Living through loss: How to cope when a life partner dies

A life partner’s death is a devastating loss. This may help you cope. 

  • Lean on others for support, whether family, friends, counseling or a group.
  • Take time to care for your body with exercise, sleep and nutrition.
  • Know that healing will come — in time.


C.S. Lewis, the famous British scholar, novelist and author, lost his wife to cancer in 1960. It was the great tragedy of his life. To Lewis, Joy Davidman was “a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword.” According to sources, in his book “A Grief Observed,” Lewis presents Joy as a woman “whose strength, faith, honesty, humor, and loyalty made her the best of companions, and brought out the best in him.”

In a letter Lewis wrote to a friend, he describes his grief: “I too have lost what I most loved. Indeed, unless we die young ourselves, we mostly do. We must die before them or see them die before us. And when we wish [to have them back] — and how agonizingly we do, o how perpetually! — it is entirely for ourselves, for our sakes, not theirs.”

Losing a life partner is a devastating event you may feel you’ll never recover from. Some experts say it could take at least three years or longer to adjust to the loss. This person, your partner, was with you almost every day. And now you expect to see him or her appear around a corner or in a crowd at any moment, but they don’t. And like C.S. Lewis, you wish constantly and agonizingly for your beloved to return.

Grief is brutal — and answers don’t come easy

When a long-time partner dies, there are many emotions you may experience: mourning, grief and sorrow, to name a few. You may feel guilt for being the one who didn’t die, or anger because your partner left you. 

You’re not wrong to feel the way you do at any given time — because there are no rules about how you should feel in the first place.

It’s important to know that all these emotions are normal. You’re not wrong to feel the way you do at any given time — because there are no rules about how you should feel in the first place. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five basic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is completely normal to go back and forth between these stages during your grieving process. You may even experience physical pain in addition to the hurt you feel in your heart. Crying easily isn’t unusual, and neither is having trouble making decisions.

You’re facing one of the hardest experiences people go through in life. That’s why it’s important to do what you can to care for yourself. Here’s what may help.

Lean on your support system

It’s vital not to avoid the grieving process. Family and friends can provide strong support. They may be grieving too; sharing memories about the one who is gone can be healing. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, numb, or dealing with long-term depression, consider seeking help.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, numb, or dealing with long-term depression, consider seeking help. Grief counseling may be helpful in seeing you through your sorrow and beyond.  

Support groups can also play a part. These include groups at your church, local hospitals and even hospice organizations. You can also ask your doctor to refer you toa support group that’s best for you.  

Take time to take care of yourself 

Soon after losing your loved one, it may be a relief to focus on handling the many details that follow a death. But this lasting change in your life can’t be avoided by staying busy. That’s why it helps to have a plan to care for yourself as you face this new chapter in the days ahead.

  • Tune in to your health. Grief takes a toll on your mind and body. Try to exercise, such as taking short walks or stretching. Sleep is also essential, even though it may be harder than ever to quiet your mind. If you’re smoking (or you’ve started again) or drinking too much alcohol, seek help. 
  • Get the nutrition your body needs. Although you may have lost interest in cooking and eating — which isn’t unusual after the death of a loved one — nutrition is still key to your well-being. It may help to have a meal or a cup of coffee with a friend. If it feels too quiet in your home during meals now, try turning on the radio or TV. Go online to look for recipes that are simple and easy to put together. 
  • Make an appointment with your doctor. Visits with your healthcare provider are always vital, but now may be the best time to check in. If it’s been a while, set up a visit so you can bring your doctor up to speed on what has happened in your life, and any new health issues. This is also the time to talk about trouble you may be having with everyday activities like sleeping or preparing meals.

When you’re ready, start to focus on finances

Once you’re feeling physically and mentally stronger, you’ll want to spend time getting your financial and legal paperwork in order. Here’s a quick checklist to get you started. If need be, don’t hesitate to call on a trusted advisor to help you with next steps.   

  • Put any joint properties such as houses or cars in your name.
  • Update your insurance policies if needed, including:
  • Health
  • Life
  • Car
  • Homeowner’s
  • Sign up now for Medicare if you’re 65 or older.
  • Make a list of bills you know will need to be paid in the next few months. These may include:
  • Federal and state taxes
  • Rent or mortgage
  • Medical
  • Update your will and advance care planning.

Healing will come with time 

You will get through this. After losing a loved one, you will always miss your partner. That’s normal. Still, most people find the intense pain softens and over time there are more good days than bad. You may find yourself laughing at a joke or enjoying time with a friend. C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Loving the special partners in our lives makes us vulnerable to the pain of losing them. Most people would say they wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing that, one day you’ll be glad you were vulnerable enough to have loved your partner. One day, as hard as it may be to believe now, you’ll smile when you think of that love. 


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Find a doctor

If you have lost a life partner, ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed with grief and depression. Visit our provider directory to find a primary care doctor or specialist.






Related resources

Grief during the holidays: when derailing may put you back on track

Natural ways to treat depression

Dying should not be so hard

National Institute on Aging: Exercise and Physical Activity

A good night's sleep: why we need it now, more than ever

Nutrient needs in older adults

National Institute on Aging: What Do I Need to Tell the Doctor?

Have you experienced the death of your life partner? Are you coping with grief now or do you have ways you learned to cope with your grief in the past? Sharing may help you and others @providence. #grief


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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