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Surviving and Thriving After the Loss of a Spouse

Grieving WomanA reader wrote to me with the following:

“I would like to see an article for women who have lost an alcoholic husband, which was caused by excessive drinking over many years. I am struggling with guilt and “what ifs”. My husband died… and I am so saddened, even though there were times I wished him dead.”

This article is for all women who have lost, or anticipate losing, a husband… With loss comes grief. You grieve after the loss whether the death was through natural causes, an accident or suicide. You grieve whether he was a good mate, an alcoholic or a narcissistic abuser. His death was still a loss.

We all know the usual symptoms following loss: sadness and low spirits, low-energy, weepiness, sleep disturbance, wanting to be alone while at the same time suffering loneliness, an empty feeling, forgetfulness, and yes, feelings of regret and guilt.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, except that trying to avoid grieving only serves to prolong the process. Over the next year or two remembering his life replaces dwelling on his death. Social contact replaces isolation. Good self-care replaces self neglect. Crying spells become less frequent and sleep becomes more peaceful.

Why is grief sometimes more intense and disturbing when the deceased husband was an alcoholic?

In long-term alcoholic marriages the identities of the two people often become enmeshed. This can happen without alcohol, of course, but it is more common when one person is an alcoholic. As the man became addicted to alcohol, his wife became addicted to his care and protection. She covered for him. She rescued him. She may have even lied for him. She kept his secret. In short, the relationship became extremely codependent as she merged her identity with his.

When two people with separate identities are in a loving marriage, and one of them dies, of course there is the pain of loss. But the survivor still maintains her identity as a person. This helps her go through the grieving process in a healthy way and come out the other side intact.

When the woman has merged her identity with her husband who then dies, it is as if part of herself has died. She has to go through, not only all the pain of loss of her husband, but also the pain of loss of part of herself. She will have the struggle of rebuilding her own identity. She will have to figure out who she is.

In the bad times she had wished him dead. Now that he is dead, she feels guilt over actions she took or didn’t take that might have contributed to his death. In spite of her attempts to help him, he had chosen to continue on a path towards an early death. He was in the process of committing suicide… and succeeded.

The life task is the same for anyone who was lost a spouse, although there may be more work when the husband was an alcoholic. The life task is to emerge from the grieving process as an independent person with an intact identity.

For anyone who has lost a loved one, get rid of any regrets early in the grieving process, with or without help. Regret can keep you locked in the past.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

4 comments to Surviving and Thriving After the Loss of a Spouse

  • Chanin Tomlinson

    Hello Dr. Neil! I can’t tell you just how much your website has helped me over the years! You continue to give us so much helpful information on dealing with addiction! For that, I just want to say “Thank you”!

  • grieving wife

    My husband passed away at the age of 42 earlier this year due to complications from chronic alcohol abuse (20+ years). Once he started drinking Vodka, I could no longer allow him in our home with our young daughter so I asked him to move out and get himself together, which he never did. We were separated at the time he passed away. I carried much guilt with me; however, I know I did everything that I could and needed to. I feel guilty because of what I said to him due to being so angry at him. I truly loved him and miss him everyday.

  • Katherine

    Grief is overwhelming even if the husband has not died, but has left. Sometimes it is even more difficult because you loved this person, but his narcissistic alcoholism (even if he became sober)discard is 100 times more painful. The grief is that he is no longer with you, but he didn’t wish to die to leave you, but the discard is a deliberate act saying he “DOESN’T WANT” you and most likely has found another alcoholic or someone in AA or Al anon, which is even worse after years of supporting him thru his alcoholism and then he leaves when he’s sober, even though he was still cheating even in sobriety. Grief is long lasting when the relationship has been with an alcoholic. He’s anesthetized himself all those years of painful interaction. He can’t even remember half of them, but my brain didn’t have a drunken shut off switch. How can you have remorse for something you barely remember? So many times their “amends” are pretty light since they don’t feel they have anything to feel remorseful for, except for what you’ve told them, but hearing something and feeling something is very different. Our sadness for the loss is for the years invested in a marriage that only one of us was in. So the alcoholic has little loss except for the money and sex the enabling wife supported until the next enabling supply comes along. They don’t experience a moment of sadness. Our loss is intense.

  • Anita

    My husband of 27 years passed away at age 58 due to chronic alcoholism. We had been separated a year when he died. I had left and moved out of state to be near my daughter and had hoped he would get help and return to AA. His family turned their backs on him and he ended up homeless and died a very terrible death. I feel so guilty for not staying and trying harder to get help for him. Never did I think it would turn out this way. This was a man who had a very successful career and went from a functioning alcoholic to being on the streets, homeless. It has been three years since he died and I’m still having a very difficult time coping with the way he died. I don’t feel like I fit in the normal grieving widows support groups due to the judgments about alcoholism. It makes coping with this very difficult and my family members are very uncomfortable talking about it. So I hide my grief and guilt and just try to to make everyone feel better.

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