‘My greatest fear is that he’ll be forgotten’: Losing a spouse at a young age

Click to play video: 'Ask an Expert: Grieving lost loved ones'
Ask an Expert: Grieving lost loved ones
WATCH: It's the most joyful time of the year, but the holidays can be heartbreaking for people suffering from the loss of a loved one. – Dec 11, 2016

Kelly McConnell lost her husband just 10 days after she gave birth to their son.

Her husband Luke was almost 30, healthy and had no previous health conditions or known issues.  He collapsed while playing baseball, and doctors told McConnell it was likely a cardiac condition.

More than six years later, McConnell, 36, says there’s not enough understanding of what young widows go through. 

“Feelings of anxiety and guilt continue to be commonplace even now… fear of further loss of loved ones, of my own death… the effects are profound,” she said. 

The expectation that losing a spouse is something to “get over,”can be hurtful, she said.

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“You’re gently cradling this hole in your heart with compassion and acceptance as you more forward,” said McConnell, from London, Ont. “But you’re not moving past it, you’re just moving forward with it.”

There are more than 30,000 widowed Canadians between the ages of 20 and 44, according to 2019 data from Statistics Canada. But those who fall into that age group often face unique challenges.

“Widows aren’t just grey haired ladies in black clothes,” she said. 

“That does not make the situation easier, to point out that this is something that should never have happened at this age.”

Unique challenges young widows face

When McConnell tried to access counselling after her husband’s death, an intake worker didn’t give her ‘widow’ as an option for marital status it was assumed it could never apply to someone her age.

Talking openly about death and grief is also difficult, she said. Although she had a strong support network, some friendships have faded since her husband’s death.

“Certain friendships and things are painful for people… and they want to support you, but they don’t have the skills,” she said.

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Not everyone knows how to support someone who has experienced a loss, said Dr. Lori Triano-Antidormi, a psychologist based in Hamilton, Ont. 

“They don’t understand the depth of the pain, and [widows] feel that people don’t understand the widespread impact,” she said, like raising children alone. 

If you know a widow, stay away from speaking in cliches, like telling them they could get married again, or that “everything happens for a reason,” Triano-Antidormi said. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person’s spouse as well.

Click to play video: 'When is the right time to re-marry after losing your spouse?'
When is the right time to re-marry after losing your spouse?
“You need to talk [about] the person who died. They lived, as well as died, right?”

Raising children alone

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McConnell has had to confront raising her son as a single parent, and the need to keep her husband’s memory alive so her son could feel connected to his father.

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“One of my greatest fears is that he’ll be forgotten,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think that so many of the memories we had together, the knowledge of who he was… and the responsibility of having to pass that on to my son.”

She writes memories down and puts them in a “daddy box”.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to talk about death and grief around children. McConnell says children her son’s age are often curious why he doesn’t have two parents. 

She tries to be as open as she can.

Click to play video: 'Hospice Calgary to open new grief services centre for kids'
Hospice Calgary to open new grief services centre for kids

In terms of taking care of herself, McConnell says that every situation is unique, but she focuses on doing things she loves, like travelling and journaling as an outlet for her grief. She and her son visit a memorial bench for her husband as a way to feel closer to him. 

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“We’ve never been taught how to talk about grief and loss or how to care for ourselves and others,” she said. “It’s an inevitable part and it needs to be more commonplace.”

Grief impacts the body both physically and mentally, said Triano-Antidormi.

“It’s physically exhausting,” she explained, adding that she knows the process personally. Triano-Anitdormi became a psychologist after her two-year-old son was stabbed to death in 1997 by a neighbour with a mental disorder.

“Grieving impacts all areas of our functioning,” she said. “It impacts our cognitive functioning, so we can’t concentrate, can’t problem solve, can’t stay focused.

She tries to give her patients hope that they can get through it, she said. 

Don’t be afraid to take offers of practical support from friends and family, she added. 

“If someone says, ‘can we bring you meals’, or ‘can I do your Christmas shopping?’… take that support,” she said. “Your spouse maybe took out the garbage, loaded the dishwasher, and now you have to do it all.”

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Withdrawing or isolated yourself from others can lead to a grief-related depression.

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Coping with grief during the holidays'
Health Matters: Coping with grief during the holidays

Having a support network that takes action, and decides to just be with you, no matter how hard it might be, makes a difference, said Stephen Fleming, a psychologist and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto.

But even when those friends spend time with you and listen to you, do not force yourself to go back to who you were before your spouse died.

“Be gentle with yourself,” he said. “Oftentimes when someone we love dies, we try to function in the same efficient manner that we did before. That’s impossible.”

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The stressors around bereavement, psychological, physical or emotional, have a profound impact. There won’t be a return to your “old self,” he explained.

“If it’s a significant loss, you will not be yourself again,” he said. “You will be somebody different, the set of expectations that you have going into significant loss need to be realistic as opposed to idealistic.”

Learning how to grow

In the six-and-a-half years since Christina Frangou lost her husband Spencer McLean, she has become “unrecognizable” to herself, she said in an e-mail.

Frangou is a Calgary-based journalist who wrote a personal essay in The Globe and Mail about McLean receiving a cancer diagnosis and dying shortly after. She was 36 at the time.

The two were in the process of moving to California, and were planning to adopt a child.

“Instead, I unpacked our things and stayed here,” she said.

“I miss him anew when something really bad happens or when something really wonderful happens.”

Young widows feel isolated, lost and often do not receive enough support, she said. In her personal essay, Frangou pointed to a 2012 study that found widowhood is associated with a 22 per cent higher risk of death, with the effects more pronounced for younger widows.

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But more resources exist than they did six years ago, she said. She joined the Hot Young Widows Club, a support group for young widows going through similar situations.

And even when time passes, she says many don’t know what to do with their sadness. She wants to remind other young widows that good people will come into your life, that you can be vulnerable with.

“It’s the worst that your person died. I wish they didn’t, I wish mine didn’t. The pain is unavoidable,” she said. “In time, you can accept that it’s there to stay and you’ll start figuring out a way forward.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

The Kids Help Phone also has two student-specific helplines in Ontario and Nova Scotia: Good2Talk Ontario (1-866-925-5454) and Good2Talk Nova Scotia (1-833-292-3698).

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