How does a young widow or widower cope with the unexpected loss of a loved one when they thought they would have decades left to live together?
“Widows are seen as bad luck we are the forgotten women made to sit at the back, left out of celebrations, treated like outcasts and accused of being bad wives or in some cases, even killing our husbands,” said Tash Reddy, a widow and author of the book Widow Without and creator of the Facebook support page, Widowed South Africa.
Reddy’s first husband Denver Reddy, died 10 years ago, leaving her a widow in her early thirties.
Now in a loving new marriage, the columnist and former radio personality has since made it her mission to break down the social barriers around widows and provide support to them.
After her husband’s death, Reddy went through deep depression and became isolated. According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (a common measurement instrument used by doctors), 75% of the support base is lost after the death of a spouse.
“Society doesn’t deal well with grief, nor depression. No one wants to deal with the reality of anything sad; that’s why mental illness isn’t taken seriously”.
Dr Joel Shapiro, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Crescent Clinic in Randburg, said people who had suddenly lost a spouse went through five stages of grief, which included denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, some stages could be prolonged or morph into clinical illness if not dealt with.
“If the person is an extrovert, they may get into a state of anger at the injustice, while people of faith tend to question if God does truly exist,” he said.
That is a state that Reddy knew well.
“You have to re-learn how to do everything alone as a mother and a woman You lose a part of your soul,” she added.
Shapiro said the real danger is when grief becomes long-lasting, leading to clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In these cases, you see the person cannot go in a particular room because it reminds them of their partner. Or, the person doesn’t want to let go of old clothing and withdraws from their usual activities.”
Psychiatrists say it takes six months to get through grieving and get back into life, but Shapiro says in most cases this can take up to a year.
Reddy advises the newly widowed to understand that a day is made up of 24 hours and that it is okay to still play the various roles you did before.
She said: “We are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends, employees, cousins ask yourself how much time in a day you spent as a wife and the reality is that it wasn’t that much.
“Only one role in your life has changed. The rest are still there, so immerse yourself in them.”
Shapiro has given tips on coping with loss and moving on:
With your family, community or friends.You need to speak about it you need to connect, human connection is a healer.
Nurture yourself and move on:
Nurturing yourself is important because through that you gain a fresh perspective that your spouse would have wanted the best for you, and for you to move on. Society has a lot of judgments that will be cast on you once you move on. This means having a meaningful relationship and it doesn’t make that relationship a rebound.
But when will you know you have accepted your loss and are moving on? Shapiro calls that space “liberated remembrance”. “It’s a space where you’ve been able to make your story of what’s happened, and realise your story is still in the middle and not at the end of your life," he says.