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Pick up any Sunday paper, and you’ll find that the obituary pages are full of photos and stories of people both old and young…and often, the deceased leave behind one who was closer to them than any other. When a young person loses a spouse, it’s almost always seen as a shock—an unnatural event that ushers in much needed support and attention. But when an older person passes away, the surviving spouse is often expected to make a smooth transition of acceptance, even if the couple was together for half a century or more. As KSMU’s Brandon Goodwin reports, the grieving process for an older surviving spouse can be among the most devastating things a person can face.
[Sound: Plastic bags opening.]
[Velma] Jeanie Harris and her son pull dozens of photos from Ziploc bags and spread them across the kitchen table.
[Sound: Shuffling photos. Jeanie: “This was our 25th anniversary.”]
The images span seven decades: from when Jeanie met her husband, Jimmy, back in 1946, to just over a year ago when he passed away at the age of 84.
She holds one of the first pictures they ever took together. They’re both eighteen years old, all dressed up, sitting in the park together.
“We’d always go to the park, walk around, and maybe picnic. That was just before we were married,” she said.
They met in youth group at The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were married a year later, on Christmas Day, 1947.
For their honeymoon, they hitched a ride to San Francisco on a cargo plane. Jimmy worked for Pan American at the time.
Brandon: “Were you sitting among boxes? Did you have a seatbelt?”Jeanie: “I don’t even remember that; we were just way up in the air.”
Jimmy was a minister and a handyman, always fixing something. They went camping together, took road trips, and lived in half a dozen states. They grew old together; had five kids, fourteen grandkids, and eighteen great-grandkids.
In November of 2009, when they were living in Colorado, Jimmy was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
“And then he got so bad that we had to put him in Maranatha [Retirement Community]. He was only there a month, and then he passed away,” she said.
Jeanie was alone for the first time in sixty-two years. She thinks back to those first nights alone in her retirement-home apartment.
“At first it was really hard. Loneliness, and depressed. I tried not to let my kids know about it. I think I was strong,” she said.
Jeanie’s son, Jim sits next to her. He’s a licensed counselor, and while he doesn’t practice on family members, he weighs in on the grieving process typical of an older surviving spouse.
“You’ve been with someone for sixty-two years; you’re used to waking up and feeling the bed compress. You’re used to hearing them in the other end of the house, walking around. You’re used to asking them a question, and that represents a shock,” he said.
Jeanie was also left with the logistics of grief. Arrangements needed to be made. The house and vehicles needed to be sold, along with most of what Jimmy had collected over the years.
“In some cases, the wife is not even on the title of the car. So if Dad is taken suddenly, she might not even have a car that’s available to her,” he said.
This wasn’t the case with Jeanie. She was always the one to take care of the finances.
“I have a friend [whose] husband did all that. So when he died, she couldn’t even buy groceries,” she said.
Jimmy was in a nursing home for only a month before he died. But for others, that process can sometimes go on for months or years, chipping away at a lifetime of savings.
“Very often they lose homes and automobiles and bank accounts and investments,” he said.
For Jeanie, the hardest times were in the smallest moments.
“I’ll lie in bed and think, ‘Dad, what can I do about this, or what should I do about this? I need your advice.’ We were together daily, day and night, and I miss that,” she said.
[Sound: Plastic bags being reopened.]
Jeanie gives each photo one more look before sliding them back into the plastic bags.
Brandon: “What did you learn from him over all those years?”Jeanie: “My faith. He had a lot of faith in God. And love. He had a lot of love to give. So I would say, enjoy your mate while you have him,” she said.
For KSMU News, I’m Brandon Goodwin.