Steven has a 9 year-old daughter and a 5 year-old son, a house, and a cocker spaniel. He works in a county government office “doing stuff that is pretty boring.” Steven enjoys watching college football and spending time with his children. And he happens to be a widower. His wife, Amy, died about 2 years ago.
Steven wants you to know one thing: He’s not looking to get remarried.
My doctoral dissertation was about widowers and I have written a book for mental health professionals about how to counseling widowers. (It is titled: Counseling Widowers. Catchy, isn’t it.) Both of my grandfathers were widowed – one was widowed twice.
I’ve talked with so many widowers that I’ve lost track. What I’ve discovered is that widowers have a wide variety of different reactions to their loss. For example, the most common comment/question I get when people find out that I study widowers is some version of the “remarried” topic. People often say, “I know a widower who got remarried 2 months after his wife died. What’s up with that?” Well, I actually have a theory about that. But I’ve met far more widowers who didn’t get remarried immediately.
The thing is that humans tend to remember examples that either match our expectations (what psychologists call confirmation bias) and we overestimate the frequency of unusual or emotion-laden examples (availability heuristic). Therefore, people often overestimate the percentage of widowers who remarry quickly. (Not that remarrying is a bad thing).
My point is that widowers have very diverse reactions to their losses. In fact, I’ve met widowers who after the death of their partners:
- channeled their grief into a project or cause
- were inconsolable and could barely function
- couldn’t seem to grieve and lost themselves in work
- joined a support group
- immediately got remarried
- successfully raised 4 children
- promised themselves and their deceased wife that they would never get married
- practically rejoiced (after their abusive, addicted, and/or repeatedly unfaithful wives died)
- and on and on….
Although this post started as an opportunity to correct some assumptions about widowers, it really is a discussion about making assumptions about many different categories of bereaved individuals. I could come up with a list of corrections to some of the most common myths and misconceptions about all the different groups of bereaved people. For example:
- Most grieving parents don’t get divorced
- Many individuals bereaved by suicide are well-supported
- Bereaved children often handle loss pretty well
- Many widows can handle finances, car/house maintenance, and other tasks
- and dozens of other categories
Don’t get me wrong. It can be helpful to examine and learn about groups of bereaved people and there often are some common challenges or concerns. My own research is an example of studying a group who share a common loss.
But the bottom line is this: Be careful not to make assumptions about bereaved individuals.
While it can be helpful to understand and study different groups of bereaved people, we must always be careful not to assume they all share the same concerns or challenges.
If you care about a widower (or other bereaved person), be sure to listen and ask about what their concerns are. Don’t make assumptions based on things you’ve heard or read. Ask them if you can help them. Listen carefully. Gently offer your support. And then listen some more.