Unlocking Grief

Stanley Kissel, Ph.D., a retired clinical psychologist, was an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at Monroe County Community College, Nazareth College and the University of Rochester. Dr. Kissel has authored five psychology books and conducted workshops throughout the United States. He is on the board of the National Widowers’ Organization.

I recently heard someone refer to moving forward after the loss of a loved one as “Unlocking Grief.” That started me thinking. The loss of a wife is one of the major traumatic events in a man’s life. As with all traumatic events, the way he copes with it will be colored by his personality. For example, a person who is generally optimistic and expects the future to be good to him may find it a little easier to be pulled forward by future expectations. Often such a person will attribute his good fortune to luck, or some other external situation and be unaware of his own contributions to his success. The person with an optimistic outlook will recognize when an opportunity comes along and will be able to take advantage of it.

One who often expects the worst from life will tend to hold on longer to his current state. Like the optimist, the pessimist is unaware of his contributions to his situation and generally will be unable to accept any responsibility for his misfortunes. Therefore he will feel helpless to influence his destiny and will more likely hang on to the view that “bad things seen to always happen to me.”

Most people tend to have a balance of these personality traits. When one has recently lost his wife, his experience of grief will be strongly influenced by the strength of each of these components.

Grief is a Normal Reaction to the Loss of a Loved One

It has many different manifestations. Among them are sadness, apathy, withdrawal from social situations, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, atypical crying, and feeling angrier than usual. It is true that many of these reactions are experienced by people who are diagnosed as depressed. However, when one is experiencing grief, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between grief and clinical depression. One of the most important factors to consider in differentiating between them is the duration of the manifestations of grief.

If after a reasonable amount of time one is still exhibiting intense emotions associated with grief, one may be locked into grieving. While there is no ‘one length fits all’ in the duration of grief, the longer it lasts the more danger there is that it may become a way of life rather that a helpful stop before resuming one’s life. The goal is not to find the life you had before the loss of your spouse. Rather, it is to seek to define a new sense of normalcy while the memory of your spouse continues to remain a large part of who you are.

Being mired in grief may occur for a number of different reasons.

  • Guilt, either that you didn’t do enough to save your spouse or the shame of wishing death would come to put her out of her misery from the pain she was experiencing.
  • Fear that moving forward will cause you to lose the memory of your spouse.
  • Concerns that being open to a new relationship will be a betrayal of your love for the spouse you have lost.
  • Thinking that your children will be angry with you for moving forward too quickly or at all.
  • Belief that your friends will not approve of your dating and may see your behavior as not faithful to the memory your late spouse.

A friend of mine met someone one month after the death of his wife of forty-nine years. They immediately bonded, became a couple, and decided to move in together shortly thereafter. All of his five children were furious with him. He was happy and enjoying life again. He believed that his children would come around after seeing how happy and alive he was. He was right, and they did.

Another friend decided to wait for one year after the loss of his wife before seeking a new relationship. During that year he spent a great deal of time with one of his female cousins. It was a safe relationship which got him slowly back into the world of the living. When the year was up, he soon began to see a woman about his age. His daughter was upset with him about it. It took her a long time before she got used to her father being with another woman.

The decision about pursuing new relationships belongs to you and nobody else. Although it is not unexpected that your children of any age may have difficulty accepting that you are dating or in a new relationship, any friend who expresses disapproval is not a friend at all.

Unlocking and Moving Forward

  • Try to spend some time thinking of the good times you and your wife had together.
  • Give some thought to the needs of others instead of focusing only on yourself. A recent article in a local newspaper told the story of a man who lost his wife eight months earlier. The man heard that a neighbor’s house had become flooded. Although not friendly with the family, he decided to see if he could be of some help. He went to their aid and spent the entire day helping them with their disaster. When he returned home he noticed that he felt better than he had in months. He returned to their home to help them for the next few days and related that he felt his spirits were raised by the experience.
  • If there are younger children at home, start paying more attention to them. Reassert the role of parent, resuming the responsibilities that have been temporarily filled by a nanny or family members pinch hitting for you.
  • When you find yourself overcome by a sudden extreme feeling of grief, allow yourself to experience the emotion, but just for a few moments. Then gather the strength to say “enough” and move on to some other activity.
  • Moving forward doesn’t equal dating or becoming committed to a new relationship. That is only one way a widower can move forward. Here are some other examples.

    A friend of mine spent a number of years taking care of his wife who suffered from ALS. After she passed away, he continually found excuses to decline social engagements. He refused to accept dinner invitations and avoided going out with other women. He also stopped going to concerts, which he did often attend while his wife was alive. Some time during his second year of grieving the loss of his wife, a married woman friend brought him a book on bridge and asked him to join her at a beginner’s bridge game. After reading the book, he reluctantly did go with her and took to bridge as a duckling takes to water. He began playing duplicate bridge, making new friends, and generally getting out more.

    Before I started seeing a woman romantically, I began writing to help me with my grief. At first I attempted only small vignettes. I then graduated to a complete novel, incorporating into the story fond memories of places that my wife and I had visited. I found the writing a tonic for my malaise. It was my key to unlocking my grief.

    Grief can be incapacitating. Only when it is prolonged are you in danger of making a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved spouse into a permanent solution. The key to unlocking the chains of prolonged grief lies within you. Take your time. It’s okay if you move forward slowly. However, it is important to make sure that YOU ARE MOVING.