Rarely do we hear about the grief and pain a widower may feel when losing their spouse. In our society, these types of conversations may skip over how a widower feels after suffering a loss such as this. Men are stereotyped and expected to remain stoic, pillars of superhuman strength.
Widowers may tend to suffer different types of grief than a widow because of how their grief is processed. The stages of grief for a widower might be longer and more complicated to resolve because of that same inability to process their grief openly and honestly among his friends, family, and peers.
Complicating this type of grief is the fact that death and dying is still a taboo subject in our society despite ongoing efforts to change that. The following guide might help you in discovering how grief affects you as a widower, and how to best deal with it as you suffer through your loss.
Stage 1: Shock and Disbelief
The first thing that you may likely experience immediately after suffering the death of your spouse is shock and disbelief. It should be noted that grief affects everyone in different ways, but you can expect everything to feel like one big blur in the first few days. You might also find that you're unable to control your emotions or you might not feel anything at all.
It may take days or weeks after your spouse's death for you to begin processing that they're no longer here. This is a normal reaction that shouldn't cause you alarm. Many things have the potential to affect your emotional state when you've lost your spouse, so try not to rush things. Allow sufficient time for you to process your grief and emotions. You can expect that you won't feel the full effects of your loss until several months after your spouse has died.
When you lose your spouse, you'll likely find that you're unable to effectively process your grief without suffering deep and overwhelming emotion. Fortunately, the body produces a natural reaction to help you during your most emotionally vulnerable time. This phenomenon is known as widow brain.
Widow brain affects both men and women who’ve suffered the loss of their spouse. It's the brain fog that accompanies that loss. It makes you feel as if you've lost touch with reality. It’s not uncommon to also experience a temporary short-term memory loss. This is typical and generally associated with grief and trauma. When your grief starts to lift, you can expect to gradually regain your short-term memory.
Widow brain typically lasts from one year to eighteen months. It will start to clear up on its own as your grief lessens over time. However, you may find that there’ll be things that your brain will have permanently blocked from your memory in order to spare you further grief.
Writing things down helps you to move past this stage. Keep a notebook handy so that you can jot things down that’ll help you remember things. It may be something as simple as turning off the lights when you go to bed, or locking the door behind you. Don’t be surprised if you sometimes forget to turn the water off when you step out of the shower. It’s been known to happen as a result of widow brain.
Stage 2: Denial
Almost everyone experiences denial when processing the death of a loved one, and it is only compounded when it is their spouse. It's hard to believe that the person you've shared your life with is no longer there. Your mind might start causing you to think that their absence is temporary and that at any minute they'll be walking through the door.
This pattern of disbelief might continue for several weeks. You'll forget that your spouse has died. You might still call out to them to bring you the remote or to say goodbye every time you leave out the door. All of these false expectations might make you think that you're losing your mind. But it can be considered a part of having widow brain.
Eventually reality will sink in, and you'll start to accept that your spouse isn't coming back. You won’t need to do anything special or take down notes to help you during this phase. This stage of the grieving process gives way to other more complicated stages of grief.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Denial almost always gives way to bargaining when grieving the loss of your spouse. You may find yourself making deals with the universe to take you instead of your spouse or you might start asking why your spouse had to die. Why didn't God or your higher power take you instead?
Bargaining for a different outcome is normal when you're grieving. During times of grief, your mind loses some or all of its capacity to think clearly and rationally. This, like widow brain, is temporary.
You can find yourself resorting to making deals that you know are impossible to make, but you'll do it anyway. There will be a phase where you might want to do anything to make things go back to the way they were. This is all part of the grieving process. With time, your pain will lessen and your rational thinking will return to normal.
You can move past this stage by accepting that there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome. There’s a universal order to things that’s beyond your control. Accept that your heart will be heavy with grief for a while, and understand that your spouse won’t be coming back despite how much you want it to be so.
Stage 4: Guilt
Whenever someone you love dies, there’s a part of you that feels guilty that they died instead of you. It doesn’t matter whether you had anything to do with their death, or if it was accidental or naturally occurring.
Guilt is an expected reaction to grief that usually happens at the beginning stages of grief. It’s natural to feel guilty for not having done things differently or feeling that you didn’t do enough to save your loved one. In time, you can expect these feelings to lessen.
Unfortunately, guilt also has a way of making you feel bad for being alive, for eating, for breathing, and for moving forward with your life. Allowing guilt to consume you can complicate the grief process. Self-blame and regret may sometimes lead to depression and the longer it goes untreated, the more difficult it may be to work through your grief.
How can you move past feeling guilty over the death of your spouse? Moving past feelings of guilt may not be easy for some, but it is worth trying. For example, try to focus on the positive things that you did while your spouse was alive. Include everything from accompanying them to doctor’s appointments, helping them with their medications, cooking special meals for them, and spending quality time together.
Other things to consider in helping you move past your guilt are:
- Accept that your spouse is now gone and that there’s nothing more you can do
- Consider that everything you did for them was the best that you could do
- Forgive yourself for all the things you didn’t do or that you feel you could’ve done better.
Stage 5: Anger
The feelings of anger may overtake you when you’re processing your grief. You might find yourself lashing out at everyone around you. You might even feel angry at God or your higher power for allowing this to happen to you and your spouse.
Feeling angry is a way of releasing pent up emotion that will ultimately help you heal from your grief. Here are some ways you can cope with feelings of anger below:
- Recognizing that anger is another way of expressing grief
- Allowing yourself to express your anger instead of holding it in
- Asking for and giving forgiveness when your anger causes hurt in others
Stage 6: Depression
Depression may also strike at any stage in the grieving process. It is different from sadness, in that you can begin to feel the extent of your loss and deep feelings of sadness consume you. You can also feel lonely, isolated, and empty. Depression also contributes to the inability to sleep, a lack of appetite, feeling constant sadness, a lack of energy, and feeling like you are losing your hope.
If you’re feeling the onset of depression, talk to your loved ones and ask for support. Consider joining a widow support group or seeking grief therapy from a professional.
Stage 7: Acceptance and Hope
Finding acceptance that your spouse has died doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped loving them or that you’ve forgotten about them. Accepting their loss frees you from the pain and suffering of your grief, but it doesn’t make your grief automatically go away.
You may begin to move forward from your grief in small ways, like removing your wedding ring, and beginning to refer to yourself as a widower. If you don’t yet know what to do with your wedding ring, tuck it away and save this decision for later. It usually takes one to two years for you to regain your normal levels of thinking following the death of your spouse.
A Widower’s Grief
Things will never go back to normal as you remembered them. You’ll have a new role and new identity as you move forward from your grief. In time, your new reality will begin to emerge to help you find peace and comfort through your healing.
If you're feeling lonely and want some advice, read our guides on how to combat loneliness for seniors and coping with loneliness after a loss.
- Stroebe, M., Stroebe, W., van de Schoot, R., Schut, H., Abakoumkin, G., & Li, J. “Guilt in bereavement: the role of self-blame and regret in coping with loss,” PloS one, 9(5), e96606, 2014, www.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0096606