Widowers Often Unable to Express Grief

Article excerpt

Her clothes still fill the closet in the master bedroom.

Twenty months after his wife, Fern, died, Jack Farrington can't bring himself to sort her personal items.

Many of her clowns are gone -- the dolls and figurines and refrigerator magnets she collected -- and her bedroom in their Orange, Calif., home is his computer room.

But her clothes? "Let's just say there are a lot of them," he said. "We don't need to look at them."

Farrington, 80, is a widower struggling to adjust to life without the woman he met during World War II when both of them were in the U.S. Coast Guard.

He didn't expect to be alone like this. Few men are.

Almost 1 million married people died in 1996. Two-thirds of them were husbands. They left widows who find support in grief groups, in books, each other.

There are eight widows for every widower among the 13 million widowed people in the United States.

Little wonder many of the widows become frantic to find a new mate. Farrington fended off one woman who wanted to bring cooked dinners to his home regularly.

Little wonder men who lose their wives feel adrift.

Society expects men to walk tall through their grief, yet offers little male-related support. Each man we talked to felt he made the journey alone, even when friends and family were around.

"I became furiously busy," said Farrington, whose wife died one month before their 50th anniversary. "I went through all the swings of emotion: anger, fear, loneliness. Being busy helped."

Keeping busy also protected him from predators.

A year after his wife died, another woman asked him to spend a Saturday night in her bed.

"Oh, I can't do that!" Farrington said. "I'm the cookie chairman at church tomorrow morning."

There is no "manly" way to grieve, the experts say. There are many ways to cope with loss that have more to do with personality than gender.

Given society's need to pigeon-hole people, however, there is a stereotype for a man who loses his wife: two or three months of woe, then suck it up and get on with living. Solve your problem by getting remarried.

Stereotypes exist because they often are true.

"Many men are what I call `instrumental grievers,' " said Ken Doka, senior consultant for the Hospice Foundation of America. "They grieve in a more cognitive way."

In other words, they don't show emotions.

This attitude makes men "stoic and manly," Doka said. Men who do cry are "warm and fuzzy."

"On the other hand, we expect women to be more emotional, so when they approach grief in a cognitive way, we think they are cold and uncaring."

Men and women switch roles in widowhood.

Men often have to learn to be more caring and more social in widowhood, said Phyllis R. Silverman, an expert on social development and bereavement. "Women often hold the home together and men depend on them to be their social secretary."

On the other hand, women who are widowed often have to learn to be more self-reliant, she said. "There's a crossover."

Not a great proponent of grief groups -- "They sometimes deprive people of what they can do for themselves" -- she does encourage widowers to reach out to a friend, to others. "I think a bereavement service of some kind is necessary," said Joan Gibala, senior program specialist with the American Association of Retired Persons' grief and loss service. "That can be talking to somebody who's been widowed. It can be a support group. We do three online grief support groups each week, and some people prefer that anonymity. Some people read extensively; others keep journals.

Jim Conway joined four grief groups after the death of his wife, Sally, in 1997. …