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By Iris Arenson-Fuller, CPC, ACC
If you have lost your spouse, or know someone who has, you know how much your life changes and how hard this is. There are probably times when you believe that life cannot possibly ever feel “normal” again. The death of a spouse is surely a difficult experience for both the widow and the widower. The loss of a spouse is the loss of a companion, a soulmate, perhaps of income, and possibly of social circles. When someone loses a husband or wife, it can feel like the loss of your own identity, even when you have been a very independent person in your relationship. This loss and the grieving process may be experienced in different ways, though, by the widow and the widower.
If you have gone through this, it can be a huge challenge to re-learn how to live, and to reestablish your identity as a single person, rather than as part of a couple. I became a widow in my 30’s, and raised my children alone for nearly 15 years, so I do know about this from firsthand experience.
Emotional responses of the widow and widower
The expression of grief can sometimes be easier for widows, since women in Western cultures, at least, and in some others too, have been encouraged to share and express their feelings. Men, on the other hand, have often been socialized to believe it isn’t okay to cry or talk about their feelings.
Because of emotional conditioning, many men may find themselves struggling even more than women with the death of a spouse. They may need grief counseling, or coaching, but are less likely to seek it than are women, mistakenly believing that needing this help means demonstrating weakness. Women may find it easier or more appealing to join widow’s support groups, and therefore, may more readily find a social network and some tools to cope better with their loss.
Social changes after the loss of a spouse
While there are surely exceptions, the wife is typically the one in the family who creates the social circles. When a woman’s husband dies, she is more likely to have a group of friends who support her, and she may be more experienced in reaching out to others. There are, of course, women who have been loners, or who did not maintain friendships during their marriages, and loneliness would then be felt more strongly. If you are a widower who relied on your wife for all of your social interactions, you may suddenly find yourself without your only confidante. You may feel isolated from friends and family because you may not know how to reach out.
When it comes to dating after the death of a spouse, if that is something you feel interested in, or ready for, you could find it more difficult to meet men as an older widow, because there are fewer men your age. You are not limited to one age group, but most women feel more comfortable dating someone close to their age. (Opening up your horizons and changing your perspective is a topic for another article!)
On the other hand, the older widower may have an easier time finding a companion, simply because demographically, there are more women than men. The only impediment may be a widower’s difficulty in socializing.
Getting out there in the dating world can be highly intimidating and scary, and is probably very different from what it was like for most people when they last were part of that scene.
An interesting, and upsetting twist for young widows is that they may face being seen as a threat by married women. I am sad to say that this was something I experienced myself. I was shocked to observe that I was viewed in this light by some women. A young widower may be less likely to have this effect on married men. Although, as discussed above, a widower may find that his inability to ask for help isolates him. Younger widowers, particularly with children to care for, often find their friends, acquaintances and larger communities flocking to help out, at least at first. This is often due to stereotypical perceptions about men’s and women’s roles, but if a man was not the primary caretaker of the family and suddenly has to undertake that role, as well as managing to maintain a job or career, people in his life are generally sympathetic.
Financial experiences of widows and widowers
Widows can sometimes have a harder time financially than widowers. With older couples, the husband may have been the sole bread winner. With employment inequality still very much alive in most places, men often earn more than women do. A widow may find herself in an unexpected financial crisis. For instance, if a couple was retired, and the wife never worked, she would have to be 62 before she could receive social security benefits on her husband’s account. Widowers can run into these kinds of issues, but since the wife is more likely to outlive her husband it’s not as common. Certain types of pensions may cease after the worker’s death and unless you set it up that way, may not be available to a surviving spouse. Some people don’t even realize that, and are stunned to find themselves with a drastically reduced income after losing the husband or wife who was receiving the pension through their previous employment.
Young widows and widowers in households where both spouses worked could have financial difficulty, too, if both incomes were needed to cover all expenses. Even if they qualified for Survivor’s Benefits because they had children still in the home, there could be additional childcare and other expenses that were perhaps not part of life before.
Support and Self-Care
As uncomfortable as it may be initially, both widows and widowers need to get accustomed to asking for, and finding support. Statistically there is a greatly increased chance of someone becoming ill, or even dying, in the first months after losing a spouse. This likelihood decreases somewhat after the first year, but loss and bereavement are highly stressful, and it is known that we are more vulnerable at such times.
When we are overwhelmed by our feelings of pain and depression, by all of the loose ends we must tie up, or by taking care of our families, there is often little time or energy left over for us. Yet there is probably nothing more important than for us to learn to take care of ourselves, and to find opportunities to relax and to be with people who are supportive and fun.
If you have lost your spouse, don’t wait till you reach a crisis point. Ask for help. Don’t expect people to read your mind, and don’t pretend everything is fine, when it isn’t. There has to be at least one person out there you feel a little easier about sharing with, and asking for help. There are also counselors, therapists and loss and grief coaches who can help. Sometimes people worry about a stigma being attached to going for this kind of help. Your survival and/or your family’s is what’s important right now. You need to grieve, but you also have a right to stop suffering, to learn to cope better, and to feel joy again.
Iris J. Arenson-Fuller is a Life Stage, Family, Relationship Changes Certified Coach who helps people who have lived with loss, trauma and difficult life changes learn to find a new normal, and to build new hope and joy into their lives. She also specializes in adoption loss issues and all other issues pertaining to the Adoption Community.
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