“Till death do us part.” Those profound words have been said by countless couples as they pledge their love, devotion, and lifelong companionship to the person they’ve chosen to become their husband or wife. They’re so commonplace in our culture that many of us say them without really thinking about what they mean.
Looking back on when I said those words myself, I was thinking about my love and commitment to my husband. I was thinking about the many years the two of us would have together as a couple. But I wasn’t thinking about the main topic of that sentence: death.
I wasn’t thinking about my husband dying and leaving me behind to live my life without him. I also wasn’t thinking about what my husband might do after I passed away. I wasn’t thinking about what would happen when we did, eventually, part.
I know I’m not alone in this. Nobody wants to think about the death of our partner — not on our wedding day, or at any other time.
As a result, most of us are unprepared for the loss of a significant other. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“How will I survive without my partner?”
In modern society, commitment can take lots of different shapes, from traditional marriages and common-law partnerships to non-monogamous arrangements and more. Regardless of the specifics, the loss of a partner is one of the most difficult things a person can go through.
Grief is a tricky beast. When someone we love dies, part of the grieving process isn’t just about mourning them; it’s also about figuring out how our life continues on without that person in it. That can often be a monumental transition.
Our life partners play an integral role in our day-to-day happiness, comfort, and overall well-being, often in ways that we come to take for granted over time. It’s only when we lose that person that we’re able to see all the ways in which they were supporting us, both emotionally and logistically.
How older couples are left behind
This adjustment period can be an incredibly lonely time, especially for older adults. When a younger person loses a spouse, it’s no less tragic. But thankfully, we as a society tend to rally around bereaved young adults. Communities come together to support them through the transition to being a solo parent, providing financial, logistical, and emotional support to help them through difficult times.
But when it comes to older adults, death is often seen less as a tragedy and more as just a fact of life. When a seventy-five year-old woman loses her husband to a heart attack, we don’t tend to see the same kind of community support. Instead, we hear people say things like:
“At least they had many years together. She has so many good memories of him.”
“She still has her children to take care of her.”
“She was his caregiver for so long, now she can rest and enjoy her life.”
All of these are platitudes that eclipse the pain of losing a longtime partner. Try to imagine spending 40, 50 maybe even 60 years living your life, day in and day out, with one person. Whether or not you're still as madly in love with them as you were the day you met is, in some ways, irrelevant. You’ve still built your life around them, and your daily interactions are dependent on their role in your life.
Now, imagine that person just no longer being there. It feels as if a part of you has been ripped from your body, and you need to figure out how to become a different person in their absence.
How gender roles complicate grief
Grieving a partner is also complicated by the roles we chose to fulfill in our long-term relationship with them. In Canada, as members of the Silent Generation have gone through this unfortunate and inevitable transition in life, we’ve seen how more traditional gender roles have left many people ill-prepared for the loss of their spouse.
People in their 70–90s tend to be in more traditional roles in their relationships. Women take care of the home: they cook, clean, organize social events, and raise the children. Meanwhile, men work full time, pay the bills, and take care of things like repairs and yard work.
As a result of this divide, older adults often lack important life skills that their spouses always provided for them. Imagine being an 80-year-old man, and the only thing you can “cook” is toast. Imagine being an 80-year-old woman, and you don’t know how to pay the hydro bill.
Now imagine having to figure out how to cook or pay the bills, all the while grieving the loss of your 50-year relationship with your spouse.
How completely overwhelming! Your life partner is dead, you feel as though a part of you has been ripped away, and you have to figure out how to get the damn coffee machine to start!
Can this scenario be avoided? Yes.
If it wasn’t avoided, can we support and educate someone in their elder years to learn how to do something that they haven't done for their whole adult life? Yes.
Setting yourself up for independence
To avoid this, we need to plan ahead. We plan for vacations, we plan for additions to the house, we plan for everything… So why not plan for your spouse to die? While it may sound morbid, thinking this through ahead of time will only free up more of your energy and time to properly grieve them after they’re gone.
The first step of this process is the easiest: just observe. Sit back and watch your spouse for a whole day. What do they do that you have never done, and should learn how to do?
For me, it’s finances. My husband pays all the bills, has all the auto-withdrawals arranged, and deals with submitting all our health claims to insurance. I’ve been learning how he does all of this because I know that even at the age of 36, he could be dead tomorrow and I would have no idea what to do.
What if I can’t do it?
Some older adults might feel a bit intimidated by the prospect of having to sit down (or stand up, whatever the case may be) and learn how to do a bunch of unfamiliar tasks. Some might even feel like they’re not up to the challenge, because their brains “aren’t what they used to be.”
To that I’d say two things. First, it’s okay if it takes some time to learn. Research shows that older adults perform just as well as younger adults at new tasks; they just need a little extra time to get there.
Second, you’re far better off learning these new tasks directly from your partner, at your own pace, than you will be having to navigate them all at once if your partner suddenly passes away.
Another good place to start could also be sitting down and documenting all the things you do for your household, and writing down instructions to your partner about how they can do them after you’re gone.
It’s OK to lean on family
Adult children and other relatives can also have a role in this whole process. After all, if planning ahead does not occur before your spouse passes away, then it’s going to fall to your wider network to step up and help you navigate all of the necessary daily life tasks that you and your spouse used to do. By asking for their support now, you’re helping to protect them from unnecessary stress down the road.
Lean on your adult children. See if they can help you and your spouse document your respective responsibilities for each other, while you’re both still living. If they say that they can help with things like paying your bills, take them up on that support, but also ask them to teach you how to do it so that you feel as though you have some autonomy over your own life.
Starting is the hardest part
The lifelong commitments we make to our partners are a beautiful, sacred thing. But we also need to remember that within those partnerships, we are all our own people — and we need to be able to stand on our own two feet.
All of that being said, it’s not easy to think about life without your partner. The hardest part of the planning process is simply getting started. It’s always easy to put it off until later… until “later” is no longer an option.
At Viive, we’ve helped countless couples in all seasons of life walk through the Aging & End of Life Planning process. We’ll be there every step of the way, helping you navigate the difficult conversations and asking you the questions that often go overlooked.
Book a call today, and learn how we can help you build the perfect plan for you and your partner.