Coping With Grief After Death of A Spouse or Parent

A few times over the past 10 years, I have met fathers who were raising their children after the death of their wife and the mother of their children. I was the outsider looking in at both of these families. As their stories unfolded, the loss of my mother so soon in my life was a shadow. Because of my adoption, I was not ever allowed to grieve for her loss in any way, so to hear and see these families cope with the death of a mother and spouse was painful for me, yet enlightening.

In both situations, the husband/father was clearly still in grief over the loss of his wife. Evidence of her was everywhere in the home: photographs, home decorations, crafts that she made, clothes still hung, shoes and boots still neatly arranged along with other family members’ footwear. Both of these men had lost their wives between 2 and 10 years in the past. Their grief, and their love for the wife who had died, showed clearly in their conversations, their wistful facial expressions, and their concern for their children who had lost their mother. In the one family, the children were older when their mother died and coped with her death by throwing themselves into schoolwork. They became achievers, goal-oriented, never-wavering in their path to success from high school to college and employment. In the other family, the youngest child never outgrew her mother’s loss, grieving to the point of near-suicide, over and over and over. Her wish to become a child psychologist to help other children cope with the death of a parent may never be realized until she goes through her grief and emerges on the other side, still in grief, but with strength to move forward with better coping skills. Falling back into grief is inevitable. It is how a person handles that grief — and rage — is what is important.

As for the fathers, the father in the first family is alive and well, and employed. The father in the second family is slowly dying from an autoimmune condition. His daughter sees this. She is imploding. As a child of ten, she witnessed her mother die, slowly, and, for the last several years, this now 20 year old has been watching her father slip away. She needs help, fast.

The process of death and dying is not easy. Family members react in different ways. Some block their feelings and funnel the energy into work. Others succumb to the grief and sink into deep, profound sadness, unable to climb back up to find a place for themselves. Others react in anger and rage and misdirect those negative feelings toward others.

Finding a place for oneself after the death of a spouse or parent can be done.

Twenty-five years ago, a father I knew as a friend had two teenagers, a boy and a girl. We were members of a community social dance troupe, studying Native American culture, song and dance. The teens fit right in and the girl and I grew close. We danced in my living room – Native dance beat on cassette tapes from our group’s singer/drummer, or even in rock music. (Led Zeppelin’s D’yer Maker, 1973, Reggae Rock)  We held my toddler son, swung him around, as we danced. I was in my late twenties at the time. I did not think of this friendship as the profound friendship that it actually was: this fifteen year old looked up to me as a mother figure. I look back now to realize this, for she had lost her mother when she was two years old. It happened fast. Mother was dead in a flash in a car crash. The father, somehow, kept his children with him. He was a hard worker. And he loved the Native beat, so when he joined the Buffalo Indian Dancers, his teens loved the beat, too. We were whites who joined with Natives in mutual admiration and respect for a rich culture.

But what struck me most of this family was that the very essence of their grief in the death of the husband’s wife and the mother of his children was not stated outright. The story was told matter-of-factly, then, the kids joined the adults in social interaction. Not one person uttered the words “half orphan”.

Not one. Including me.

But then, one horrible night, the father fell asleep holding a lighted cigarette. I awoke that morning listening to the news on the radio. What a way to learn that my friend had died and his body was carried away in the freezing cold of a winter night, on a stretcher, with his teens watching in the street after they escaped that burning Riverside Buffalo apartment. Those kids were now full orphans.

That morning, I raced to the scene, but all was quiet. The fire was out, the apartment was vacant. The kids were taken to the Red Cross. Extended family took them in. The funeral was a shocker. I reached out as best I could to maintain a friendship with those teens, but they left Buffalo soon after high school graduation. Sue and Chris, if you read this, I am looking for you. Sue: you went to school with my younger brother and neither you nor I knew that at the time.

At the time of Sue and Chris’s father’s death in 1985, I had been reunited with my natural family for 11 years. I identified myself as a “found adoptee” or, put in other words, “an adoptee found by my natural family”. That point being emphasized: I did not search for my natural family: they found me. Not that I did not want to know them; I was at that time in 1974, beginning my search when they found me.

But I had no time in eleven years of reunion to focus on the loss of my mother to an early death. I did not identify myself as a “half orphan” until years later. The impact of those words did not have clear meaning for me. I would hear my adoptive mother talk about her life in the orphanage, or when we’d visit with her aging friends who were orphaned as children, I would listen to their stories, but did not understand how orphanhood affected me.

I had claimed the words “half orphan” to describe myself only within the last two years.

When you open your eyes and ears to really see and hear other people’s stories, the grief of losing a spouse to an early death, the grief of losing a mother or a father to an early death, is there. All one has to do is look and listen.

Compound that loss with adoption loss, and that spells traumatic psychological and emotional injury to the self. Trauma therapy helps; grounding, meditation, activities, schoolwork, working hard, playing hard, focusing on life goals, helps. The grief does not leave, but the person left behind after the death of a spouse or a parent must find a way to go through the pain.

3 thoughts on “Coping With Grief After Death of A Spouse or Parent

  1. I read a book recently that hit home for me: “Ambiguous Loss: Learning To Live With Unresolved Grief” by Pauline Boss. It helped me identify some of my feelings toward the loss of my birth family and how to deal with them.

  2. After posting this article, I recalled my childhood. The summer of 1969 was particularly sad. In one week, we had three funerals to go to. We had just come back from the funeral of my aunt, who left behind a one year old baby girl. My uncle ran out of the church. I ran after him. I caught up with him and we walked hand in hand as he cried. When we reached his mother’s front porch, we sat down. I, a 13 year old girl, put my arm around his shoulders as he wept. He was my Unlce John Wheeler and I loved him. How did he repay me for my comforting him when his wife and the mother of his baby girl died? When I turned 18 and was found by my natural family, he was mad because he felt I was betraying his older brother who was my adoptive father. For 22 years I endured unidentified hate mail with the same prininting. The notepapers read, “I know why your father gave you up for adoption, because he couldn’t stand the sight of you” and “You father did not want you that’s why he gave you away.” Uncle John Wheeler was convicted of aggravated harassment in 1996 when I matched his handwritting. The entire story is in my book. I can use his real name because he died.

    The second funeral in that week in 1969 was for the mother of my close friend. The father was now alone with two young teens. The family broke apart. I lost my childhood friend and found her years later. Tragedy struck again in the 1990s and we lost eachother again.

    The third death that week in 1969, well, I just can’t recall who that was.

    But the Moon landing that week was pretty cool.

    I was 13 then. Five years later I met my natural father for the first time. He told me where my natural mother was buried. He also told me what church she was buried out of. To my shame and disgust, it was the same church that all of my adoptive family members were buried out of. Though they knew, not one single adoptive family member thought to tell me the truth. Because an adoptee is never supposed to know from whence she came. Never supposed to grieve what was lost.

    It’s all in the book, in greater detail.

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