Almost every widower I have met, emailed, or spoken to has said this to me at some point. I certainly felt that way after my wife passed in 2015. We both had some health challenges during our lifetime. Still, mine were the more serious and recent ones, so it was a big surprise for both of us when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and became seriously ill within one year before passing.
These thoughts have been instilled in us from an early age, taught by society, culture, and familial norms that the man was supposed to provide for his family. He was expected to prepare them for when he would naturally die first and leave them to continue with their lives. This included buying life insurance and writing a Health Care Directive for the husband, not for the wife. And let’s face it, in most cases, women (wives and singles) outlive men by a ratio of 4 to 1 at age 55, and even higher ratios as we enter our 70s and 80s.
The widowers who have not felt this way often had wives who experienced long illnesses, sometimes dating back to their earliest years together. This can lead to anticipatory grief, meaning they begin the journey before their spouse passes. While this may diminish some post-death symptoms, it does not reduce the pain and sense of loss.
This sense of feeling that “I should have died before she did” can lead to survivor’s guilt and deep regret for not being able to “save” her. The reality is that there usually was very little we could have done to rewrite her last chapter on this earth. Most often, we probably could NOT have saved her by:
- diagnosing the illness earlier,
- finding a different doctor,
- insisting on another treatment for her, or
- being by her side more before her passing.
We continue to punish ourselves with these thoughts and statements even knowing this. This often leads to self-punishing behaviors such as isolating ourselves from others, drinking too much, yelling at ourselves, ruminating over our past behaviors repeatedly, and even driving our friends and family away because, in part, we blame them too.
Sometimes we can only heal these behaviors by finding a good Grief Therapist (not a regular therapist) to help shepherd our way through this minefield of punishing thoughts so we can build our new normal and enjoy life again. Therapy, meditation, and yoga can also help to get our thoughts into a more peaceful place where we can gradually let go of the negative thoughts.
Start by realizing that constantly ruminating on this false presumption (I should have died first) serves no purpose. It will NOT heal you or make you feel better about yourself. It will NOT make others join you in this self-punishment nor make her feel better about you.
The more important steps to take are to commit yourself to:
- becoming a better person,
- helping others through this awful experience,
- celebrating all the good things from your marriage, and
- learning all you can from this experience and applying those lessons to your life going forward.
Realize that there is absolutely nothing that you can do to change what has already happened. You now have a choice between two paths, one leading to darkness and inertia and the other to healing and life. Choose rightly, and you may soon find you can enjoy life again.
© Copyright 2023 Fred Colby
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