The Widowhood Effect: Dying of a Broken Heart
There can be nothing more devastating than the death of a spouse. The loss of your partner turns your life upside down. We have all heard of the stories of loving husbands and wives “dying of a broken heart”. It turns out, statistically speaking, this phenomenon is well documented and happening at an alarming rate. It’s been called the “Widowhood Effect.” The stats show that the loss of a spouse can impact a bereaved spouse’s mortality rate from 30% to an astonishing 90% depending on timing, age and gender. The more recent the loss, the higher the mortality rate. And men are the ones who are at the greatest risk.
Why is this happening? One thing is for certain: Social connection helps to reduce the negative impacts of grief. The more a person is isolated, the more likely it will harm their health. Men in particular, are not that willing to seek out help at times of emotional crisis. It seems that sitting around in a traditional grief support group is just not that appealing to them. Whether this is biological or social, the fact is, men have difficulty talking about their feelings. It turns out, that talking about how they feel may not even be the best way for them to deal with their loss.
So how do men grieve and how can we help them? For many men, their wives were their main confidants. She was their social co-ordinator, their contact with the world at large. If she passes, they can find themselves alone, not knowing how to care for themselves and unsure how to reach out. A man may not want to talk, but that does not mean that he does not need to connect in some way.
Recently research into men’s grief has put forward a theory that men are “instrumental” grievers. This means that they need to “do” rather than “share.” Men often immerse themselves in work, organize fundraisers and memorials or even join sports or activity groups. Women, more often “intuitive” grievers are more likely to speak of their pain, but men often feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed by this.
During the last few years there has been a community movement towards alternative grief intervention through walking groups. We are fortunate to have one such group here in Montreal organized through the support organization, Hope and Cope. They meet every Thursday at 10 am on Mount Royal. I was lucky enough to be a facilitator for this group and was amazed at how many men came. They really loved it. It gave them the chance to connect, walk and be part of a group without the pressure of sitting in a circle and bearing their souls. It was instrumental AND supportive.
We all know our population is aging and our older Montrealers are becoming increasingly isolated. Innovative groups like Hope and Cope’s walking group are just one way we can reach out and try and support and help ease the burden of loneliness. In the case of a recent widower, it might just help save his life.