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Dealing with the loss of a partner

Death is a sad but inevitable part of life. Watching your partner of many years pass away may leave you with a whole range of emotions, such as feeling helpless, guilt or anger.

Last updated: March 12th 2020
Two people holding hands.
There is no right or wrong way to deal with the passing of a loved one. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Grief affects everyone differently and can take months or years to make peace with

  • Losing a partner can have a very serious effect on elderly people’s mental and physical health

  • It’s important to reach out when you need help or if you aren’t coping well with the loss of a partner

You and your partner may have already started discussing the potential of one of you no longer being around anymore.

Or your partner may be having more and more health complications, which is alerting you to the fact that your spouse may not be around for much longer.

While nothing can really prepare you for the grief that arrives after a loved one passes away, it’s important to know that everyone deals with grief differently and there is no right or wrong way.

How grief affects an older person

Many older people have celebrated numerous anniversaries and special moments together with their partner. So when suddenly that special person is no longer there, it can leave you feeling empty and lost.

Lead Clinical Adviser at BeyondBlue, Dr Grant Blashki, says, “Grief is a natural response to loss and can go for weeks, months or even years and everyone will respond differently.

“Grief can leave people feeling a range of emotions - sad, angry, anxious, shocked, regretful, relieved, overwhelmed, isolated, irritable or numb.

Many of these reactions are not constant but instead tend to come in waves, often triggered by memories or occasions.

“The first few days after a loss are particularly intense. It is part of the human condition and people need time to come to terms with the transition of loss and [it] is oftentimes a major change to their day-to-day lives.”

Physical and mental impacts of grief

Grief can have an impact on many different areas of your life, whether that is your physical or mental health, or on the way you live your life, including your social calendar.

The feeling of grief can be compounded by social loneliness and isolation.

Mr Blashki says, “For many people, it affects every aspect of their lives including their identity, their routine.

“It is often a time of reflection about life, your philosophy and sense of meaning.

“As a GP, I commonly see that people will feel fatigued or experience some physical symptoms such as headaches, body aches or flare up of previous health conditions.”

There is a likelihood that you may lose your appetite or have issues with falling asleep. Grief can also impact your immune system, making you more sensitive to common illnesses.

Additionally, people can become susceptible to depression or other mental health-related conditions. It can leave a person feeling that they have a persisting negative or low mood, withdrawal, a sense of hopelessness or in general, not enjoying anything in life.

If you are beginning to develop symptoms like this, visit your GP or medical practitioner for a chat and potentially see a therapist or mental health expert.

“Dying of a broken heart”

Everyone knows the saying and we’ve all heard stories of couples passing away soon after their long term partner has died. But can someone actually die from a broken heart? Technically, yes.

A broken heart refers to extreme stress impacting the healthy function of your heart. Stress increases your heart rate meaning that your heart is working faster and when you’re exposed to this for a prolonged period of time it can lead to premature death.

This is why it’s important to grieve openly, confide with friends, family and health professionals, to help get you through this tough time.

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is the official name of the condition. Harvard Medical School reported that 90 percent of reported cases were women between the ages of 58 to 75.

The condition can show include chest pain or shortness of breath, heart attack-like symptoms, or odd movements in the left ventricle of the heart.

The condition is often mistaken for a heart attack and can be treated during a stay in hospital. This usually involves support care until the impacted ventricular function, the left, returns to its normal state. This could be between three to seven days.

Beta-blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor drugs are commonly prescribed to help the recovery of the heart muscle.

​Tips for dealing with the death of a partner

  • Grieve in your own way - there is no set pattern and everyone is different

  • Take your time and give yourself space to come to terms with the loss, try to keep some sense of routine.

  • Reach out to people who can support you and avoid withdrawing from life. Try to get a good balance of time on your own and time around others.

  • It’s a good time to look after one’s physical health, eating healthy food, trying to get some regular exercise, getting enough sleep and avoiding overuse of alcohol.

  • Honour your loss. It might be by writing a journal of memories, writing letters, treasuring precious possessions, planting a tree, writing a song; whatever feels meaningful to you.

  • Be prepared for difficult events that trigger your memories and sadness. This may happen on anniversaries, birthdays, reunions or perhaps when you see particular reminders of what you have lost.

  • Don’t avoid mentioning the name of your partner or thinking about them. It’s important that you continue reminiscing on funny memories of your partner, it can bring some form of relief.

  • You don’t have to know what to say. When someone close to you passes, it is completely okay not to know how to respond. Sometimes saying nothing but being there with others is the comfort you need.

Settling personal affairs

When you are feeling more up to it, you may need to begin settling personal affairs.

It can be hard because it will bring up memories, however, it’s important to get things into order for yourself.

You might need to make any clubs or groups your partner was involved in aware of their passing. Additionally, you can organise a notice in your local paper for a cost.

Other matters or documentation that may need to be updated after a partners passing are your Will, appointing an Enduring Power of Attorney, putting together an Advance Care Directive, settling any debts or payments, including funeral costs, and even cancelling subscriptions, insurance, superannuation, or other affairs for your deceased partner.

You will need to contact Services Australia to explain your partners passing so they can update their records.

When contacting the Government, you may be eligible for short term financial support through either a bereavement allowance, bereavement payment or pension bonus bereavement payment.

To find out more, head to the Government website or call the bereavement line on 132 300 or click here for a checklist of people you should notify.

Have an open conversation with your family about any changes that may need to be made.

If you are struggling with the passing of your partner, seek help. Talk to those close to you, speak to your GP, contact BeyondBlue for support on 1300 22 4636, or in an emergency, contact 000.

What method do you use to get through difficult times? Let us know in the comments below.

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