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.
Strength is such a loaded idea. What is it to be strong? We always think of it as a great character trait. Strength of mind, strength of body, strength to bear pain, strength to hide your feelings. You hear these stories in eulogies of how wonderfully strong the dead were. No one says, they were vulnerable and hurt and needing support. Instead we champion the stoic. Go into the night with your head held high. Why is this so laudable? Why not go into the night kicking and screaming and holding out your hand clinging to love and looking to be buffered from the fear? Because it hurts the ones around you. It burdens those who love you. It is scary to show your pain. It is even scarier for those who love you to see it. Both sides end up feigning strength. Shoring up their walls to hide their terror. It contains it supposedly.
I saw this woman. And after about half an hour she was able to cry. She said to me, “oh, that feels so good. I have not cried in years and all I really wanted to do is cry.” I told her that I had a very positive attitude towards crying, and I thanked her for being able to feel safe enough to do that in front of me. I wanted to talk to her about what it meant to be strong, since this was the word that was pervasive. I said, what is the strongest tree? In your mind is it a redwood? Giant and immovable? Or stop and think for a minute about a palm tree, slim and flexible. Delicate almost in appearance. When hurricane force winds blow who is left standing? It is not the old giant tree with its rigid trunk and unyielding branches. It is the palm tree, bending over to impossible angles, washed over by the force of the attack, accepting of the onslaught, that will survive. These are trees that were born to withstand trauma.
To me strength is feeling. Strength is reaching out and admitting that that you are hurting and being able to accept help. Strength is being able to see your loved ones in pain and allowing them let go and bend with the wind, while understanding that it will not break them. Strength is not about building an impenetrable wall over which nothing gets in or out. Strength is about resilience and showing your pain and knowing that it will flow over you like a hurricane. It’s true, some storms are too strong and we can become uprooted, but if our very design is to bend and flow with the wind, most of our storms will pass over us making us stronger and ready for the next one.
So I dedicate this blog to the sufferers. I get angry sometimes with the rhetoric of fighting and strength that comes with cancer. It puts this onus on the ill. It makes them feel like they are failures when they look at their fear and their sadness. It makes them feel responsible when they have no energy to get up and fight. I say to them that your strength is in your reaching out your hand and saying, I am scared, I am lonely, I need your help. Your strength is in bending, and coming close to the ground where we can touch you.