Although some say men grieve harder over losing a spouse than women do, such a statement is impossible to prove (or disprove, for that matter). Each person’s experience of grief is unique, after all, and there is no yardstick by which we can measure. In general terms, though, and for a number of reasons, widowers and widows may experience grief very differently.
For both men and women, the loss of a spouse is a staggering blow. The bond between mates runs stronger and deeper than in any other human relationship, and when that bond is broken, it can feel like part of you has been ripped away. Loneliness, isolation, fear, sadness, anger – the pain of grief is universal. But the circumstances of life, death, and mourning can make the experience of grief much different for a man who has lost his wife.
If you are a recent widower, it may seem like your world is spinning around you, ready to come crashing down. This is new territory, something you never bargained for. When you stood at the altar and promised to love, honor, and cherish your bride “’til death do us part,” you were thinking about your life together.
You certainly weren’t thinking about death, and if one of you were going to die, well…surely it would be you. After all, everyone knows that women outlive men – right? But here you are, with a broken heart and an uncertain future.
The Male Role
From the time they are little boys, men are socialized to “be strong,” “take it like a man,” and act as providers for and protectors of their families. This may or may not be a good thing, but one thing is certain: a husband has a heavy burden of responsibility to bear. At the same time, men are discouraged from shedding tears or other open expression of emotion. (What man hasn’t heard “Boys don’t cry!” at least once in his life?)
Then there are the practical matters. In most homes there is a division of responsibilities, which may be based on traditional gender roles or individual circumstances. Regardless of the rationale used to assign responsibilities, however, chances are one mate knows how to fix a leaky faucet or bake a soufflé, and one mate does not. Likewise for balancing the checkbook, maintaining the car, and baking cookies for the kids’ birthdays at school. No matter who was responsible for which tasks before your wife died, now it is up to you to accomplish them all.
In addition to feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities and your heartache over losing the love of your life, you may find yourself struggling with irrational feelings of guilt that you were unable to be your wife’s protector. (“If only I’d done things differently….”)
What’s more, if you internalized those messages from your childhood, you may have no way to express the powerful emotions you’re feeling. And while you are trying to “take it like a man,” your grief may be eating you alive.
Finding Your Way
As bleak as your future seems right now, be assured that you can find your way through grief to healing. It will take time and some real work on your part, but you will learn to enjoy life again.
First, though, you’ll need to conduct a reality check and be willing to bust some myths. For example, you don’t always have to be strong – no one is. Men do cry, and allowing yourself to feel and express your pain is an important part of being human.
Another important lesson to learn is that you don’t have to do it alone. Whether it’s household chores, parenting issues, or managing your emotions, help is available. You can hire someone to mow the lawn or clean the house, and don’t be afraid to lean on friends and family members who have offered their assistance; their kindness can help see you through the darkest days.
Following are some additional thoughts to help you manage your grief.
- Take care of yourself. Grief places a tremendous stress on your physical and emotional health. Now it’s more important than ever to eat healthy foods, rest when you can, exercise (even just a walk after a meal will help), and avoid using alcohol or drugs to medicate your feelings.
- Seek emotional support. When you just need someone to listen, you can talk to a friend, or if you’re having a particularly difficult time, consider making an appointment with a counselor or your pastor. You can also ask your local hospice or social service agency about support groups for grieving spouses.
- Give yourself time and space to grieve. Most grief counselors agree it’s a good idea to wait for a while (some say a year) before making important decisions or big changes (like moving or changing jobs).
- Trust that you will be happy again. As the acute pain of grief subsides, give yourself permission to resume your hobbies and interests, accept social invitations, and be an active participant in life.
Share Your Experience
If you are a widow or widower, we invite you to use this forum to express your thoughts and feelings and draw strength from others.