Losing a Spouse: The overwhelming feeling of alone

Jack Devaney lost his wife just 17 days shy of their 50th wedding anniversary.

The couple had been to the doctor’s office that day to find out why Connie Devaney’s eye was drooping. When they returned home, she said several times that she was tired and went to take a nap.

When Devaney tried to wake her, there was no response, even when he shook her. In a panic, he called emergency services and watched in horror as she was rushed to the hospital.

Devaney said he was surrounded by friends in the trauma room yet felt completely alone when he received the news that his wife had suffered a brain hemorrhage and could not survive.

“It’s the most scared I’ve ever been,” he said. “There were a lot of people in the room with me, but I knew I was the only one who was really grieving.”

Biggest loss

Loneliness and a sense of isolation are prevalent emotions for those who have lost a spouse, said Father Vincent Maroun, who has worked in hospitals and grief ministry for most of his career.

He was married in 1975 and ordained as a Maronite Roman Catholic priest in 1985. He has devoted himself to hospital work and grief ministry.     

In the Diocese of Charleston, where he is invested with the full faculties of a priest, Father Maroun serves as a chaplain for the terminally ill and their families, and offers a series on healing at St. Teresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville.

“The death of a spouse is the most difficult loss we face, second only to the loss of a child,” he said. “It’s a very, very stressful and tough time, and a lot of people can’t let go of the grief.”

CDC statistics show that the mortality rate among those whose spouses had died increased 50 percent.

The longer the marriage lasts and the healthier it is, the harder it is for the remaining spouse to move forward, Father Maroun said.

Each person has to find their own ways to heal.

Five stages

Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief, but academic knowledge is a pinprick compared to the blazing pain of real grief.

Reading about denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance is not the same as being knocked down over and over by tidal waves of emotion; struggling each day to get up one more time.

Sandy Summers has only been a widow for about seven months and said healing is a minute-to-minute process.

Her husband Bob seemed to be perfectly healthy, she said, until he was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Since they knew it was coming, Summers said they had time to prepare on some levels.

They settled their finances, he showed her how to work all the little household things she had never worried about, and most importantly, they prayed.

“It was very fulfilling for me to see his faith increase more each day,” she said. “He was ready.”

But there is no preparation for the grief when death actually arrives.

Summers and others who spoke to The Miscellany said the hardest part was the overwhelming feeling of being alone.

The person they talked with, ate with, slept with, danced with, prayed with — suddenly that person was gone.

“I don’t know how I could have gotten through it without St. Benedict — the people are a very caring community — and my faith,” Summers said.

Time to heal

Faith and friendship were key factors in helping people through the healing process.

Devaney said waking up each day and facing life without his wife was the hardest part. He had to force himself to continue his activities, and each time he did something alone that once included his spouse, he wept.

From the beginning, he found comfort in the belief that his wife was with God. He remembers the day of the funeral at Immaculate Conception Church in Goose Creek, the program read: Celebrate the new life of Connie Devaney.

Still, he struggled with his anger — at the doctors who missed the diagnosis and at God. He said he shouted at God and begged Him to take it away.

“I fought my grief with prayer and activities,” he said.
He also poured his emotions into a book, “A Widower’s Journey to Serenity.”

As each person spoke about how they pushed through, one thread weaved through it all: no matter what emotions were raging inside, they had to continue on.

Widows and widowers alike continued to go to work, attend Mass, pray, participate in volunteer work, attend meetings, and exercise.

“You have to move on alone,” Father Maroun said. “It can stop you from living if you dwell on loss and become mired in grief.”

He said a key to moving on is remembering. Talk about the good times, the love and the laughter, and reflect on the spiritual and emotional gifts shared over the years.  

Letting go

Some people said they needed the extra support of grief therapy groups, while others preferred to stick with the friends and faith community they already knew.

Devaney said he was the only man in his grief program, but it helped him because the people he spoke to and shared with were all going through the same emotions and struggles.

Over time he realized that “joy never comes to those who are caught up in their own brooding,” he said.

It has been four years since his wife died. Devaney said he still thinks about her every day and asks her to pray for him, but now, mostly, the memories bring smiles instead of tears.

Father Maroun, who is setting up grief counseling at the Carter May Home, said there are several things a spouse can do in the grief process:

  • Talk about what happened.
  • Remember your loved one through shared stories.
  • Pray, hold on to faith, and attend Mass.
  • Force yourself to continue daily activities.
  • Try to change routines, especially at the holidays.

Summers and Devaney both said they went out of town for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it helped, even if just a little bit.

Most importantly, Father Maroun said, share your love every day, give hugs and kisses every time you leave each other, because it is harder to heal when you are burdened by the guilt of things not done.

“Life is so special and so fragile; seek it, take advantage of it now and here and remind your loved ones you love them every day,” he said.

See related article, Moving forward after grief.