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Managing grief after spouse’s death

November 15, 2018

Dear Doctor: My wife of 40 years died seven months ago after a battle with cancer. Since then, I have been suffering from frequent bouts of depression, haunted by the loss of my life partner. During these episodes I can feel something like a mild form of an adrenaline rush. What is it? Should I be worried?

Dear Reader: We’re deeply sorry for your loss, and for your struggle since then. Coping with the death of a beloved life partner is among the most difficult things we humans can face. At first, we’re buffered by shock, which can confer a protective numbness. Then there’s the whirlwind of activities associated with the ending of a life, which bring their own type of distraction and relief. It’s afterward, when the world around us inevitably moves on, that reality sets in. And as you’re experiencing, the effects are both emotional and physical.

Bereavement and grief can cause intense emotional experiences. Among them is depression, which can have physical manifestations like fatigue, muscle aches and pains, sleep disturbance, loss of appetite, headaches and digestive disturbances. Another common effect of profound loss is anxiety, which we think is also involved in the physical symptoms that you’re describing.

To answer your second question, no, you don’t need to be worried about these episodes. They are a natural part of the grieving process. Although your wife passed away seven months ago, your awareness of impending loss quite likely began with, or soon after, her cancer diagnosis. During the time of her illness, you were focused on her as her caregiver. Now, not only are you processing her death, you’re also facing a radically altered life. That’s a lot to take in, and it can send your nervous system into panic mode.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts for dealing with grief. Some people will find they are OK after a few months, while for others it can take several years to recover. The thing to know, and to explain to the well-meaning people who may tell you it’s time to move on, is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It takes as long as it takes.

That said, there are several things that can make moving through this transition more bearable. First, take care of yourself physically. That means a healthy diet, moderate exercise and adequate sleep. Continue to make and keep all of your regular medical appointments and stay current on any medications you’ve been prescribed. When you’re depressed or anxious, it can be all too easy to let the basics slide, yet the nuts and bolts of a day-to-day routine can be the solid ground on which you build your recovery.

Another important step is identifying a support system. If you have friends or family reaching out to you, please do reach back, even when you don’t think you feel like it. A bereavement support group can offer you a place not only to feel less alone by sharing your grief, but it will also give you the chance to help someone else. And finally, please do talk to your family doctor. He or she can be a wonderful resource.

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