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Losing a Spouse: Moving Forward as an Only Parent

After the death of your partner, how do you grieve for yourself, comfort your kids, make ends meet – and imagine a day when you won't feel so alone? Widowed southeast Michigan parents open up.

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"Nothing was out there at the time that was specific to young widows and widowers," she recalls. This is why Clough feels a special connection to the New Hope Center's group for young widows and widowers called Circles of Hope.

"There's no age range on what constitutes a young widow or widower," Clough points out. "We define it by those still raising children at home. Age doesn't matter.

"It's not as common for people to lose their spouse in their 20s, 30s or 40s," she continues. "With older widows and widowers, many of their friends have been through the experience. That's not the case with young people. Friendships change when you're not part of a couple."

Kelly Thorp learned of the bereavement program Good Mourning Ministry via her church – and quickly felt a connection with the other young widows and one widower in the room.

"I don't have a lot in common with a 75-year-old widow who lost her husband who had been the love of her life for 50 years," she says. "I had my husband for only 18 years."

These programs can be crucial lifelines to young widowed parents, especially those living away from family.

"In our transient society, many young widows and widowers live far away from family and friends," Clough explains. "Grieving and trying to learn to be a single parent, helping your kids grieve and paying bills can be a huge struggle."

Burdick refers to these many life changes that can accompany the loss of a spouse and co-parent as "collateral damage."

"I have seen patients who've had to go back to work, take on extra jobs and some who have even lost their home," she says. Finances can be a huge burden: "Many young couples didn't have life insurance because they didn't think they needed it yet."

The stress, coupled with grief, can have significant physical impact.

"Stress is known to compromise the immune system," Burdick says. "In my own experience, I developed a sinus infection every six weeks for three years after my husband died. It was absolutely a manifestation of the grief process. It lands in the body and will express wherever you have a weakness."

And to grieving parents, minor problems can seem major when overwhelmed with their own grief, their kids' grief and myriad life changes happening around them.
During Circles of Hope gatherings, Clough likes to share what she calls her "toilet story."

"My husband could fix anything," she recalls. "Shortly after he died, I had a problem with my toilet. I had a Reader's Digest book about fixing anything. It had diagrams and instructions for what was needed. I went to my Aco Hardware to pick up a part. The guy behind the counter said, 'Now when you get home, have your husband do this … '

"I exploded. I was irrational. I took my feelings out on this poor guy."

Gunnar Ross has seen so many of the seemingly simple, routine aspects of his life change since Kristen's death – when he was faced with the new reality of managing a household and the busy schedules of young children solo.

"I plan meals on Sunday for the rest of the week," he says. "Our schedule must be so tight. If we miss a step, we won't be able to recover until the weekend."

Even small changes can mean big headaches.

"If a doctor's appointment comes up, or something at school, it can be challenging to react," Ross says. "Any hiccup that comes up has amazing repercussions."

Ross does what he can to be home by 5 p.m. "You must forgo so much," he says. "I can't leave one girl to go pick up another. We must all go places together. That limits what we can do."

Accepting help – from wherever it comes

Having been widowed young with kids, and working with scores of others who have, both Burdick and Clough counsel grieving parents that they must seek help.

"You mustn't be afraid to ask," Burdick stresses. "Get as much support as you can from the people around you. Avail yourself of the resources available for your children and for yourself.

"Seek support in any way that you can. Get into therapy."

Community support has been crucial to Shireen Johnson, also of Plymouth, who left home on a Monday evening in May 2011 to take in a movie with a visiting friend and came back to find her husband, Matt, unresponsive. He had died suddenly of an aortic rupture dissection at age 37 while the couple's young daughters, Leanne and Emma, slept upstairs.

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