Monday, June 21, 2021

In Grief: Helping The Widower of My Best Friend

Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief?  ~ William Blake

A reader writes: My best friend was only 38 when she died from kidney cancer two years ago, just three days before Christmas. While I still miss her terribly and cry sometimes when I think of her, I think I’m grieving OK. I live on the east coast and my friend's widower and twin daughters, now seven, live in the west. We were all friends long before they married, stationed together at the same US military base many years ago.

Please help me help my friend's widower. His wife's voice is still on his answering machine. He hasn’t put away/thrown away a stitch of her clothing, not a pill bottle or tampon box from the bathroom. He doesn’t respond to emails, phone calls, cards, regularly. I send the girls presents and I don’t even know if they get them. When I do talk to him, I try to be understanding. I know she was his soul mate. I know the two of them were more in love than any other couple I’ve ever known. When is it time to stop crying, feeling sorry for yourself, for your children? Can they remember Mom without her stuff being all over the house? Is that healthy? I know he’s had them to counseling but I worry, it just doesn’t seem right to me. Can I help him from across the country? Is it time for tough love? What can I do? Your advice and any words of wisdom would be so appreciated.

My response: I certainly appreciate your concerns about this man, as it's obvious that you care deeply about him. Of course, you know your friend better than I do, so in the end, you're in a better position to know whether his reactions to his wife's death are normal and healthy ~ but I will tell you what I think. 

I can tell you that the relationship this man had with his wife and whatever ongoing attachment he feels toward her, both now and in the future, is unique to him, and how he reacts to this loss will be unique to him as well. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no specific time frame. Everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support. 

The intensity of grief is also related to the strength of the attachment to the one who has died ~ and as you've said, these two were soul mates, "more in love than any couple I have ever known." So I can only imagine how devastated this man must be in the wake of this significant loss, and I am not at all surprised to learn that now, even two years later, his grief is still quite raw. It may interest you to know that for many widows and widowers, the second year of grief is even harder than the first, because by now, all that initial protective numbness is completely gone. Anniversary dates are especially difficult as well, and this man has the double whammy of the holidays coinciding with his wife's death date of December 28th. Also, since your friend had kidney cancer, over the course of her illness this couple may have experienced a long and probably very difficult decline in the quality of their life together. If this man was his wife's primary care giver (in addition to fulfilling both the father and mother roles for his young daughters) he may be feeling a great sense of relief that this heavy burden finally has been lifted from his shoulders. At the same time, he may be feeling very guilty for feeling so relieved. This is but one example of the sort of conflicting feelings a person can have in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Such feelings are perfectly normal (and therefore predictable) ~ but can be quite confusing and even disturbing, both to the person experiencing them and to the people observing them, unless such feelings are acknowledged, understood, worked through, accepted and released.  

In addition, and generally speaking, men differ from women in how they experience grief and in how they express their reactions to loss. (Children differ from grownups, too, in how they respond to loss.) Failure to understand and accept those different ways of grieving can result in misunderstandings, hurt feelings and conflict during a very difficult time. Although there is grief work to be done, behaviors can be misinterpreted, needs may be misunderstood, and expectations may not be met. That's why learning about normal grief and talking with trusted others about one's experiences in grief can be so helpful. See, for example, Grief: Understanding The Process, and How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences

You've asked how you can help this man. Since he is not the one writing to me, I'm really not in a position to evaluate where he is in his grief process, and I don't know how he sees his own circumstances. I don't know if he has acknowledged to you or even to himself that he has a problem with his grief, and I don't know what if any support or professional help he may have had, or may still be getting for himself and/ or his children. If you feel comfortable in doing so, you can gently inquire whether he thinks he is making any progress in coming to terms with this significant loss of his wife, and if not, has he ever considered talking to someone about it and the effect it may be having on him now. I also think it would be helpful for you yourself to learn all you can about normal grief and what resources are "out there" and available. Since you live in different parts of the country, I realize that you're not in a position to know what exists in his community, but you might encourage him to check with his local library, hospice, mortuary, hospital, church, synagogue or mosque. Many organizations nowadays offer "in person" bereavement support groups (at no cost) as well as individual bereavement counseling. You certainly can explore yourself, and then refer your friend to, some of the many grief sites on the Internet. I think what's important here is not that you assume the role of counselor yourself, but rather that you make yourself aware of what bereavement resources are available, so you're armed with that information if and when you approach your friend on the subject.  Whether he decides to take advantage of those resources is really up to him, but certainly you can go so far as to help him find out what and where they are. 

Certainly you can tell him about my websites (both Grief Healing, and our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which include a forum for Loss of a Spouse, Partner or Significant Other). You might also take a look at some of the sites listed on my Death of a Spouse/ Partner page, as well as on my Helping Someone Who's Grieving page.  (Since your friend has two daughters now seven years old, you or he might also appreciate some of the resources listed on my Child, Adolescent Grief page.) 

Just knowing what normal grief looks like, knowing what to expect and knowing how to manage the typical reactions to it can be very, very helpful for you as well as for your friend. Then, if and when the timing seems right, you can gently offer to share with him some of the resources you yourself have discovered and explored (so you'll know why you're recommending them.) You might also print out some of the articles that you find and send them to your friend to read, along with a gentle comment such as, "I found this interesting article that shed some light on something I've been wondering about ~ I thought perhaps you'd be interested in it, too. Maybe we can talk about it together, after you've had a chance to read it." 

Be aware, however, that your friend may not be open to or ready for your offers to help ~ especially if he does not see that there is a problem here that requires your intervention in the first place.

I don't know if what I've said offers you much help, my dear. As I said, I don't think you can fix this for your friend, but you certainly can learn more about it yourself so at least you can understand better what may be going on with him.  You'll also be in a better position to encourage him to seek the help that is available to him should he choose to seek it.

I know it's difficult when you want to do something to make things better for someone you really care about, and you're not certain if they want or even need your help. Unfortunately, as a counselor I cannot force my help or unsolicited advice onto a person who does not seek it directly ~ all I would get in return is resistance.  We simply cannot "make" someone else do what we think is best, regardless of how "right" we may think we are. 

Whatever you do, please know that I am thinking of you and your friend, and I hope this helps you to find the help you both deserve.

Afterword: Words alone cannot begin to express my appreciation. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I never expected such a thorough explanation of feelings and of what might be going on. I will follow all your advice. I do want to help him and me get over our grief. I want the girls to know how loved and how wonderful their mother was. I don’t ever want to forget her, I just want us to move ahead in a process I see as stalled. I will call/e-mail my friend today in hopes that we can talk. Perhaps like one of your articles suggests he feels like everyone else is done and he has no one to talk to, I want him to know I still need to talk, maybe that will help. I’m so grateful I found your site and will be spending so much more time reading your articles and books. It seems so elementary once you have explained it. Thank you again, you’ve filled a huge hole in my heart and in my life and shown me a path that was hidden. With sincerest gratitude.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing Newsletter. Sign up here.


Image by Holger Langmaier from Pixabay 
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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