Categories
Dealing with Emotional Suppression Grief/Dispair Loneliness

Widowers Need To Step Out of The Shadows and Into the Light of Day

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By Herb Knoll

Author: The Widower’s Journey

Grieving men are misunderstood. And for a good reason. After all, men don’t believe they have permission to grieve in the first place. When a man experiences a loss, they frequently resort to their primitive behaviors, suggesting to those who will listen, “I’m fine,”  Oh really?  Is that why you sit in front of your TV, endlessly watching programming you have little to no interest in watching, frequently falling asleep in your darkened home, and your half-finished pre-fab frozen dinner resting on your belly. Is that how you define “fine?” I can relate.

For months following the passing of my wife, I would go to work at the headquarters of the bank at which I worked at 4AM (banks don’t open until 9AM).  Upon my arrival, I would tune in my favorite radio station that played one love (sad) song after another. I was usually the last to leave the bank about 7PM, just in time to get home to another tasteless meal I stockpiled in my freezer, just to do it all again the next morning. This went on for four months until one day, a young female staff member entered my office with an important message for me. “The entire floor misses your laughter.” WHOA!  Say that again. My wake-up call had arrived. My behavior following the passing of my wife was precisely like that which I now routinely witness in others as I lead the Widowers Support Network. 

It’s as though grieving men become comfortable in their grief, seldom accepting invitations to join others attending a gathering of one sort or another, refusing to see a doctor when they experience aches and pains, including what they know to be behaviors symptomatic of one who is depressed and is at risk. Yet they will continue offering lame phrases in their own defense. Some believe they can’t expose their vulnerability and are waiting to be rescued. One widowed man once said to me, “It’s not manly to talk with you about my grief.” How sad.  

J. Scott Janssen, MSW, writing for Social Work Today offers, “I’ve known plenty of men who fit the stereotype: emotionally controlled, disinclined to talk about matters of the heart, as apt to seek out solitude as connection, focusing on action rather than talk.” Janssen adds, “there is evidence that men are more likely than women to remain silent or grieve in isolation, engage in action-oriented forms of grief expression, or lose themselves in distractions such as work or throwing themselves into a new relationship. And you have to know, more than one man has become the victim of a predator woman. 

Given time, many widowers will relive portions of their past life with their wife, including the days they served as caregivers, mentally cataloging all of the ways they failed their deceased wife, convinced she left this world thinking their husband must not have loved them. Guilt sets in… giving the widower even more reasons to cocoon, almost barracking themselves behind the draped covered windows of their home.

Yes, widowed men practice 1cocooning, a term coined in 1981 by futurist and best selling author Faith Popcorn; defined as “staying inside one’s home, insulated from perceived danger, instead of going out.” Widowed men will frequently retreat to the confines of their fortresses (aka residences), opting to “tough it out alone.”  

Men electing to cocoon place themselves at risk, of isolationism from critically needed relationships and significant health risks, increasing the likelihood of self-abuse, including the use of alcohol, legal or ill-legal drugs, and more.  As if those risks were not enough, research has shown how 65% of widowed men and women are likely to have a life-threatening illness within one year of their spouse’s death. Still, more research suggests how widowers have a suicide rate 3-4 times that of married men. Beneath these risks is the notion, many widowed men hold that their new life is devoid of relevance

Widowers and those who are concerned about a widower who may be cocooning have several options they can call upon while in search of answers.

When widower John Von Der Haar was asked, “What was the best thing that happened to you during your grief journey?,” John replied, “When I told my family and friends, ‘I’m fine, leave me alone with my thoughts, they ignored my instructions and forced their way into my life and I am so grateful they did.’” Friends and family take note: don’t let a widower cocoon.  Force your way into their life if necessary. 

Commenting in my book, The Widower’s Journey, Dr. Deborah Carr of Boston University said, 

2 “The importance of social support cannot be overstated; for widowhood as well as many other stressors we face in life, having a confidante – even just one close friend – can do a world of good.”  Carr continued, “Both close-knit friendships and confidantes can be useful for heart-to-heart talks, but we also benefit from more-casual acquaintances that are just fun.  These can be clubs, men’s groups, sports teams, and the like.” As an example, my stepson, Jacques (23 years of age at the time), and I went to a minor league baseball game with my colleagues from the Farm Bureau Bank.

Not only are activities great for social contact but they can also be a great way to establish a new identity or rediscover an old identity that might have been put on the shelf while the widower was caring for their dying wife.  For instance, widower Keith Merriam got back into the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international history group that studies and recreates Medieval European cultures and their histories. Keith also sought out and joined a community theater group.  If you enjoy painting, take an art class.  Love to read? Join a book group. Athletic? Find a softball or basketball league you can join.

Other recommended options are for you to volunteer in support of the efforts to help others stricken with the same ailment your wife suffered from. Help organize a walk/run to raise needed research funds or visit hospital rooms of those who have no one to visit them.

Still struggling with the notion of venturing beyond your front door, let your supporters know you would welcome their involvement in discovering what works for you. Remember, allowing someone else into your life, allowing them to be of service, helps them grieve too.

If you find yourself barricaded behind your four walls still, you may want to see your primary physician as you may suffer from a medical condition that requires attention. Enroll in a grief group like GriefShare.  Their program is widely available across America.  If you’re a bit shy, consider viewing Walking Through Grief, an educational nine-disc DVD series offering hope to the bereaved that you can watch in the privacy of your cocoon. See www.thegrieftoolbox.com.   

But whatever you do, cocooning widowers need to get up off their sofas, open their blinds and walk outside. 

  1. Wikipedia
  2. The Widower’s Journey 

Herb Knoll is a retired banking executive, an advocate for Widowers, professional speaker and author of the breakout book, The Widower’s Journey.  Available at Amazon.com in paperback and in all digital formats. Herb is the founder of the Widower’s Support Network (WidowersSupportNetwork.com) featuring the Widowers Support Network Members Only, a private Facebook group page for men only, and a second Facebook page which is open to the general public at Widowers Support NetworkContact Herb at herb@WidowersSupportNetwork.com.     

Categories
Grief/Dispair Loneliness Mental/Emotional Health

Widower: Escaping Anxiety

When my wife passed 4 years ago, I first experienced shock and then numbness, after that anger and depression, and after that resignation and doubts about my future without her. It wasn’t until around my sixth month of grieving that I began to experience something unfamiliar to me since my 20’s and 30’s, anxiety… and I mean full-blown anxiety.

This coincided with my re-entry into life as I began to socialize again through a Meetup.com group called the Breakfast Club. I also started to date again via online dating services. My self-confidence was nearly non-existent at the beginning, so I had tremendous doubts about my ability to meet and engage with new people. Though I could put on a good front, I would go home after each meeting or date and question my every word and action. It was worse than when I was a teenager.

Soon, I met a widow whose company I really enjoyed, and who made me feel more at ease about the whole dating concept. However, I found that I would think that I had control and then would be overcome with euphoria and anxiety at alternate times (part of the hyper-emotional response). I did not have things under control. It was months before I saw how out of control I was during this period. Anxiety is a normal part of any relationship. While in a heightened hyper-emotional state, anxiety can become overwhelming and dominate your thinking day and night.

The ups and downs, the drama, and the uncertainty about what we really wanted doomed the relationship from the start. As our relationship evolved, I experienced increasing anxiety over possibly losing her, I am sure because of the recent loss of my wife. But I also had fear and anxiety about:

  • moving too fast, 
  • saying the wrong thing, 
  • how our relationship would impact my friends and family, and
  • her deciding it was too soon to be in a relationship again, 

The anxiety only got worse as I had more trouble sleeping, causing me to spiral out of control. If you can recognize this anxiety for what it is and confront it before it ruins all your relationships, you will be way ahead of the game.

I first got some help from my therapist, and then from reading Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, which challenges you to engage with your emotions and doubts, to face your fears and self-doubts, and to be vulnerable. However, this vulnerability actually led to more anxiety in some ways. I was still dwelling on past mistakes or shortcomings and fearful of what might happen in the future.

This led me to a spiritual philosopher, Eckart Tollé, whose central message is to stay in the present and turn away from worrying about the past or future. Tollé often quotes Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” 

Once I adopted some of his teachings that I thought useful and combined it with meditation, I began to calm down and learned just to enjoy the moment. You can find some of his talks on Youtube, which you may find helpful. Tollé is an intriguing character with a funny laugh and gentle way of speaking, but his messages often go to the core of feeling and thinking. (With someone like Tollé or Chopra, you don’t have to accept everything they say. Just take in what works for you and is in conformance with your own values and beliefs.)

Whether you decide to look up and adopt some of Eckart Tollé’s ideas or not, the key point is that I encourage you to look outside your normal belief systems and find ones that help you to deal with your grief and often resulting anxiety. Some may find solace in their religious beliefs, others may find help through meditation or yoga. When you go through the kind of trauma and grief that we all have had to do, sometimes the only way out is through a new path… one you have not tried before.

Learn to be courageous enough to try one. You may be pleasantly surprised and rewarded.

Categories
Faith/Religion Holidays Loneliness

A Widower’s Christmas Wish List

by Herb Knoll

Author: The Widower’s Journey 

From as far away as Australia to the British Isles, from Canada to Nigeria, the Widowers Support Network hears the cries of men who mourn the loss of their wife, their soul mates, their partners in life.  Widowed men don’t ask for much, never have, never will.  After all, men who mourn are expected to “get over it,” right?  You know, be a man. Macho if you will.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way it was meant to be.  

It is said that to grieve, you first must have loved.  For without love, grief does not exist.  To have loved is among life’s greats joys.  As such, it is unrealistic to think one who once loved doesn’t grieve when it is lost.  And with grief, comes sorrow, tears, fright, despair, pain, loneliness, depression, aimlessness, and more.  Each of these behaviors is dangerous.  At times, life-threatening. Yet for some reason, widowed men continue to be held to a different set of expectations vs. widows when they experience the loss of their beloved spouse.  

Following a speaking engagement in Connecticut, it hit me.  “Men don’t think they have permission to grieve.”  This is why they retreat to the shadows of our communities to mourn in private, many in total despair, for they wish not to be viewed as less of a man, then society would have them be. How sad for the widowers of the world; our fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, grandfathers, neighbors, and colleagues. 

In the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44), we learned of the story of Jesus’ dearest friend, Lazarus of Bethany, also known as Saint Lazarus or Lazarus of the Four Days.  Jesus loved Lazarus.  When Jesus wept after he learned of Lazarus’ passing. So painful was Jesus’ loss, he decided to perform one of his most prominent of miracles in which he restored Lazarus to life four days after his death.  For those of the Christian faith (and I invite others as well), ask yourself; does anyone see Jesus as less of a man for his tears?  Jesus’ reaction to the loss of his beloved friend reinforces the view that grieving is a natural extension of one’s love for another.

As we approach Christmas when all of the Christian world celebrates the birth of the Christ child, and presents are so bountiful, do so with a new awareness of the plight of the widowed man. You may know a widower who you are contemplating purchasing a gift.  But what does one gift to a widower? The answer lies in this article.

From around the world, widowers have shared with me a listing of the gifts they would truly love to receive. Don’t worry about the cost. The presents widowers seek won’t cost a nickel.

Categories
Holidays Loneliness

Valentine’s Day Healing Heart

By Herb Knoll

Author of The Widower’s Journey

Valentine’s Day, 2008, will forever live in my heart as well as in my mind’s eye. The day began when I was awakened by a noise coming from what seemed to be the vicinity of the kitchen.  As I approached to retrieve my first cup of coffee of the day, I found my beautiful wife Michelle busy working on her latest project: making pretzels sticks dipped in various flavors of chocolate; each stick beautifully wrapped in heart-themed cellophane, with a red or pink bow.  “These are Valentine’s Day gifts for your staff,” she said.  “Employees always like getting gifts from their boss.”  I didn’t know it at that precise moment, but Michelle’s efforts to spread joy among my team at work would be the last thing she did in our home before being admitted into a hospital for the last time, later that same day. Michelle lost her battle with cancer twenty-one days later on March 7, 2008, a dark and rainy Friday evening in San Antonio, Texas.

Surviving holidays as a widower, especially as a new widower, is always tricky.  As an advocate for widowers, I have noticed how most widowers have one or two holidays that are harder than others to deal with, for they are laced with cherished memories that are more valuable than the Crown Jewels of England. For me, Valentine’s Day is one of those days. With perfect regularity, February 14th is always sure to give me pause, as each year I’m reminded of the sixteen years I celebrated it with Michelle. 

For many widowers, Valentine’s Day delivers an endless barrage of love symbolism, perhaps never to be experienced again. From chocolates and flowers for their lady to memories of a warm wet kiss or a loving glance from across a room, the expressions of love around Valentine’s Day are inescapable. Valentine’s Day reminds many widowers of the emptiness they may have become accustomed to living with daily, even if for only a brief second when their grief of yesterday assumes its role at center stage in one’s thoughts. 

Following Michelle’s passing, I assumed I would be a bachelor for the rest of my days.  It was about that time I decided to celebrate Michelle’s life by living mine.  Two and one-half years after Michelle’s passing, I met and fell in love with Maria. We were married twelve months later off the coast of Italy during a ceremony onboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

Does this mean I never think about Michelle anymore?  Hardly.  I am proud to say I was married to Michelle as I am to Maria today.  Today, Valentine’s Day reminds me that the human heart can mend and is capable of loving more than one person over a lifetime. If a widower is seeking companionship, a life partner, or perhaps more, he should have hope that such joy may well be awaiting its discovery by him.  And it is likely to occur when he least expects it to do so. 

I understand that some widowers, including those who, like me, may have discovered love again, have lingering difficulty in dealing with the visible triggers of grief Valentine’s Day presents. For them, please permit me to offer a few suggestions.  

1.  Spend the day with your children or with members of your extended family, preparing your wife’s favorite recipes.  Once made, enjoy a family meal with each other while allowing each family member to share stories about your wife.

2.  Spend some time working on your family tree, capturing memories about your wife for future generations to enjoy.  You may even want to write your wife a letter and insert it into your family tree’s archives.

3.  Spend time with your grandchildren, perhaps taking them on a day-trip to show them their grandmother’s favorite park, the home of her youth, or where the two of you met.  And be sure to take the little ones to their grandmother’s favorite restaurant and buy their lunch while you’re there.

4.  Focus your expressions of love on to others.  From volunteering for the Red Cross or your local veteran’s organization to spend some time assisting those served by your wife’s favorite charity. 

5.  Volunteer to babysit for another couple so they can enjoy their Valentine’s Day as much as you enjoyed yours during years past. 

6.  Be strengthened by reading scripture (1 Thessalonians 4) that speaks to Our Lord’s promise that we will one day again be reunited with those that we love. 

Just because someone dies doesn’t mean the love they shared with others did likewise.  This Valentine’s Day, go out and celebrate the time you were blessed to be with your beloved wife.  And when you lay your head on your pillow later that evening, be sure to tell your deceased wife you love her.  Go ahead.  She’s listening.