by Sandra Moon
How do widowers cope with grief? The world as they knew it, with its well-mapped out future of anniversaries, grandchildren, shared parenthood and milestones, has gone. And when the pity, advice and casseroles stop, what then? American clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UNC, Justin Yopp says that widowers are still overlooked and under-served.
But he asserts the real healing is done through community.
Justin Yopp and his colleague Donald Rosenstein began a six-week therapy group for widowers to connect and share with the only other people they knew who understood them – other widowers. Seven men attended the first session and the facilitators thought it was so tough that no one would attend the second session. But those seven widowers continued to meet up for four more years.
So how tough was it for the men to show up and move forward? According to Justin it was challenging but the group proved it was possible.
“It’s not easy for men to acknowledge vulnerability and open up with others during the depths of grief,” he said.
The groups’ focus was on the men doing three things: reimagining life, finding meaning and connecting.
Reimagining life after loss was extremely difficult. “The futures that they anticipated – being married, never dating again, having a partner to raise children with – had been snatched away from them. But there comes a time when grief is as much creating a new future as it is about mourning the past.”
The men were able to find meaning after their wives’ deaths, but it didn’t happen immediately, and most men struggled as they found themselves parenting alone for the first time.
“Slowly and over time, they each found additional meaning in what it meant to be a parent. Being an only or “sole” parent carried with it many hardships, but it ultimately brought with it rewards,” Justin adds.
Many of the men struggled with moving forward, including dating, as they felt guilty it meant leaving their wives behind. Bruce, one of the men from the group speaks to other widowers directly.
“You will be able to see light again. You will be able to laugh. You will be able to see happiness. You will be able to build something new and that’s a good thing.”
Justin commented on the group’s success: “At each support group meeting, we see how these folks, who are each coping with profound grief and uncertainty moving forward, are able to give to and support others who are walking a similar path. People’s willingness to be emotionally present and supportive with each other is so crucial for healing. And, along with encouragement they provide to each other, there is a collective wisdom that emerges; something that can only emerge with the group process.”
As the men walked a shared path through grief they gained a deep connection. The men eventually realised they could inspire other men and encouraged the facilitators to collate their stories into a book, The Group, Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life by Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp.
What are the three things that help widowers? Watch Justin Yopp’s TED X Talk on the topic.
Grieflink has a super useful factsheet on grief reactions in men.
For some visual insight into life as a widower follow illustrator @garyscribbler, who draws about his life.
And revisit the super insightful article by Margaret Rice on Men and Grief.