Marital vows have couples promising to love each other in sickness and health, as long as you both shall live through the good and the bad times. When a couple makes those vows, it is unfathomable to think that there could be a time when one of them might no longer be alive.
It is not unreasonable to worry about a spouse dying as we get older. It can be especially difficult for couples who have been together for decades to imagine the prospect of ever having to live alone. And it makes sense for a woman whose life partner is a male life partner to fear he will die before her. On average, in the United States, men die five years earlier than women.
But living in constant fear of losing a spouse can take away from the time you have together now. So what can you do to ease fears about a partner dying first?
Jane Duncan Rogers wrote in a 2017 blog post that her greatest fear as the years went by was the thought of her spouse dying before her. Then it happened. Rogers recalls, “When it actually came to pass, I coped. I managed. I unearthed strengths in myself I had not anticipated before.”
Her advice to others is to acknowledge that their spouse may die first. Rogers says, “When you acknowledge that your partner might die before you, that lessens the pressure. If you try to push fear away, it simply hangs around, waiting until you do recognize it is there.”
Relationship coach Jordan Gray explains, “When we resist our fears (or any emotion for that matter), they gain momentum.”
He suggests playing out the scenario in your head. It would be terrible, sad, and lonely to lose a spouse. But with time, most people heal and find a way to move forward with their lives. Gray writes, “Yes, pain is awful. Grief is difficult. But it is also beautiful. And you are as capable as anyone else at channeling your emotions into something that helps the world.”
The pandemic has caused many people to put preventative health check-ups on hold. If you are one of them, it’s time to go back to your physician. Schedule all the suggested screenings (mammograms, colonoscopies, prostate exams) and blood work. A clean bill of health for both you and your partner may help you feel more at ease about the future. If you or your spouse have health issues, be diligent about your treatment regimen, i.e., take medications on time, go for follow-up appointments with all of your providers, etc.
Fear of the future can steal from present happiness. Rather than worrying about what may happen, don’t you want to fully embrace what is going on? There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including getting enough sleep, eating well, spending time in nature, breathing exercises, and mediation. When you spend time with your spouse, focus on them and enjoy their company.
“Death reminds us to be present to life,” writes Gray. “The ever-looming threat of death wakes us up to what is real, now.” Try channeling your fear of losing your spouse into finding ways to grow and improve your relationship. Gray explains, “Tell them what you love about them and tell them often. Be gracious, kind, and quick to forgive. If they pay you a compliment, say thank you and let it in. Listen to them speak with all of your fullness of attention. Go on dates with them. When you hug them, hug them with your whole heart.”
The adage, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” can sound trite, especially to a grieving spouse. Having a great love in your life can make you feel a range of emotions, including gratitude, happiness, and fear. Sometimes, without even realizing it, a person may hold back a little from someone they love in hopes that it will protect them from inevitable future pain. Duncan Rodgers says, “Sadly, though, I also discovered that I had been withholding love from Philip (her husband) without realizing it. At that point, I promised that if I were fortunate enough to have another relationship one day, then I would make a point of keeping my heart fully open all the time.”
While death is a part of life, if you find yourself ruminating about dying or your spouse dying in a way that interferes with your daily life, it is essential to have a mental health assessment. You may be dealing with an underlying mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, or prolonged grief. Speaking with a mental health professional may help.