People often say that a man who is mourning the death of a wife finds the grieving process more difficult than a woman who becomes a widow. Losing a spouse is painful for anyone, but society gives men an additional burden to bear. From childhood onward, men receive the distinct and consistent message that no matter what happens in their lives, they need to be strong and act as the providers for their families
The Man as the Family Protector
Even if we disagree with this traditional view of the male role in life, the signals we interpret from the time we are very young still have a powerful effect on all of us. A man marries and may well assume the conventional role of family protector. If a problem comes up, he believes that it is his job to solve it.
Long-standing expectations have a similar effect on women. In a traditional marital relationship, the woman is in charge of keeping the household running smoothly. She knows where every family member needs to be at any time for work, school, or outside activities. If the couple spends time together in the company of friends, the woman makes the arrangements and keeps that contact going.
When the Wife Dies
If the man’s home life is running smoothly through the efforts of his wife, he may not really be aware of how much she contributes to household management. In a survey conducted in 2005 and summarized at CareerJournal.com, sociology professors from the University of Chicago and the University of Seoul found that male respondents performed 39% of the household chores. Although they were probably a surprise to the surveyed women, who tended to overestimate their own contributions, these results still put more than 60% of the home chores in female hands.
No matter what division of labor existed before the wife died, the entire responsibility for running the household usually falls squarely on the man’s shoulders following her death. He then has to face not only traumatic effects of loss but also practical matters he may never have handled before. If there are minor children in the household, the death of a wife has an even greater impact on the family.
The Grieving Man
The traditional role that society gives a man has a lot to do with the way he experiences grief after the loss of his spouse. From the time he is very young, a man learns that it is wrong for him to express painful feelings. Being too much in touch with his so-called feminine side casts him in a suspicious light at the best of times and makes him an object of ridicule at the worst. People may even question his sexual orientation, believing that a “real” man should be able to suck it up and get on with things without missing a beat. This John Wayne mentality is fine for the movie star and the larger-than-life characters he portrayed, but it does not work with real people in the real world. Any man who adopts this way of coping with grief will have a very difficult time dealing with his loss.
Another consequence of this macho-male attitude is that a widowed man may find it easier to express anger than hurt. Being angry is in tune with society’s image of a man, but crying is not. Whereas women may talk to friends, relatives, or a counselor about their feelings, a man is not as likely to do so. If he does express his emotions (whether he breaks down or not), the rest of us may not feel comfortable with such a display of raw sentiment.
If you are fortunate enough to be present when a grieving man expresses his pain in this way, just let him talk, cry, or do whatever he needs to do. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Don’t tell him that he should be stronger or that it isn’t manly to express feelings of loss.
The other side of the grief coin is that men may deal with their losses privately. There is no right or wrong way to mourn the passing of someone who played such a major role in one’s life. If a man needs to grieve in private, let him do that. He may never want to talk about it, and that is okay too. The more supposedly feminine method of dealing with death (crying, talking, and seeking emotional support from others) is not the only way to grieve nor is it the only right way to do so.
Coping with Grief
The only way to cope with grief is to go through it completely and naturally. Attempting to self-medicate by using alcohol is not a good idea. Alcohol is a depressant, so although it may numb the emotional pain at first, it will make the mourner feel even worse than ever after several drinks. In addition, if someone drinks enough alcohol, there will be a nasty hangover the next morning. Having a big, throbbing headache is never pleasant, whether you are grieving or not.
There are healthier ways of coping with loss. Some men find spending time out of doors helpful in dealing with grief. There is something about being close to nature that makes us conscious of the cyclical rhythm of life. Yard work or gardening may be soothing.
It is also therapeutic to stick to a routine as much as possible, as this adds structure to our lives. Resist the temptation to fill every waking moment with some type of activity. Taking advantage of time to reflect on what has happened is important too.
Accepting aid from others is another positive coping mechanism. Friends and family members will want to help the man who is a widower, but they may not be sure how to do that. Let them know how they can help, but if what you need is some time to be alone, then just say so. This is not the same thing as shutting out other people. Instead, be clear about what you need.
It may be tempting to neglect one’s own health following the death of a wife. Eat well (or as well as possible under the circumstances) and exercise regularly. If you don’t feel up to eating a full meal, buy some meal replacement products (liquids or bars) and consume them until you can handle something more substantial.
Losing a spouse is one of the most difficult life events anyone can experience. The way men respond to this loss and handle their grief depends on their perceived role in society. Keep in mind that even though they express pain differently from women, men hurt every bit as much as anyone else.