My friend Matt lost his wife to cancer. She was a successful attorney and he a civil servant. They had four children under 8 years of age when she died. Her long downward spiral with cancer at least allowed Matt and the kids time to prepare for her death. But it was one of the hardest things I have ever watched unfold. Even though the family was prepared and knew that her death was coming, when she finally died, Matt and kids went through a major transition. He took a new job and moved closer to both his and his wife's family for support and help.
My other friend Aaron was the one who died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 42, leaving a wife and 5 children from 19 to 8. While Aaron had been feeling poorly for a few months without any easy answers, he urged his wife and children to go to a family reunion out of state because he didn't feel well. While they were gone, he had the heart attack and died suddenly. Aaron's wife and family returned quickly when they learned of Eric's death and dealt with the funeral, the estate and all the implications of losing their husband and father.
Two very different circumstances with similar beginnings. One death of a wife and mother was gradual and left time to prepare, even though the loss of any wife and mother is tragic. The other death of a father and husband was sudden, unexpected and laden with guilt for his dying alone.
Whatever the circumstances, dealing with the death of a spouse has to be one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of life. Based on the experiences of others and lots of research, here are some ideas and perspectives that might help.
Understand the stages of grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is one of the foremost experts on grief and has written On Death and Dying, a landmark work on the grief process. Kubler-Ross identifies five stages of grief through which any grieving person must pass.
- Denial: "This can’t be happening to me."
- Anger: "Why is this happening? Who is to blame?"
- Bargaining: "Make this not happen, and in return I will ____."
- Depression: "I’m too sad to do anything."
- Acceptance: "I’m at peace with what is going to happen/has happened."
Everyone who loses someone close to them moves through these stages, usually in this order. As a husband who loses a spouse to death confronts the profound feelings of loss, it can help to recognize in which stage you are operating and to know that there can be personal peace at the end of the grieving process.
Recognize that time tends to heal wounds. When we are in the midst of feelings of loss or grief, it can truly seem like the feelings will last forever. But time's passage has a way of healing these feelings. Keeping a sense of hope through the feelings of grief can help a father who has lost his spouse make it through each day.
Lean on your support system. Fortunately for both my friends, there were exceptional support systems. Both had large families on both sides on whom they could lean. Both lived in neighborhoods and had friends from work who helped through the transition. Both belonged to strong communities of faith on whom they leaned emotionally and physically. Fathers who find themselves alone after the death of a spouse need to allow others who are close to them into their inner circle of feelings. People who care about you want to help, and you are in a time when you need it perhaps the most.
Express your feelings. Don't bottle up emotions of grief and sorrow. Sometimes societal expectations make men particularly want to be strong and stoic. Especially if you have children that are grieving with you, you may feel a need to be their "rock." But you will need some time to express your feelings, insecurities and loneliness. Talk to friends, seek counseling, write, cry – whatever the outlet, let the feelings be expressed. Repressing them only brings greater challenges later.
Take care of yourself physically. It will be important for you to eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise. Avoid self-defeating behaviors like turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain. Just taking walks with a close friend or family member can make a world of difference in your mood.
Take your time. Grieving works differently for different people. Do not let others make you feel rushed to get on with your life or move ahead. Move at your pace. Don't make any major decisions that will have life-changing implications through the grief process.
Today my friends are doing well and life is moving forward. Matt has remarried and now has a blended family of seven with whom he and his new partner get to work and grow. While he still misses his first wife, he has fully engaged in a new life and new challenges. Aaron's wife is now back in the work force and busy raising her children. Not yet remarried and not really worried about it, she is again building a new life with new opportunities. Both have worked through this important life transition, taking different approaches but each is working.
The most important thing for any grieving father to remember is that through the grieving process, there is hope and that with time and effort, life can again be full of happiness and possibility.