Afterward: Helping a surviving spouse face the dark days of depression

depressed manThere are so many emotions – some of them conflicting – that come with the loss of a spouse or partner to cancer. Although grieving is part of the healing process, when grief turns to depression, a surviving spouse or partner is at increased risk for suicide.

Michelle Riba, M.D., director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s PsychOncology Program, says that family and friends need to pay attention to how their loved one is coping.

“If they feel the grieving process has taken an unhealthy turn, don’t hold back about offering support and a suggestion to seek help,” she says. “A professional therapist can distinguish between normal anxiety and appropriate moods, and those indicating depression or even thoughts of suicide.”

How does someone know if they are suffering from depression? Start with these questions:

  1. Have you lost interest or pleasure in doing things?
  2. Have you been feeling down, depressed or hopeless?

Experiencing one or both of these once in a while is not usually a cause for concern. However, if you answered ‘yes’ to either, and have felt this way on several days during the past two weeks, depression may be a problem for you. Please share your concerns with a professional: depression is as important as any other problem you might discuss with a doctor.

Since grieving is a normal process, there are lots of feelings, thoughts, behaviors and physical problems that are normal for a time. But when has grieving turned to depression? A doctor, social worker or other professional can help a grieving spouse sort out the following:


  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Moodiness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Loss of interest in friends, family and favorite activities, including sex


  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions or remembering
  • Thoughts of harming yourself
  • Delusions and/or hallucinations can also occur in cases of severe depression


  • Withdrawing from people
  • Substance abuse
  • Missing work, school or other commitments
  • Attempts to harm yourself

Physical problems:

  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Changes in sleep – sleeping too little or too much

Support groups exist for the people struggling with depression, as well as their friends, family members and caregivers. Joining a support group can open the door so the surviving spouse or partner can connect with people facing similar situations. More help and support can often be found through Hospice,  local social services or faith-based initiatives.

There are many resources at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and the surrounding communities:

  • U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center Grief and Loss Program: This program offers assistance and information for those experiencing loss related to cancer. The diagnosis of cancer or any other life-threatening illness presents a threat to the balance of the entire family system. The emotions that accompany these experiences are intensified when the person with the serious illness dies. Please call the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center at 1-877-907-0859 for more information related to grief support resources.
  • U-M Depression Center: an extensive resource on depression and its treatment
  • U-M Psychiatric Emergency Services
  • Nationwide, Hospice offers programs for grieving spouses and partners. You can find a Michigan Hospice here.
  • Washtenaw Community Health Organization: Access & Crisis
  • Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor (formerly the Wellness Community of Southeast Michigan)
  • The U-M Depression Center’s Bright Nights™ Community Forum gives community members the chance to get the latest info on topics related to depression. It includes discussion and Q&A between audience and expert panelists and is held at the Ann Arbor District Library (Downtown Branch); past programs are available on video.

What to do in an emergency:

Call 911, or a national suicide hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


michelle ribaThe PsychOncology Program and its clinic provides services to patients at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center including education, support and counseling assistance to address the social, emotional and spiritual needs associated with cancer. Specialists include social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, child and family life therapists, nurses, art therapists and complementary therapy professionals. Although the program does not provide care for the patient’s family members, specialists want to get to know family members during the course of cancer care in order to make referrals as the need arises.

CCC 25 years button150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer thera