Losing a long-term spouse and the shattering of a shared identity

For Jimmy Carter and others, the loss of a life partner is a uniquely painful, disorienting experience, experts say.
Vince and Barbara Dooley at their home in 2012. (Christopher Oquendo/Special)

Vince and Barbara Dooley at their home in 2012. (Christopher Oquendo/Special)

It’s been a year since Barbara Dooley lost her husband, famed University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley.

She’s still learning to navigate life without him, having been married for 62 years. The couple traveled together, raised four children and loved to garden in their Athens home’s spacious yard. She attended every home game and most that were played out of town.

“You have to figure out how you’re going to do this,” said Dooley, 84, of the pain and loneliness that came with losing her life partner. “[You] either sit at home and cry and be miserable, talk to people and make them miserable, or decide to deal with it.”

Among the people newly facing grief on that scale is President Jimmy Carter, who lost his beloved wife of 77 years, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, on Nov. 19. She was 96. The pair of Georgians were the longest wedded couple in presidential history, according to NPR.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter pose on their wedding day, July 7, 1946. The couple, who had both attended Plains High School, met through a mutual friend when Jimmy Carter was serving in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

Loss is a universally painful experience. But medical data and first-hand accounts suggests that grief is more acute – and even deleterious to the surviving partner’s health – when someone loses a long-term spouse. That raises questions about how President Carter, already in frail health at 99 and a home hospice patient, will be able to countenance Rosalynn’s passing. It is unclear whether the former president will be able to participate in planned events to celebrate Rosalynn’s life, which are starting today.

2015: Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

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According to Dr. Dione Mahaffey, an Atlanta-based psychologist, depression and anxiety are already common in the elderly. The emotional state of someone who has become newly widowed is one of “acute grief … disbelief, and even denial.”

“You think about how long the Carters were married, they had a shared identity and a deep understanding that develops” over a long stretch of time, she said. “Losing someone that you have formed an identity with over decades can be a very disorienting, painful process.”

Long-term spouses who met and married young, as did the Carters, “have never known adulthood without being in each other’s lives.”

Holidays can be especially difficult, Mahaffey explained, because of the memory of decades and decades of shared celebrations. Family and friends need to be prepared to provide as much support as possible. It seems President Carter will be able to count on that.

“I think that right now people are just trying to be there for him and support him,” said Jason Carter, the president’s grandson, in an interview last week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Politically Georgia podcast.

“I think the biggest worry that I have now, that all of us have now, is just how my grandfather is doing. He’s now spent two nights without her. I don’t know if he thought he was ever going to do that.”

Vince Dooley and Barbara Meshad married in 1960

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“It was such a lonesome, lonesome time.”

According to Dooley, the most difficult moments after her husband’s death came in the time between 5 p.m. and bedtime.

“It was such a lonesome, lonesome time,” she said.

Vince Dooley was 90 when he died.

After so many years together, Barbara Dooley said she didn’t realize then how important his presence was. If she needed to ask him something, she could count on his “What?” All the little things. The exchanged glances, the hand touches.

A Roman Catholic, Dooley started attending 5:30 p.m. mass every afternoon. To delay returning to an empty home, she visited Walmart or Costco or some other big box store and walked the aisles for two hours. Then she would get home around 8 p.m. in time for bed.

On her first trip after he died, she returned home and the emptiness hit her like a ton of bricks.

“I remember falling on the couch and crying,” she said. “I knew I had to reinvent myself.”

Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge is a clinical psychologist and leader of two Atlanta-area grief support groups. She explained that a reinvention of the kind described by Dooley is the successful outcome of a long grieving process. With effort and support, most widowed people can process the loss of a spouse and come out the other side. But she is unsure whether President Carter will be able to climb that mountain given his age, and the length of time he spent at Rosalynn’s side.

“The longer you have together, the more, you can’t imagine life without that person. And it is very scary for people to even think about how do I do life and most often, the reaction is something like, ‘Well, my, my life has really ended too, I might as well die too,’” she said. “I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for [President Carter]. I think maybe he’s just going to, coming from a religious perspective, be eager to join Rosalynn.”

In Zonnebelt-Smeenge’s practice, her focus is on helping people who have lost loved ones go from grief to gratitude.

“We like to say that, really, people are on loan to us. We don’t own them, even though we talk about my mom, my dad, my spouse. You know, they’re really gifts.”

“It’s just hard to get over the reality that she is gone.”

Atlanta public relations executive Bob Hope always thought his wife, Susan, would outlive him. She exercised every day, didn’t smoke or drink and had an aunt who lived to be 100.

Then in 2015, Susan was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and died 26 months later at age 70. The Hopes had been married for 46 years.

Bob and Susan Hope during the Covenant House executive sleep-out to call attention to homeless youth. After Susan's death from cancer, Bob said it was surreal but today treasures their life together. CONTRIBUTED by BOB HOPE

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For Bob, the loss was and still is “surreal.” Susan shows up in his dreams and he sometimes gets an urge to call her and tell her about an experience he’s had that he knows she would be excited about.

“It’s just hard to get over the reality that she is gone,” said Hope, who lives in Decatur.

Before she died, Hope received a call from friend and former Atlanta Mayor Andy Young, who had lost his first wife, Jean Childs Young, years earlier.

“He wanted to let me know that she would always be with me, even though she was leaving in body,” said Hope. “He said you will think about something every day that you thought you had forgotten. You have 46 years of memories and those won’t go away.”

Hope knew former President Carter and had met Rosalynn. He had traveled with Carter to Nepal during an election.

”I think he’s probably going through the same thing and the surrealness of it,” Hope said. “In the beginning there are so many people reaching out to you, You’re surrounded. Then in two to three weeks suddenly you’re by yourself.”

He started going to every event he could. Banquets, book signings. Anything not to be at home alone.

His wife had been ill, but like others in that situation, you don’t want that to be the lasting memory. And it may be the same with Carter.

“Suddenly that drifts away and you remember when she was vibrant and younger and the great experiences you had,” he said. “The image in your mind is a healthy image instead of someone who’s sick. He’ll have a lot of memories from over the years.”

Valerie D. Swinton Kirby lost her husband, John, of 24 years on Jan. 7, 2013 of a heart attack.

The two who had known each other since high school were like “two peas in a pod. He was my best friend.”

John Swinton had been on dialysis for 21 years and she donated a kidney to him in 2004.

They had a son, Collin, who was 18 when his father died. Valerie Kirby, now 65, turned more of her attention to helping Collin, who was very close to his father. She also turned more to her faith.

“If you love someone you will grieve, that’s a given,” said Kirby. Much depends on the relationship you had with that person. If you did many things together, suddenly there’s a void. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Kirby said she felt like a zombie or that she was in a movie. The first time she went to a restaurant to eat alone she sat there and cried. She would smell his hairbrush or go into the closet and smell his scent. She had the diamond in her wedding ring made into a pendant on a necklace and to this day, she sometimes wears his workout gloves when she goes to the gym.

Authors Valerie Swinton Kirby and Fred J. Kirby Jr. both found love after the loss of their long-time spouses. The two have written a book to help others who have experience grief and to move forward. Here are the two on their honeymoon in Paris. Photo contributed by Valerie Swinton Kirby and Fred J. Kirby Jr.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

It wasn’t until her son left to go to college that she started changing the physical aspects of their life together. She started with the bedroom, changing pictures and the bedspread.

“That showed to me that I was moving forward,” said Kirby, who later wrote a book about grief, “Good Grief: A Journey From Lost to Love,” with Fred J. Kirby Jr., whom she later married. Kirby had also lost his wife of many years and the two felt they could help others who were experiencing loss and moving forward.

To Zonnebelt-Smeenge, moving forward doesn’t mean loved ones are being forgotten.

“‘It’s, ‘Okay, I’m going to be able to move this loved one to the past, and now I’m going to have another phase of my life,’” she said. “Not that it’s going to be better. But you’re going to be better.”

Coping with the loss of a spouse or partner

In Zonnebelt-Smeenge’s practice, the psychologist doesn’t reference stages of grief anymore. “We talk about goals of grief,” she said. “And they are to accept the reality that this person has died and is in another realm now.”

Zonnebelt-Smeenge recommends journaling about your feelings, your life together, what that person meant to you, what you learned from that person, how you are different because of that person.

She adds that people “have to work on doing a lot of things that are really tough.”

That includes looking at memorabilia, looking at clothing, going to places you used to go to with your loved one, and otherwise doing things “to help accept the reality that this person actually died.”

“We know it in our brain cognitively, but we don’t want to believe it,” she says. But “your life really can’t begin to start moving forward if you’re hanging onto what was.”

If they’re able, folks should avail themselves of the support of a group or even a grief counselor. “That can really help your journey.”