For the Caregiver Who is Left Behind: Perspective from Those Who Lost a Loved One

First of all, we are so sorry that you have lost the person you loved so dearly, shared your life with, and who was supposed to be here for your family’s future. We know grief takes different forms and we don’t pretend to have any answers. But our Inheritance of Hope (IoH) family wants to tell you that you are loved and we are here. Those who are on the same grueling road as you want you to know that too. Below are messages from others in the IoH family who have attended a retreat as caregivers and later lost a spouse. Refer to this list for condensed ideas from our contributors.  And, don’t forget we have online Hope@Home Groups, including “Life after Loss” for those who have lost their loved one. 

 

From a mom who lost her husband when her son was twelve:

I share with other families now, because I realize that back then, soon after my husband had died and I was left as a single mom with a pre-teen son, what it would have meant for me to hear another story like mine from someone who didn’t have a formula or a “how to.” Just knowing someone else had done this would have helped so much–to know that I was not alone. My ashes can speak to someone else’s.

Recently, I spoke with another IoH mom who had a ten-year-old son and had recently lost her husband. She asked, “be honest–how is your kid doing?”  

I was able to share with her the source of my hope, but also be honest that there were days I would not have been able to go on if I didn’t have that hope. 

At first, it was hard, but there is something about being a parent.  My “mom heart” took over and I knew I needed to do more. I couldn’t really do it all, but I kept doing the best I could, and that is what all parents do, because you love that kid so much.

What I know now that I wish I had known at first:  You don’t have to be both Mom and Dad. Show up consistently. The most important message you can give them is, “I don’t have all the answers but I will stand by you every day.”

You gotta let God do the heavy lifting. You aren’t expected to. How do you do that? It is an active choice. I found it through lots of prayer and then the determination to let things go. Jesus was the hope I had. I felt a certain heartshift and from a place of happiness and protection, I moved to a place of something bigger.

I am not going to do everything right–I will mess up–but my son knows I am here and love him.

There are still days that I still would love to hole up and not get out of bed. But I can’t. I have to make an active choice to show up even on the days I don’t want to.

Our family motto is ‘Love is the highest order of the day.’ It doesn’t say perfection is the highest order of the day, but love. So, we are going to be ok.

From a dad who lost his wife when their daughter was eight and their son was four years-old:

Ask for help with any administrative tasks you can outsource and seek professional advice when possible–the administrative stress on top of emotional stress was overwhelming to me. 

When their mom died, I told my kids separately one-on-one.  Their lives were then changed and they were too young. We keep her memory alive and present, but we don’t romanticize who she was. We remember her as real. I don’t like the term “moving on.” It is more like we move forward. We acknowledge the past and use it to move forward.

As difficult as it is, it DOES get brighter. The first year was just about getting our life back. The second year, we began again to embrace life and all it has to offer. I do often wonder, “What can I do for my kids besides grief counseling and support groups?  What can I do every day?” We wing it, but it is working out. They look to me, and I look to them. It’s mutual and our bond keeps us going. Don’t take anything for granted. You can never hug or kiss your kids enough.

At the end of the day, we are here to enjoy life. For those of us left, it would be a disservice to those gone if we do not. 

Everyone will grieve differently according to your situation. Cry your eyes out, seek others who have gone through hardships and keep in touch with IoH.

From a mom whose husband died when their daughters were twelve and six and their son was just five:

It has been three weeks since my husband passed away, and I’m going through the hardest time I’ve ever gone through. Focusing on the mantra of “choosing joy” has helped a ton. We were already living that, but it has given me a way to focus on moments and small things. Like, I can focus on “my baby boy is cuddling with me.”  I recognize I’m sad and there is a deep sadness, but I do not let that lead my day. I will say it is the hardest three weeks of joy-choosing. With kids, it is not necessarily hard to find it, because you love them so much that you find joy in them. It is hard to choose it. But focusing on choosing joy has kept me on the right track, made me get up in the morning, get dressed, and make breakfast.

I wish everyone had support like I have from my family and friends. They have brought meals and literally been here for me. My friends remind me that whatever I’m going through is ok, and they keep me from second-guessing myself. Saying “yes” to help was a hard challenge. But I don’t think I would be functioning as clearly as I am if they had not shown up. I would be emotionally in the arrears. 

Every person, even your most trusted loved one, grieves differently. I saw his toothbrush. I lost it–couldn’t breathe and had a full-on meltdown.  

I am giving myself space to know that I can go through the rest of the house at any time. I don’t have to fall into anyone’s timeline. I can grieve and do what I need to do on my own time. 

It has also been helpful for me to make a daily commitment to be close to God. I feel His love and know he is real through waking up and being totally devastated. They don’t tell you this: you wake up and it takes a couple of seconds. You think you are still in your old life. In that moment, I know that it is God’s love that enables me to be physically able to get out of bed. If it were just me, I would be lying in bed. I would not be able to cope. But because we have the love of Jesus giving us this, I’m able to turn the covers over, get out and start my day. Without God I couldn’t do that. I also feel Him through my kids, how they want to be close, through my mother, through friends reaching out, and my church. God’s love is real and authentic and shines best through other people. 

Deric Milligan [Co-Founder of IoH] said something very important to caregivers in a group session on our IoH retreat. He posed the question “How would we function if our loved one passed away?” He answered by simply saying that he and many of the retreat volunteers have already experienced the worst thing, and are still here. If he can do it, I can do it. There is a way through this. That is the essence of hope is–when you figure out there is a way through even if you don’t know what the through is. 

In the meantime, I’m trying my very best and that is good enough. 

A mom whose daughter was 11 and son just nine when their dad died from a brain tumor:

No matter what, you are questioning, “How did we handle things, did I spend enough time with him, did I say enough?” I feel like we never really got enough time to say goodbye. 

Everyone has lots of advice for you, but you have to do what you know is best and trust your gut.  Four months after he died, I moved across the street from my mom, down from the elementary school. I had questions about whether it was too soon, but you have to do what feels right to you. And don’t be afraid to get counseling for the kids–soon. 

From a mom whose husband passed away when their daughter was eight and their son was two:

Give yourself a ton of grace. There will be a lot you don’t feel like doing, and if you don’t want to do something, don’t. Don’t stress over things.

The first year is a blur, I look back on it now and two and a half years later, I feel like myself, but I don’t know if I will look back in five years and think I wasn’t myself at this point.

I slept more that first year. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me, but it was just my body recovering. It was very worrisome to me, but when I talked to others, they agreed.  It was not a depression, I was just physically exhausted all the time.  Now that I’ve talked to others, I’ve learned that it is super common. You are constantly running on adrenaline when you are caring for someone, then when it’s over, your body is like “whoa.”  For a couple of months, I would take the kids to school, come home, and sleep until time to get them. It was a good year before I got my energy back. It just takes a long time. 

My husband always liked to have three goals of happy things that we were looking forward to: short term, mid-term, and long term. The kids and I still do that and it keeps us focused on the future–little things, to make the most out of the time we have. 

A mom of two sons and three daughters, whose husband passed away when their children were thirteen, eleven, nine, seven, and four has this to say: 

The first year was horrible. I thought “I’ll put my life back together,” and my kids revolted.

In the final stages of my husband’s illness, I started a new job because our insurance had been cancelled. I took some time off after he died, but then hired a nanny and went back to work. My kids were so angry. People don’t tell you that grief looks different in kids–for some it is being angry and doing things like not turning in homework. Now I’m home and not working.

You want to feel normal but it is a very non-normal world. You might not feel normal again. Everything looks different but a strong faith really helps. 

It still is not easy, and some days we get through second by second. I tell the kids, “We can’t have our old life back but we can make the most of the life we do have.”

I am now dating a widower, and people don’t know how to talk about this–how to be happy for me while acknowledging the loss I’ve had. It is the same with milestones and vacations I take with my kids… these are happy moments but it is hard that my husband is not here with us to see our son learn to drive, for example.

People will try to make their situation like yours, and don’t know what to say. I wish when they didn’t have the words they would just ask if they could give me a hug. 

I think that most widows and widowers want someone to acknowledge the loss. We don’t want a pity party, but we do want the loss to be acknowledged. We also want to be able to keep our spouses’ memories alive. My children want to talk about their father.  

The friendships I made from IoH have been so meaningful. IoH was the best thing about cancer.

If I could, I would ask people to just love and support me wherever I’m at. 

From a mom who lost her husband when her daughter was five and her son two:

Your outlook and your hope affect how you grieve. My heart hurts for people who get stuck in a place with no hope for more.

One thing that we can talk about with IoH is, “how do you grieve with little children?” I think the message centers around hope. 

I jumped into GriefShare, which is a 13-week course. I was so afraid I would get stuck in grief, so I joined a GriefShare program quickly. Walking into class every week, I knew everyone in there had lost their spouse. They would nod their heads, share, and encourage one another. It made such a difference.   

It is important to find connections so life doesn’t feel so alone and a circle of support so you have community.  You need a person you can call if you are having a bad day and need to talk, and a person you can call if your sink springs a leak.  

Don’t rush things. There is no urgency. Take things one step at a time. I didn’t make it a big rush to clean out his things. Some things can just come later. But do find a financial advisor that you trust. 

God was so faithful to us. I don’t doubt that he will continue to be faithful, because God hasn’t changed. 

About honoring those who have been lost:  Don’t put pressure on yourself to do something big every holiday, birthday, etc. to honor them. Part of moving forward is that traditions morph and change. It isn’t moving on, but moving forward. I didn’t do much to mark our anniversary. And that is ok. 

From a dad whose wife passed away when their sons were six and four: 

Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.  

There is such a fine line between despair or hope. It all comes down to the heart, and which one we will choose. It is a choice. Which we can make every day. 

One thing that hit me again just today is how it feels to even fill out a survey when asked for marital status and the options are “married, single, divorced, widowed.” I wanted an option to say “all of the above.” Just because I am now remarried does not discount that I am also still a widower. It is just a reminder that I no longer fit into the cultural normal boxes anymore.

The other piece that I would say that hits hard is how relationships are different after the passing of a spouse. The ones that you have will change, but new ones also just feel different.  People try to understand, but without walking that road it is really hard.  And then when you do find someone who has walked that road, the connection can be so strong so fast that it can be almost overwhelming.  

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