Coping with the death of a long-time companion late in life


Psychologists say it’s normal to wonder why you should keep living when your long-time partner no longer is, and there are ways to deal with that. — Hans-Jürgen Wiedl/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

The death of a long-time spouse or significant other can be devastating, especially if you’re elderly. So devastating, in fact, that you may want to die too.

“This is perfectly normal, ” says psychologist Roland Kachler, who practises psychotherapy and has written several books on mourning. “It’s a desire to be with the deceased and flee loneliness.”

Relatives of the elderly surviving partner often don’t know how to deal with the situation. They may offer well-meaning but misguided words of encouragement, such as: “Look ahead! Take the plunge again!”

But if you’re, say, beyond 80, you’re probably not too keen on venturing a new beginning with another companion, notes Kachler, who says you should cultivate memories of your dearly departed instead.

He advises relatives to respect the survivor’s longing to join the departed companion, but to help in overcoming it. One way is for the bereaved to realise the good in “staying here” for a while to keep the deceased in loving memory, tell others about him or her, and to honour the person, for example by tending the grave. The time to follow will come when it comes.

If you’ve lost a long-time companion, you need to take time to grieve, Kachler says. He recommends carefully sorting mementos, such as photographs or old letters.

It can also be helpful to speak with the deceased in your thoughts. “Some people think this is crazy or not right, ” remarks Kachler, who says the opposite is true: “You should seek inner conversations.”

If you enjoy writing, you can compose letters to the deceased to maintain the bond. “For elderly people, it’s important to integrate the deceased into your life and to cultivate an inner relationship – via memories, mental conversations and rituals such as visiting the grave, ” Kachler says.

In some cases, the death leaves unresolved conflicts. “It’s absolutely essential to sort out unsettled matters in inner conversations or letters, ” Kachler says. Otherwise they’ll bind the deceased to the bereaved “in a destructive way”, clouding or even blocking pleasant memories.

Loneliness can sometimes turn to anger. If it does, the bereaved should give vent to it. Whether you tell someone about it, write it down or really let loose with lamentations or invective, “it’s important”, Kachler says, because suppressed anger can lead to bitterness and a kind of aggressive withdrawnness. – dpa

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Death , grief , loneliness


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