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Dealing With the Death of a Spouse

January 21, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Lisa Bonsteel of Anaheim couldn't eat or sleep. "It was like my whole inside was gone. I was raised in World War II in Germany, and I never experienced anything as bad as this."

For Paul Borcherding of Newport Beach, "it was like my life was out there in pieces, shattered."

Charlie Ferguson of Anaheim lost weight and suffered depression. "I went to the doctor, and he said he's never seen me look worse. Now I have more up moments than down moments. But I still break down."

What Bonsteel, Borcherding and Ferguson are describing is the intense emotional pain they experienced while trying to overcome what surveys show to be at the top of the list of life's most stressful events: the death of a spouse.

In the United States, it's usually the husband who dies first. Indeed, according to the Census Bureau, there are 11.4 million widows in the United States--five times the number of widowers.

Regardless of which partner survives, the emotional pain--the shock followed by varying degrees of denial, anger, guilt and depression--is the same.

How severe the grief is--and whether it takes months or years to run its course--varies from person to person, but it is unavoidable. As Edwin Shneidman, founder of the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, once explained it, "Grief is the ransom you pay for love."

"The first and most important thing is adjusting to the fact that your whole life system has changed: You've been a team and the team isn't there," said Marjorie Anderson, a Costa Mesa licensed marriage, family and child counselor.

Anderson leads Another Passage, a grief support group for surviving spouses at Oasis Senior Citizens Center in Corona del Mar and one of several dozen such groups in Orange County.

One of the best ways to help overcome the death of a spouse is to join a support group, "a safe place" where widowed people can feel comfortable sharing their feelings with others undergoing a similar experience, Anderson said.

Tony Bell, a Cal State Fullerton professor who has been teaching a course on the sociology of death and dying since 1972, agrees. He said the emotions many surviving spouses go through are so intense and overwhelming that they feel as though they are losing their minds.

"We tend to be very private with our emotions in our society," he said. "I think that gives rise to a lot of closet grievers. That means they have to carry the burden all by themselves."

In Anaheim, help for surviving spouses is coming from an unexpected source: a mortuary.

For the past 1 1/2 years, the family-owned Hilgenfeld Mortuary has sponsored Renaissance, a grief support group that meets twice a month at Anaheim United Methodist Church.

The idea for the group grew out of mortuary president Margie Hilgenfeld Field's own difficulty coping with the sudden death of her father, Melvin Hilgenfeld, 4 1/2 years ago.

"I knew I was going through physical pain, but I didn't know how to adjust or deal with it," said Field, who runs the group. Field received emotional support from a church friend whose mother had died about the same time as her father and, after attending grief counseling seminars, "I felt this is where we could be of help to the bereaved," she said.

More women than men seek help from grief support groups in which discussions cover everything from financial problems to how to deal with relatives who give unwanted advice.

"Women are more likely to acknowledge the need," said Anderson. "In general, our society asks men to be strong. We're unkind to men in our society in my view because we ask too much of them at times like that. Men often don't have intimates with whom they can share (their feelings) and aren't accustomed to doing it."

Anderson said that when she was growing up more than 60 years ago the custom in the United States was for a widowed person to wear a black armband "so people knew you were bereaved and treated you gently."

"That wasn't a bad idea because (the bereaved) are unduly sensitive, and it's perfectly normal that they are," she said. "They all need to progress at their own pace. For the majority of people it's a time of getting to know themselves in a different way: recognizing that you need to build your life anew."

Lisa Bonsteel, Paul Borcherding and Charlie Ferguson are among those who have begun to build new lives.

Lisa Bonsteel's husband, Bob, had been home in bed for a week recuperating from a successful leg artery operation when she left him to go to the bank. When she returned 15 minutes later, he was dead of a heart attack.

"He always told me, 'I hope you never see me when I die,' " said Bonsteel. "He didn't realize how hard it is when you're not home because then you feel guilty."

The German-born Bonsteel had met her American Army corporal husband in Germany after the war. They had been married 38 years when he died in 1986 at age 61.

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