Death of Spouse: When Staying In The House Starts Becoming Tormenting

by | Nov 9, 2019

Death may end a life, but not a relationship. But death of spouse can be extremely impactful. In unexpected ways, poignant memories and memories of those memories uncontrollably floods our mind intensely. You probably did not foresee it coming because nobody shared how it really feels like for grievers.

Until you lost your spouse and unconsciously find your way into this situation.

Death of spouse can have great impact not easily understood by people around you. Largely because our memories are not just experiences we had with our loved ones. More often than not, material possession also brandish emotional memories associated with the deceased. A ring is not just boring metals shaped into fanciful designs, but has strong symbolic association with love union. A simple representation to express love and fidelity.

A ring is small and can be kept away easily. Like in a safe box of memories tuck aside somewhere private. Perhaps to revisit once in a while during major spring cleaning session.

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However, losing a loved one who has been staying with you for years can be a difficult affair. It is no simple ring whose physical placement could be manipulated. Often, the house reeks of the person you have lost spiritually.

His/her essence in the empty room.

The cupboard and storage spaces which you had to remove his/her personal belonging painstakingly. Even if new things are being replaced, the same space feels the same old energy of those discarded items.

The chilling spaces. Areas s/he used to chill out in the house.

The symbolic items that represented a part of him/her. A gift perhaps? Or some innocently looking random purchase with a backstory only few knows. The insider jokes. The tale shared between us.

I remembered an aged client who has never recovered from her grief of losing her son to sudden death. His room was kept in the exact same state as it was since the day he left. It was more than a decade of painful loss. Generous pile of dust settled on every visible items in the room made the room almost grey homogenously. The distinct musky smell in the room was that of an ancient chamber not visited by any living beings for years.

And the space was all neatly compacted within a small 3-RM HDB flat.

A straying glance towards doorway is a daily phenomenon. It was too close. Too painful.

Then spousal death happened. Wham.

And she became all alone and depressed.

Death of Spouse: When the House Starts Becoming Tormenting

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Based on Singapore’s population trend, family size continues to shrink from 3.30 persons in 2017 to 3.24 persons in 2018. In terms of household living arrangement, couple-based households without children rose from 14.7% to 17.3%. Hence, spousal death leading to living alone arrangement will become an increasing common phenomenon in the future.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that grievers might experience involuntary reminder of their loss simply by staying in a house where they used to interact with the deceased. Some surviving spouse finds it troubling to manage such haunting recollection subtly. Over time, it may become tormenting.

Very often, it overlaps with fear of loneliness. Being alone at home at night when you used to have someone beside you isn’t the easiest of feeling to deal with. The room will inevitably feel empty and involuntary recollection slips in again.

At this point of time, a question will arise.

So, what my options?

Purchase a New HDB Flat (BTO/Resale)

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Selling the old house and purchasing a new one is a logical conclusion to deal with this pain. For those who are widowed (21 years old and above), you can apply under the HDB Singles Singapore Scheme to buy a new BTO. However, income ceiling will apply ($7,000 as of 11 Sep 2019) and you are only entitled to 2-room flexi flat in a non-mature estate.

A completely new flat is cool, just that the wait time will probably be long. You might shave some wait time if you do a Sales-of-Balance (SOB), but that rely more on luck and chance.

Obviously getting a resales flat is a much faster option. The good news is that there isn’t an income ceiling. The only clause is that if you own an HDB flat or any private properties (in Singapore or overseas), you must dispose of it within 6 months of the resale flat purchase. However, the entry price for a resale flat would certainly be higher and with a shorter lease. And based on the new rule (May 2019), as long as the flat can cover you until at least age of 95 years old, you should be fine.

No problem if you are looking for private property – just find what you like and pay for what you can afford.

Though logical, there are inherent emotional barriers in selling our house and buying a new one.

Many people develop emotional attachment to their home as our house holds not just our physical presence but memories associated with them. Having dual experience (pain and pleasure) of our home often lead to ambivalent decision making because the cost-benefit may not always be so clean cut.

I don’t want to sell, but staying hurts me.

Finding a new place also takes fair amount of energy to execute. You have to do your research, meet the real estate agent (sometimes multiple people), negotiate the price, consider the logistics, etc. The sheer amount of work to ensure that you do not get short end of the stick might be too much for some grievers.

I guess timing is the key here. Always consider your own timeline and what you are willing to do at this point of time. I have known at least one case where a griever is desperately trying to get rid of his flat, so the flat was sold with a hefty discount.

It is wise? I don’t know. Because money is not everything and mental health is also an important consideration.

Moving In With Someone Else

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This is a common option for those who needed an interim space to find support. After death of spouse, staying with children is possibly the most common option if they have their own place. For others, it can also mean relatives or close friends.

The obvious advantage to this is that close proximity provides more concrete support to deal with loneliness (though that is not always the case, but we can assume that to be).

The con to this option is relational risk.

Firstly, in order for you to execute this option, you must have someone who is willing to take you in. Every person’s circumstance is different and they may not have that sort of support network. Even if someone is willing to take you in unconditionally, relationship with them (or their spouse) may take a hit because relational dynamics caused by living together can be more apparent. Personality types, different living habits and power issues are common risk factors.

The second consideration is the timeline. How long will this arrangement last?

With an end goal, it helps to manage expectation of the stay, which limits the potential damage mentioned above.

But if there isn’t an end goal, then a mixed method might be more helpful if preserving relationship is a huge consideration.

Mixed Method

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A mixed method is when the surviving spouse goes over somewhere in the day and comes back at night or vice versa. Depending on which is worst (day or night), having company and support during those difficult period might be helpful and limits burden on either system. Sometimes, people temporary shift in with someone else shortly after post-death situation and revert to a mixed method when the pain becomes a little easier to deal with.

The con of a mixed method is that it can go on endlessly without necessary finding a means to cope effectively. The goal is how to live with this new norm and to create new form of network and goals in life.

The Huge Caveat on Death of Spouse

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Even if one cannot find some effective means to cope with the death of their spouse, a change of environment might be beneficial since we are removing ourselves from a hidden source of stress. But the huge caveat is that healing is a long term endeavour.

Learning to make sense of our loss is vital to establish new norm of living if we desire some quality of life thereafter. It would be long term misery if we are unable to make sense of our spouse’s death. New meaning must emerge from senseless experience of death.

At some point in our life, we will still need to deal with the ‘death of spouse’ elephant in the room.

Featured Photo by Andrea Ang on Unsplash