Tips for Coping With the Death of a Spouse

Senior woman placing flowers on grave in cemetery

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Losing a spouse can be devastating, whether the death is sudden or following a long illness. One day you are married; the next day you are single, alone, and grieving. Between the intense emotions, the lifestyle changes, and the many practical considerations that accompany the death of your spouse, you probably feel overwhelmed and anxious about your future.

Over time, the grief will likely subside and you will build a new life for yourself. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you cope.

Go Easy on Yourself

There is no right way to feel after losing your spouse. So many variables contribute to your reaction, including how long and happy your marriage was, how your spouse died, how old your children are (if you have them), and how dependent you were on one another.

You may feel numb, shocked, brokenhearted, or anxious. You may feel guilty for being the one who is still alive or relieved that your spouse is no longer suffering. You might even feel angry at your spouse for leaving you. You may cry a lot, or you may not. How you grieve is unique to you.

Be prepared for friends and family who may not know what to say, avoid you, or try to comfort you with cliches (such as "he's in a better place"). Often, well-meaning people are uncomfortable talking about death, but it doesn't mean they don't care.

If you can, tell those close to you what you need (or don't need). If people avoid mentioning your spouse, for example, and you actually want to talk about them, let them know. Keep in mind that your friends and family are also grieving and may find it comforting to share memories of your spouse.

Take Care of Your Physical Health

Grieving can take a toll on your body as well as your emotions. You may have no appetite or have trouble sleeping. It may be easier said than done, but try to take care of yourself by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Try to avoid drowning your sorrows by drinking excessively, as that can actually exacerbate your pain.

One study found that the risk of death for the surviving spouse goes up, particularly in the first three months of bereavement. Taking care of your physical health in the months after your loss is essential.

Be sure to let your healthcare provider know if you are having trouble following through on everyday activities, like getting dressed or fixing meals for yourself.

Seek Support

Coping with the aftermath of loss is often extremely lonely and confusing, and it is not unusual to feel depressed. The loss of a spouse is also associated with an elevated risk of the onset of a number of different psychiatric disorders.

Studies suggest that a lack of social support after an unexpected loss is a key predictor of depression. For this reason, it is important to reach out to other people in your life for help. You may be inclined to turn inward, but you'll probably fare better if you seek support from family, friends, your religious community (if you have one), or a counselor.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression and grief, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Joining a support group with other people who are grieving can also be very comforting. Your healthcare provider, therapist, or local hospital can usually provide information on locating such groups. Numerous bereavement groups are available online as well.

Adjust Your Social Life

Navigating your social life as a single person can be complicated. If you and your spouse socialized with other couples regularly, you may not know how to fit in now. You may feel awkward going to parties and other events solo. Tell your friends how you feel and explain that you may need to avoid "couples" dinner parties and get-togethers for a while and see friends one-on-one instead.

However, being single can also provide a welcome opportunity to seek out new friends. Consider volunteering or taking a class to motivate you to get out of the house and pursue something meaningful.

Seek Help for Complicated Grief

Losing a spouse is life-changing and profound grief is a normal reaction. Sometimes, though, grief is so profound that it interferes with your ability to move forward with your own life. This is known as "complicated grief," and it affects an estimated 7% of bereaved people. Signs include:

  • Feeling as if you have no purpose anymore
  • Having difficulty performing everyday activities
  • Experiencing continued feelings of guilt, or blaming yourself for your loved one’s death
  • Wishing you had died as well
  • Losing the desire to socialize

If you can't get past these feelings, talk to your doctor or a therapist, who can recommend treatment options.

A Word From Verywell

It is very hard to lose a spouse. Grieving takes time and is different for everyone. But it is possible to create a new and fulfilling life for yourself while still cherishing the memories of your relationship and your loved one.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Aging. Mourning the death of a spouse.

  2. King M, Lodwick R, Jones R, Whitaker H, Petersen I. Death following partner bereavement: A self-controlled case series analysisPLoS One. 2017;12(3):e0173870. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173870

  3. Keyes KM, Pratt C, Galea S, McLaughlin KA, Koenen KC, Shear MK. The burden of loss: Unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national studyAm J Psychiatry. 2014;171(8):864–871. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13081132

  4. Shear MK, Ghesquiere A, Glickman K. Bereavement and complicated griefCurr Psychiatry Rep. 2013;15(11):406. doi:10.1007/s11920-013-0406-z

By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.