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Published on May 15, 2017

Moving on after a loved one’s deathMoving on after a loved one’s death

Any time a person loses a loved one, the grief may seem overwhelming. But in the case of people who lose a spouse after many years together, it can feel like losing an important part of themselves and their identity.

Yarmouth resident John Carlson vividly remembers losing his wife Sandy eight years ago.

“I had a terrible time,” he said. “For over 50 years I was the insignificant other. When I lost her, I became significant with no other and I had no idea what the hell to do.”

After floundering around for a while, he joined a bereavement group offered by the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. The group was run by Rick Bickford, LICSW, at the Yarmouth Senior Center. While in the group, Carlson met another widower who dabbled in poetry so he decided to give it a try himself.

“Then they opened the Cultural Center and they started an open mic night,” Carlson said. “So I wrote a poem and I went to the first open mic that they had. I read the poem that I wrote, which was a tribute to my wife. I got a standing ovation. It just took me off my feet. Since then I got to know quite a few of the people there and I’ve become quite involved with it.”

The open mic nights gave Carlson a new community and the poetry has been very therapeutic for him. He continues to write one poem a month and participate in open mic nights. He has also published four volumes of his poems.

“I don’t care about the readers,” he said. “It got me involved with other people and it was great therapy for me. I’ve had a lot of good fun and I met a lot of good people. It keeps me busy in my old age.”

Different Challenges for Different Ages

Bereavement groups don’t help everyone, but they can be a support for many, according to Bickford. Rather than giving the group a topic that he selects, he lets the people who show up decide what they want to talk about each week.

“What people need to do and want to do is talk about what they are going through,” he said. “When you are with the group, you are with other people who are going through the same experience. There’s no substitute for that.”

Losing a spouse is hard at any age, but it can provide different challenges for seniors who have had long-term marriages, Bickford said. Their children are grown and often far away. They are usually retired so it’s a lot harder to meet new people. A lot of them feel that the emptiness they face without their spouse will never go away.

“There is a sense that the entire landscape of their life is gone,” he said. “It’s completely lost – all the road signs, all the cues, all the things that go into their normal daily routine aren’t there anymore. So it’s a sense of being completely alone and also missing this person horribly.”

Finding Love Again

When Falmouth resident Ari Maravel lost his wife Gailanne two years ago after 49 very happy years of marriage, he was grateful that he had a job he loves as the gardener at Willowbend Country Club. It gave him a place to go every day and a community that helped with the loneliness.

“You go to work and see there are people around who care about you,” Maravel said. “The people at Willowbend were terrific. David Southworth who owns Willowbend and one of the members there set up a memorial fund for Gailanne. That kind of kindness is so endearing and it’s so surprising sometimes.”

Gailanne had a stroke two years before she died. The stroke took away her ability to speak and her health wasn’t good. Maravel said it was still a shock to come home to find she had died in her sleep.

Bickford said this isn’t unusual.

“It doesn’t really matter how long somebody has been sick,” he said. “Whether it’s a sudden loss or whether it takes four or five years and you know they’re going to die, the moment of death is like a light switch and there is really nothing that prepares you for it. After so many years of working together to make a successful relationship, in an instant it’s gone. It’s pretty rough.”

There are no medical solutions for grief, Bickford said. But just having somebody there to acknowledge what you are going through does help. For that reason, the VNA Hospice continues to check in with those who’ve lost loved ones for a full year after their loss.

Many people aren’t ready for a sit-down session with a counselor or a bereavement group for months. Their grief is just too raw. But those who do join the groups often stay in them for two to three years.

Maravel believes in hope after loss. The trick is to keep going. For him, interacting with others helped him avoid sinking into a depression and he has met new people that he wouldn’t have met if he hadn’t stayed socially active.

“Three months ago I met another woman, completely by surprise,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for anybody. She’s the second love of my life and I’m so lucky. You’re lucky to find someone like that once, but lucky twice? I’m not going to forget about who I lost because I can’t forget. But that doesn’t mean you dwell on it.”