"The impacts were multiple and profound," says John, a widower who recently lost his wife of 21 years to cancer.
"The person dearest to me was gone. There were big holes in my heart and I was bleeding from every part. I remember thinking, `What am I going to do with myself without her. She took care of so many aspects of my life - the home, cooking, children, the mail.'"Suddenly I found myself trying to cook - and I wasn't a good one. If I left something around, it was still there when I got back - it didn't put itself away. So many aspects of my life just evaporated in thin air."
Claire, widowed when her husband died after a brief illness eight years ago, was left with five small children. Like John, she reports the profound shock of losing a companion. "I was amazed at even just the physical pain of my grieving. I hurt all over and it was even hard to get up and walk."
"More severe even than losing someone to take care of me was losing the opportunity to take care of someone I loved," observes Claire.
As Keith described, while absorbing the initial shock of the death of a loved one, a survivor is thrown completely off kilter by the necessity of dealing with unfamiliar details.
"Couples divide up chores, and suddenly you have all of those things to do yourself," says one widow.
"The first decisions were so difficult to make," she says. "You never think of a mortician until you need one. I was faced with things like, `The car needs to be repaired. Where do I take it? Do I move or stay in my home?' "
The circumstances of a death provoke different reactions in each person. Keith, who was with his wife through a 31/2-year battle with cancer, began anticipatory grieving with her long before her death. "We had many opportunities to talk about our relationship and her wishes for the future," he says.
Claire, who knew for several months that her husband was going to die, describes a change in priorities. "During that short period I quit worrying about wanting curtains and a new couch and took the opportunity to learn to love and cherish my husband more."
On the other hand, another widow whose husband suddenly died talks about the guilt and regrets that plagued her because she was not able, like the other two couples, to resolve certain relationship issues.
The grieving process for the survivor is often much more arduous and long than people might imagine. "There is a common myth in our society that grief is something that dissipates quickly and that after two weeks people should be able to get back to work and forget about it," says one expert on death.
But, in fact, he points out, it is becoming clear there is no strict timetable for grieving. Claire, for example, describes her grieving process as lasting almost five years. "It took that long before I started feeling I could be happy again."
Most widows and widowers describe the "half-person syndrome." Women particularly seem to define themselves by their roles and emotional relationships with others.
A woman knows who she is as a mother and a wife, but as a widow she is disconnected from any point of reference, says Genevieve Ginsburg, the author of "Who Am I Without My Mate?" (50 Plus, June 1987). "Thus widowhood begins with a minus of `me' and can only end with a plus when the widow gives up being her husband's wife and shapes a separate identity for herself."
Widowers have a tough go in a different way, says Ginsburg. "Men may appear to bear up better than women, but their phony front is the result of generations of hard practice rather than authentic toughness, and is no shield from true grief. They envy women their tears. And while we presently grant men permission to cry, they don't believe it."
Men are also expected to "recover" sooner than women, says Ginsburg. "After a few months of stocking the freezer and giving instructions on how to work the washing machines, families express concern if Dad hasn't resumed a full semblance of his past life. `You have to get out more, Dad, it's time,' the children say."
How can others help widows and widowers resolve their pain and resume their lives? Here is what some survivors say:
Continue to invite the widow or widower to activities. "I still have two couples in my life who have accepted me as whole - who didn't treat me as a `part person,' " says one widow. "These people have made a world of difference in my recovery."
Allow the survivor to mourn as long as necessary. "What helped the most was having one patient person who practically let me talk him to death," says one widow.
"It's help with the practical matters that has counted so much," says another. "I have a neighbor who just continues to assist. He keeps saying, `If I had died, Carl would have been doing these things for my wife.' "
Talk to the survivor about the person who has died. Because people often feel awkward, survivors often have very little opportunity to release their feelings about the deceased person, whose memory continues to be very prominent.
One grateful widow reports:"I have a friend who often puts his arm around me and says, `I miss Carl, too. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he were still here.' "