Widower: The Importance of Empathy to Healing Grief
Empathy is critical to healing grief. For me, it was second only to gratitude as a skill that I had to develop to pull myself out of the deep depression and suffering I experienced during the first year of my grieving.
After losing my wife of 45 years to uterine cancer, it was easy for me to fall into funks that included sobbing, numbness, physical pain, and sorrow which made me incapable of completing the simplest tasks. If I made the mistake of having more than a couple of beers or glasses of wine, this could spiral downwards into bouts of self-pity and anger which threatened my sanity and ability to heal. Even worse, I saw how these funks could lead to some “bad” decisions (e.g., dating, moving, financials), which could threaten my important relationships with family and friends.
Gratitude was the first tool I developed to help me to avoid or pull out of these pits of despair. This was expressed through gratitude for my wife and all our time together, gratitude for my family and friends, gratitude for the life we had built and my hopes for moving forward in a positive way.
To my surprise, I found that empathy for others going through the same painful experience became a healing balm for my wounds. By “empathy,” I mean understanding, sympathy, and compassion for others. As a mature adult male, I had over the years become more sympathetic to the plight of others, but I had not really felt or identified with those who were suffering.
As widowers, let’s admit it…before the loss of our wives, we just did not “get it.” We could not identify with the pain our friends or family members felt when they lost a close loved one. While we would try to be supportive, this was done without real feeling or empathy. Within a week we would be on to “our” next thing and expect our friend or family member to “pull out of it” just fine and on their own.
But, after we lost our wives, suddenly WE UNDERSTOOD! We would now get angry at others for expressing the same inane comments that we used to make, like:
- How are you doing?
- All you need is time, and you will be o.k.
- It has been two months, aren’t you better now?
And now, when we meet other widows or widowers, we feel a kinship, a sense that we have been through a war together and will support each other through thick and thin.
Through the development of our “empathy” aptitude, we bond with others in a way, most of us are not used to. When I was younger and focused on “making it” in the world, my friendships were primarily a matter of convenience… that is, based upon my place of employment, church, or neighborhood. Now I found myself forming friendships based upon a shared common traumatic experience. This was very new and different for me.
As this “empathy muscle” grew in me, I recognized that it was healing me emotionally and psychologically. I found new purpose in supporting others who were going through the experience, and I found that this newfound empathy translated into other areas of my life as well. I became more considerate of the feelings and experiences of my fellow travelers, where I lived, worked, and played.
This, in turn, helped me to feel better about myself and gave me more confidence in my dealings with others. My anger, frustration, and sorrow diminished as I built my new self and new life upon a stronger and broader foundation. I have noticed that many of my fellow widowers have had the same or similar experiences. In the long run, we can all become better for the experience, as painful as it is.
Our wives usually loved us for a reason, they saw something in us that led them to believe that we would continue to grow and become better men. There is no reason we must stop now, just because they are gone! We can continue to grow and meet their expectations for us.