Proactive Steps to help get you through the holidays
Last week I talked about the holiday season and widowhood:
About the widower who says with tears in his eyes, “Christmas was always her thing”.
About the grieving widow who tells me “he was such a big part of our family’s Hanukkah traditions”.
Depending on how long it’s been since your spouse passed away, your feelings are possibly still pretty raw. Especially in that first year when you’re probably in a fog. Perhaps the “first” holiday season is the most overwhelming, but I found I was still floundering on my second and third.
Not feeling sad around the holidays might not be an option for you. However, not feeling sad every minute of every day might be an option.
Some wisdom I learned along the way… if something funny happens (especially some of the black humor that comes with widowhood), go ahead of laugh. It’s not disrespectful, and it can be good for your soul.
If you momentarily forget your spouse is gone because your child or grandchild does something so cute, that’s okay and normal. And then, if your feelings of sadness come slamming back because you wish your spouse was here to see that cute thing they did, that’s normal too.
Some people opt to keep their traditions going as always (and to talk and cry through the memories).
Others find that’s just too hard, and want to do something completely different. Here are things I found worked for me over the years.
Plan to go to someone else’s home, perhaps a very close friend or family member. Pick someone who you know will be okay with you talking and crying and laughing (sometimes all at the same time) about how you’re feeling.
Go out to dinner. It’s important to pick a restaurant where nothing will remind you of past holidays and other memories.
Contact a local retirement home or assisted living facility. Ask them if you can volunteer there. Giving to others can sometimes make our own hearts feel a little less heavy. You will also understand their pain if they too have lost a spouse.
Go on a trip locally or far away (once again pick a place that won’t remind you of past holidays). Staying at a hotel can give you a way of not feeling like you’re trying to have or not have your normal traditions at your house.
And to restate my advice from last week: “Just feel what you feel when you feel it.” Those huge waves of feeling that crash over you won’t last forever (they only feel that way).
I’m interested in hearing about your experiences as you go through the holidays this year. Send me an email.
It’s no wonder so many people fail to complete grief counseling sessions that take place over a period of several weeks, with many attendees opting to bail out of such programs after just a week or two. Why? I believe one of the reasons is because too many of the programs fail to provide a real road map to the healing grievers seek. Those who grieve aren’t interested in hearing a lot of theory or advice that is short on substance. They need actionable options. Proven steps and best practices they can employ as they begin their journey toward some semblance of a recovery.
This tendency to withdraw from what are well-intentioned resources should be of no surprise to anyone, especially when speaking about widowed men. Yes, my view applies to women and men alike, but as an advocate for widowers, I have come to recognize how men who are suffering from the most significant loss of their lives want to act to make their pain go away by taking concrete steps others have previously tested. Those who fail to complete grief recovery programming are generally not interested in listening to subjective material offered by family members, friends, or a subject matter experts that are weak on specifics.
I like to tell the story about my brother Don and his wife Kathy when they were traveling by airplane. As they sat in their seats, Kathy leaned over and informed Don how the little boy seated behind her was kicking the back of her airline seat. Being a man of action, Don looked over the top of his seat to the youngster seated behind Kathy and with a raised voice, told the young man to “Knock It Off.” Kathy then leaned over and asked Don, “What did you do that for?” Kathy went on to say how she didn’t want Don to do anything; she just wanted him to know what she was experiencing. But like most men, Don is a fixer. If you give him a problem, his mental Rolodex of problem-solving solutions will begin rotating until the appropriate fix surfaces. It’s what men (and many women) do!
Perhaps that’s why I like plans. Documents that will help me navigate my way until I reach my desired destination or outcome. Plans should contain both strategic and tactical steps one can initiate along life’s journey that will lessen the likelihood of their veering off course or wasting precious resources. I believe people prefer specific, well researched, and proven steps that will advance their agenda. When such insights are available, it can allow the reader’s recovery instincts to be stimulated, causing them to tweak the best practices of others until they conform to the reader’s comfort zone. To this end, I offer the following.
Grief Recovery Rule #1 – Turn to Your Higher Power.
For those who believe in a higher power, turn to Him. Place your grief and your future into His trusted arms. There is no better place to be.
Grief Recovery Rule #2 – Grieve for as long as you wish.
Grief doesn’t end. It evolves. There are no sequences or stages of grief you can anticipate occurring. So don’t let anyone tell you, “It’s time to get back in the game,” or “Get over it.” Do so when you are ready, not before. If their nagging continues, it may be time for some new friends.
Grief Recovery Rule #3 – Forgive yourself for any lingering regrets you may harbor.
If you were a caregiver, the spouse, or the life partner of the deceased, you might have some lingering thoughts of regret. “I should have visited more often.” “Did I find him (or her) the best care possible?” “I should have told him or her I loved them more often.” Regrets surface because deep down inside, you honestly loved that person, and you weren’t sure if they truly knew it. I have some news for you, they did. There is no need to second guess your previous actions. You undoubtedly did the best you could under the circumstances. And you can be sure they appreciated your loving care. So when you lay your head on your pillow tonight, go ahead and tell them again, “I love you!” They’re listening.
Grief Recovery Rule #4 – Watch your health.
No matter how well anchored of a survivor or caregiver, you may believe yourself to b; you are vulnerable. Now it’s time to take care of you! All caregivers and the widowed should be seen by their primary physician. As part of your exam, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional. You know, someone with whom you can talk. You’ve been through a lot, and you may have suffered physically, and don’t even realized it. Besides, you have others who are depending on you to recover from your grief. This caution is especially true for widowers since most men fail to take proper care of themselves, especially when they are called upon to serve as a caregiver. Want a sampling of proof? Widowed men have a suicide rate that is 3-4x higher than married men.
For those who have lost a spouse, be advised that your loss is the #1 stressor on the stress index scale. Regardless of how tough you think you are, the human body can only handle so much stress and just for a limited period before it can affect your health.
As I said, those who grieve are vulnerable. Here’s more proof. According to the US Census Bureau, 700,000 people are widowed each year in the United States and will live on average another 14 years. Research has shown that if you are caring for a spouse and are between the ages of 66 and 96, you are at a 66% higher risk of dying than one who is not a caregiver. Sixty-five percent of those who are widowed (men or women) will experience a severe illness within twelve months.
Grief Recovery Rule #5 – Don’t make any hasty decisions.
Countless widowed individuals have felt a need to make changes soon after experiencing a loss. Time and time again, they have proven why they should not have done so. Whether you are considering moving closer to your son or daughter or downsizing your residence or even proposing marriage to a new love interest, take your time in doing so. Ask for advice from those you admire and trust. When appropriate, talk with a licensed professional with the proper expertise and credentials, even if a fee is required to do so. (Pssst – Be sure to check their references.) You’ll be glad you did.
Grief Recovery Rule #6 – Stay close to those you love.
Seventy-five percent of a survivor’s support base will vanish – or at the very least, be less available to the survivor following the loss of a spouse. Those who are suddenly unavailable may well include family members and friends. The risk is that people who feel continually lonely have a 14% higher risk of premature death vs. those who don’t.
Grief Recovery Rule #7 – Allow those who care about you to assist you in dealing with your grief.
You are not the only one who is grieving. When friends and family tell you they want to help, make it easy for them to do so. Have them cut your lawn, handle your grocery shopping, or clean your pool for the few months. (Just kidding.) But by allowing them to serve in some way, they feel like they have contributed to the healing of all who mourn, including themselves.
Grief Recovery Rule #8 – Communicate your needs or challenges.
Ask for help if you need it. Don’t make people guess. Failing to do so may cause your critical needs to be unaddressed while only trivial tasks are handled. When appropriate, communicate your needs with a subject matter expert. From financial matters to your spirituality, legal issues to mental health examinations, lean on those service providers for guidance. Should you wish, feel free to contact The Widower’s Support Network (WSN), for advice and mentoring, a free service WSN offers to all widowers and the families that love them.
Grief Recovery Rule #9 – Grief groups are a tremendous resource for people in need of support.
Grief groups (aka Support groups) can be very beneficial to those who grieve, so don’t shy away from using their services. (This goes for men too, especially those men who foolishly think they can go it alone.) Among the leaders in support services for those who grieve are Hospices, churches, civic groups, and more.
The sponsoring agency may have designed their program offerings themselves or may have licensed programmings, such as Walking Through Grief, (available at Walkingthroughgrief.com), GriefShare (GriefShare.org), and Soaring Spirits International (Soaringspirits.org). The cost to attend such support groups are modest, with many are available free of charge. WSN’s first choice is Walking Through Grief programming, available in many communities across America. You also have the option to stream and view individual programs for as little as $8. See Walkingthroughgrief.com.
Many support groups address the needs of individuals, caregivers, or survivors dealing with specific diseases or ailments. For example, PanCan has support groups across America for Pancreatic Cancer sufferers. Compassionate Friends is a terrific organization that enables families to grieve the loss of a child. By using your computer’s search engine, you can easily find support groups for virtually every kind of ailment or illness, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Chron’s Disease, and countless others.
For those who don’t wish to attend meetings outside their home, you will find books, DVDs, and more available at the OpentoHope.com, GriefToolbox.com, and GriefDiaries.com, all excellent resources for healing videos, books and more.
Some who grieve may enjoy getting away from their current environment and enjoy a transformational journey at sea, featuring the nurturing and coaching made available from a world-class team of grief experts. Such experiences are available from Grieving Seminars at Sea on The Bereavement Cruise. The beauty of such an outing is that it allows you to find yourself in a neutral arena, absent the trappings and triggers of everyday life and the memories you may find troubling. To learn more, contact our office at herb@WidowersSupportNetwork.com
Grief Recovery Rule #10 – Get on your feet and out of the house.
Widowed people need to reestablish their own relevance. It is essential to have a purpose when you rise out of bed each day. You can accomplish this in many ways. Volunteering has been found by many to be the best grief recovery tool. Reach out to a non-profit who supports a good cause, your church, or perform a kind gesture for someone who can’t pay you back. Perhaps this is why I established the Widowers Support Network, as it provides me with such gratification. Besides, it gives me purpose.
Grief Recovery Rule #11 – Commemorate the life of your deceased loved one.
Perform charitable works in their name. Turn their articles of clothing into “Love Pillows” and give them to those they loved. Celebrate their birthday by joining forces with friends and family in aiding their favorite support group.
Grief Recovery Rule #12 – Never lose HOPE. (Hope Trilogy)
As Alexander Pope wrote, HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL. Feed your subconscious mind with healing thoughts offering reasons to have hope. View, read, and listen to the lessons learned and the opinions of those who have been where you are today. To begin, allwho grieve (men and women)should register at WidowersSupportNetwork.com. Once registered, request your free copy of WSN’s powerful HOPE TRILOGY, the story of three remarkable men, and their mastery over adversity. Write: info@WidowersSupportNetwork.com
Grief Recovery Rule #13 – Take Care of Business
As my deceased brother, Dan taught me when I was just a teenager, “Take Care of Business First.” Failing to do so can cause significant hardship if not expense during the remainder of your grief journey. While matters such as career preservation, legal affairs, and financial wellness may not be the “first” thing you address during your journey, putting off such essential matters can cause catastrophic outcomes later. Again, seek professional assistance when needed.
Grief Recovery Rule #14 –Consider acquiring grief relief from a Therapy or Service Dog.
“Therapy dogs bring comfort to those in need of companionship while Service dogs have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Across America, there are many animal shelters, SPCAs, and civic, service, and charitable organizations that have programs that can assist you in learning more. A supportive pooch is worth considering. Personally, I would run out and get a rescue dog from the local SPCA, even if it isn’t a “service” dog.
Grief Recovery Rule #15 –Celebrate the life of the one you have lost by living yours; they would certainly want you to do so.
When considering what actions widowed men can take in hopes of accelerating their healing, they may only have to reach down to the pet seated beside them. I witnessed the power of pets often during Michelle’s illness, especially during the final hours of her life when her son Jacques carried each of Michelle’s three golden retrievers, one at a time, from his car up to her hospital room. The nursing staff placed a gurney beside Michelle’s bed so her beloved Charlotte, Spencer, and Carolina could lie beside her one last time.
In this appendix, I’ll discuss the positive benefit of pets, and also direct you to resources for pets that are specially trained to provide support and assistance.
My first exposure to the phenomenon of pet therapy was back in the 1990s when my bank duties included leading KeyBank of New York’s annual Neighbors Make a Difference Day. On this day, the bank would close at noon to free up employees to go into the neighborhoods they served and perform community services. One time, bank volunteers took a group of dogs from the local animal shelter to a nearby nursing home. Some dogs were even invited by the seniors to jump up onto their beds. I still remember the looks of joy and comfort on the faces of the seniors when petting and playing with the dogs. Neither the home’s residents nor the dogs wanted the visit to end.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with a range of health problems including those suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder.” AAT is the use of trained animals to assist patients in achieving established health objectives and is the first of two therapies grouped under the heading of Pet Therapy. The second is animal-assisted activities, which has a more general purpose, such as what the seniors experienced when the KeyBank volunteers visited them with the dogs.”
The Paws for People website (pawsforpeople.org) adds: “It’s well-known (and scientifically proven) that interaction with a gentle, friendly pet has significant benefits including releasing endorphins that have a calming effect and can diminish overall physical pain. The act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, reducing the amount of medication some folks need, lifts spirits and lessens depression, encourages communication, lowers anxiety, reduces loneliness” and more.
Widower Mark R. Colgan had this to say about his two Labrador retrievers, Murray and Tucker: “The evening Joanne died my two Labradors proved to be more than companions, they were family members that were grieving the loss of Joanne. As I sat downstairs, reflecting on the day’s shocking events, I heard an unusual cry coming from the bedroom. The bedroom that Joanne had died in earlier in the day. As I peered around the corner of the bedroom door, I saw how the cry was coming from one of our dogs, Murray. He lied on the bed in the spot Joanne had died and was crying in a way that I have never heard a dog cry before. He was mourning.”
But it’s not only dogs that provide us support and solace. Some widowers are more the cat-lover type, and similar benefits have been attributed to cats and other pets.
Professor Carr notes that pets serve another important purpose: they give widowers a schedule and routine. For many widowers, especially those who are retired, days can feel long and empty. Some widowers struggle to get out of bed. However, a dog eager for a walk or a cat meowing for her morning kibble force us to get out of bed, face the day and set up routines that can be a healthy and important source of structure.
When asked, few people can name even one man who has been widowed. But given a few moments for additional consideration, many are likely to say, “Oh wait a minute, I do know one. He lives down the street or works with me at my office.” When I presented this same question to a friend of mine, he failed to recall how his own father was widowed. I find this stunning.
Few Americans can name more than one U.S. president who was widowed, yet over one-third of the Presidents of the United States have experienced the loss of a spouse (sixteen in total). This lack of awareness of the mere existence of widowers among us validates how they seemingly live in the shadows of society and our communities.
Want more proof? Americans love movies – yet few can recall how actor Mel Gibson practically built his action-hero career on exacting vengeance from being a widower—not exactly a healthy way to deal with loss. He did it in the Middle Ages in Braveheart, during the Revolutionary War in The Patriot, and as a cop in Lethal Weapon, including 3 sequels.
Look around you. While you may not know a widower today, you will soon, for one in five men you know will eventually be widowed. And unless things change – including the behaviors of those reading this article – they too will soon be forgotten. Sadly, this failure by society to recognize the plight of our widowed population, not to mention their needs has become an international norm.
This view was crystallized by the actions of the United Nations when on December 22, 2010, the United Nations 65th General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing June 23rd as International Widows Day. To be celebrated annually, this global day of action was intended to raise awareness about the cultural discrimination of widows. We all should applaud the passage of this resolution by the United Nations as the need for heightened awareness about the needs of widows around the world are indeed critical. But the way I see it, the United Nation’s only got it half right. What of the needs of widowed men? In my view, the time for everyone’s proactive support for widowers is way overdue.
Not to diminish the pain and suffering of the countless widows on all seven continents, the actions of the United Nations mirrors the efforts – or lack thereof – of societies around the world; Men are held to a different set of standards compared to women following the loss of a spouse. Women are more likely to be comforted by others while widowed men are expected to “get over it.”
Couple the prevailing view that men are tough and don’t need grief support with the fact that few resources are ever explicitly crafted to comfort and assist widowed males, it’s no wonder widowers have such difficulty in dealing with so many significant challenges. Challenges most are ill-prepared to engage including substance abuse or career self-destruction, from difficulty reconciling with their higher-power to their financial ruin, isolation, grief and severe health concerns. In addition to an increased rate of diabetes and hypertension, widowers have a suicide rate that is 3-4 times greater than that of married men.
In spite of all of these facts and more, widowed men are left primarily to their own resources. I personally experienced this phenomenon following the death of my fifty-two-year-old wife in 2008, when I entered my local large box bookstore. As I approached the customer service counter, I inquired what they may have available that could help me – a new widower – deal with my grief. The clerk politely entered the word “widower” into his computer’s search engine and then looked up at me saying, “Mister, I don’t have a damn thing for you.” Can you imagine my disappointment?
It was at that precise moment I decided someone needed to write a relevant book for widowed men and that person was me. After nine years of research, my breakout book, The Widowers Journey – Helping Men Rebuild After Their Loss (Amazon.com) was released in 2017. When my literary agent shopped the manuscript around to over thirty New York publishing houses, she was repeatedly told that “Men don’t buy books.” As a result, the publishing community doesn’t accept manuscripts written for widowed men. Once again, I confirmed how the needs of the widower next door are repeatedly ignored. This apathy towards the needs of widowed men was not something I was willing to accept, hence my decision to self-publish The Widower’s Journey.
While the United Nations and New York’s publishers have failed widowers globally, they are not alone. With 2.7 million widowers in the United States alone, and 420,000 new widowers each year, our houses of worship, as well as our employers, have also failed them. The medical community and our local, state and federal governments are equally up to the task of disappointing our widowers, as are many of our friends, families, and neighbors. Each segment of society is culpable in their neglect of men who are desperately dealing with emotional pain during repeated dark days and tear-filled nights. The absence of meaningful resources being provided, not to mention some semblance of awareness about the pain and suffering widowers endure is heart-wrenching, perhaps even sinful.
Even if those who are in a position to act elect not to do so for humanitarian reasons, they should do so because it is in the best interest of all parties to ensure widowed men are healthy, functional and contributing to society.
Correcting this unfair treatment of widowers begins when all interested parties – including you – start doing their part beginning today. To that end, I am calling upon the United Nations General Assembly to join us by passing a resolution declaring the International Day of the Widower to be celebrated annually on March 7th.
So let me ask you a question… Do you know a widower?
Herb Knoll is an advocate for Widowers, a professional speaker and author of the breakout book, The Widower’s Journey. Available at Amazon.com in paperback and all digital formats.