Coping with the loss of a partner

June 2, 2019, was a typical Sunday for Donna and Clark Perkett of Queensbury. “We had such a great day,” says Donna. “We were so busy. Clark was over helping the neighbor who had a bad heart. His mom lives across the street and he was helping plant her flowers. Then we had a really nice family dinner, the nicest steak and mushrooms and potatoes.”

It was a day that seemed to be a beginning — of warm weather, days by the pool, family barbecues. Instead, it was the last day of Clark’s life. He died that night in his sleep from a massive heart attack.

Donna and Clark had been together 35 years, almost 32 of them married. They had nine children, four of them biological and five adopted from China and Guatemala. “We had a fantastic partnership,” says Donna, noting they were both banking executives. “We shared household chores, had great jobs. I would have told you I had the absolute perfect life.”

“And then Monday morning my husband just didn’t wake up,” she says. “He had always been super healthy, never taken a sick day in 35 years of work. He just had his first cavity. It was absolutely crazy.”

Clark and Donna were both 55 at the time of his death. With children ranging in age from 12-27 — six of them still living at home — Donna was completely overwhelmed. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic added isolation to the emotional mix. “The kids were on these islands with their own grief,” she says. “It was really, really hard for a long time.”

Clark Perkett and family
At left, Clark Perkett and at right, a photo of Clark, Donna and their nine children. Photo courtesy of Donna Perkett.

While Donna felt — and still feels some days — totally alone in her grief, the reality is different. Widows accounted for 30% of all older women in 2020, according to a 2021 report from the Administration on Aging at the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report notes there were more than three times as many widows (8.8 million) as widowers (2.6 million). As Ben Franklin famously noted, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The challenge is learning how to live without your partner and how to navigate grief, an ever-evolving emotion, and doing it in a society that’s not particularly adept at handling grief.

“Even when we talk about grief with friends and family, there might be this response of ‘But that was six months ago. Why is this still upsetting you?’” says Tara Hempel, director of clinical services at Jewish Family Services of Northeastern New York.

Kelly Daughtery, a licensed clinical social worker and certified grief counselor who offers grief counseling at Greater Life Grief Counseling in Malta, echoes Hempel’s thoughts. It’s critical, she says, to recognize that grief is not a one-and-done. It comes in many forms and in many stages.

“The primary loss is the partner,” she says. “But there are secondary losses, too, and sometimes they can feel just as challenging.”

Take identity, for instance. “Who am I without this partner and what does my future look like?” Daughtery says.

That feeling really resonates for Paula Temple of Albany, who lost her husband, Mark, to HPV cancer five years ago. “I really struggled with who I am as Paula without my partner, without my other half,” she says. “You don’t understand that until half of that is gone. I still struggle with that.”

“When you lose your spouse, it’s amazing what you lose,” echoes Perkett. “We had ‘couple friends.’ They all evaporated.”

People were helpful in the beginning, Perkett says, but then life goes on for everyone else. “I remember thinking my world had stopped and everyone else kept moving forward. I wanted to stand on my roof and scream, ‘Don’t you know what happened?’ I can count on one hand how many times I have gone out with friends since Clark’s death. People don’t know what to say or what to do.”

Finances can be another challenge. Depending on a couple’s life stage, the revenue change can be significant, which in turn can impact the remaining partner’s living situation. “Do you stay in the home? Can you afford that?” says Daughtery.

These worries can be amplified, Hempel notes, for people who may have never lived alone. “They may have gone from living at home with their parents to living with a partner,” she says. “Some folks have never lived alone.”

“[Loneliness is] a natural part of grieving,” Hempel says, “but it doesn’t make it easier. Even if they’re surrounded with family and friends, they can often feel very alone.” She recommends taking a moment to be aware of the times of loneliness, certain times of day, for instance, or days of the week or holidays/anniversaries. That might be a time, she says, to make plans with friends who can help.

Talking to the person who has died can also help, Hempel says. “If you’ve been talking to them as long as you’re together and suddenly that stops, it’s a hard transition. Just because they have passed away doesn’t mean that love stops. They’re still in our lives. Why not have that connection with them still?” Hempel recommends writing them a letter or journaling to them, especially if there are things left unsaid by the death. “Feel free to share those regrets with your loved one,” she says. “It can be comforting. It’s a different connection, but it’s still a connection.”

“I still find loneliness the hardest,” says Perkett three years after her husband’s death. “We were planning for our future when we would be kid-free. It’s not only the death of a person but a death of your dreams and future plans.”

Temple, 59, finds nights and weekends hardest. “You come home from work and there’s no one to talk to, no one to make dinner for. Weekends are very long. I keep myself busy the best I can, but even so you come home from an event and you want to share but the lack of someone to share the mundane everyday moments is very difficult.”

Daughtery advises clients to lean into their grief. “You have to deal with it and you have to feel it. Our society is not great about this,” she says. She advises people to sit with their feelings when they come up. “You don’t have to worry about making other people uncomfortable,” Daughtery says. “You need to do this for you.”

Daughtery suggests that those who are grieving recognize who can help them in the ways they need help. “Who are your listeners? Who are your doers?” she says. “If you keep going to someone who’s not a listener, you’re going to get frustrated.”

Therapy and grief support groups can be helpful, too. “You can get connection and guidance from other people,” Daughtery says. “It’s a way to learn new coping skills and release your emotions.”

“I did a lot to address my grief,” says Perkett, noting she has talked with therapists and used online programs. “I was determined I wasn’t going to shove it down, that I was going to talk about it. Clark was a great guy who was loved by all. I’ve looked at ways to honor him.”

Above all else, Daughtery advises, “Be patient with yourself. Grief is really hard. Practice some self-compassion.”

Holding hands

How to help someone who is grieving

  • Offer specific services. Don’t make the grieving person tell you what they need. “As a society we say if you need anything, let me know, but that puts the work on the person who is grieving,” says Hempel. “And that can be hard.” People often drop by food in the beginning but it’s six, nine months down the road where the assistance, everything from yard cleanup to a surprise meal, might really make a difference.Perkett has a friend who initially checked in on her every day, and now does it a couple of times a week. “It’s incredible to have someone who shows you that they care,” she says.Perkett says one person hired a local pool company to come and teach her how to use her pool. Someone else hired a cleaning service. Another taught her how to drive their boat. These were all areas that were Clark’s domain. “That’s some of the things people went above and beyond and did,” she says. “Don’t ask people if or how you can help. Come up with something on your own because people are always going to say, ‘I’m fine.’”
  • Talk about the person who is gone. Use their name, advises Hempel, rather than their entity, like husband or wife. “Using their name is very meaningful,” she says.
  • Ask how people are doing. “The person who’s grieving hasn’t forgotten about it,” Hempel says.
  • Include the widow or widower in activities. “It’s not like we don’t want to be included any more just because we don’t have someone to come with us,” Perkett says. “Odd numbers are okay.”
  • Recognize significant dates. “People tiptoe around the dates and are not sure if they should say something as if I’ll forget if they don’t say something,” says Temple. “Reach out on those days you know are his birthday or our anniversary or a child’s birthday because that’s hard, too.”

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