know you best.
Only you truly know the unique triumphs and travails of living in your own head. If you experience ongoing depression, anxiety or other symptoms, “Seeking professional help as early as possible, rather than waiting, can be critical,” says Dr. Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City. However, you needn’t be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from taking steps to improve your psychological well-being. Here are some ways you can get a mental edge. The payoff could include everything from a happier, healthier, longer life to better relationships.Get moving.
You might not want to sit down for this. “Physical exercise is very important in preventing or reducing mental health problems,” Klitzman says, which include depression. “When we exercise, our body releases endorphins – natural opiates that improve our mood and make us feel good. Exercise can also help cognitive functioning – how well we think.”Watch your weight.
Watch your weight.
Being sedentary, by contrast, can prove a double whammy, since we don’t get the mental jolt from exercise – and we’re more likely to pack on pounds. Putting on extra weight, research shows, can weigh down our mental health, too. Obesity and diabetes increase the risk for depression, says psychiatrist Dr. Mahendra Bhati, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.Be careful what you consume.
Be careful what you consume.
Your diet – whether predominantly plant-based with healthy greens, nuts and other lean proteins (good), or laden with saturated fat, processed foods and sugars (not so good) – can impact mood and anxiety levels. So, too, can other things we put in our body to get by in the moment, from tobacco and alcohol to recreational drugs. Better to avoid the feel-good momentary fixes, Klitzman says, and spare yourself the crash later.Stay in the moment.
Stay in the moment.
We all sometimes seek to avoid uncomfortable situations, either by physically removing ourselves or checking out mentally. “That’s normal … it’s just that when you do that very chronically and habitually, it could develop into significant problems with anxiety and depression,” says psychologist Brandon Gaudiano, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness instead to help deal with difficult circumstances and emotions. “It’s paying attention to the present moment and what your experience is,” says Gaudiano, noting that approaches vary. “Bringing awareness, acceptance, self-compassion, curiosity and just noticing non-judgmentally those internal experiences as they’re arising.”Meditate about the ones you love.
Meditate about the ones you love.
Want to get even more from that wonderful vacation or visit with family? Focus your mind on it. In researching different forms of meditation, Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, has found that so-called kindness meditation or loving-kindness meditation can improve a person’s emotional well-being and reduce symptoms of depression; she adds that other researchers have found it eases anxiety. “It’s a very simple meditation based on … sending well-wishes to yourself or others,” Fredrickson says, describing it as somewhat similar to mindfulness meditation.Keep a journal.
Keep a journal.
Just as mindfulness can help a person recognize and cope with difficult thoughts and emotions in the moment, experts say it’s important to have outlets to process complex experiences. Journaling, or expressive writing, allows a person to put negative thoughts, feelings, aspirations and anything else that might be going through their mind to paper – and, Gaudiano says, to get some mental distance from those experiences. “It has been [shown to be] very helpful in some of the research I’ve done as well for [addressing] anxiety and depression,” he says.Stay socially connected.
Stay socially connected.
Social support plays a vital role in helping optimize our overall mental well-being, Klitzman says. He recommends “surrounding ourselves with supportive people – loving friends and family – and avoiding, if we can, ‘difficult’ people who may bring us down.” By contrast, a lack of social connectivity can put us at risk for health problems that affect body and mind and contribute to premature death. “Lack of socialization is … the leading cause of geriatric depression,” Bhati says.Prioritize – and schedule – positivity.
Prioritize – and schedule – positivity.
Pay bills, do work, spin wheels. Check, check, check. Lunch with a friend? Not on the list. “Basically when people make their 'to-do' list, they are often thinking of achievement, as opposed to scheduling something in their day that they know is a boost to their positive emotions and their mood,” Fredrickson says. But her own research finds those who prioritize positivity, such as allotting time to visit loved ones or engage in a beloved hobby, tend to be mentally healthier.Assess your stress.
Assess your stress.
Avoiding high levels of stress and finding ways to cope can make a big difference. “Many times, we can actively avoid difficult, stressful situations,” Klitzman says, When we can’t, “framing our experiences positively, and trying not to worry (especially about things you can’t change) can also be beneficial – focusing on the positive, not stewing about the bad things that may occur.” Under such circumstances, he adds: “Mindfulness – relaxation or meditation – can also help.”Sleep on it.
Sleep on it.
Whether you’re wrestling with serious mental anguish or just smelling the roses, it’s important to get ample rest and practice proper sleep hygiene – room-darkening blinds in the bedroom, TV out. “Poor sleep wreaks havoc on the brain and circadian rhythms, [and it can] alter brain function and gene expression,” Bhati says. In short, whether you’re predisposed to mental health issues or not, skimping on shut-eye can awaken psychological problems that make it even harder to function during the day.Find purpose.
Just as making time to visit with friends can change the complexion of a day, mental health experts say doing something meaningful and finding purpose can ground a person in psychologically beneficial ways. “Engaging in activities that give us meaning in our lives can further aid us,” says Klitzman, in terms of improving mental health. That might include volunteering to help others, engaging in hobbies as well as doing other things we enjoy, he adds. Bhati echoes that doing things with a sense of purpose or meaning is a proven way to improve mental health.Read More
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