Who I am.

I write about the landscape of grief, nature, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, my essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 50 journals, including in the Huffington Post and Colorado Review. I’ve won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and my work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. My account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with my wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Widowed Fathers

I have read few books that speak honestly and in detail about being a widowed father. Compared to the number of grief memoirs written by women, there aren’t many written by men. There should be more of both.


A recent book by Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp is excellent—The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life. It shares the stories of men in a support group that met monthly and talked through their struggles of suddenly having to raise children as a solo parent. As they shared their insights and emotions, they helped each other navigate and survive their new challenge. 


Men are generally reluctant to seek out or accept help from others, and the men in this group only agreed to participate because they would be with other men who had lost their wives, most of them to cancer. They were of similar age and dealing with the dissolution of the future they expected.


I love this book because the men realized that they could use help, and they were strong enough to share where they felt broken. Not only are these profound stories of overcoming tragedy, they are also filled with the hearts of men, which we don’t often see. This is an important addition to the library of grief.


I’m a fan of support groups for those who are grieving, especially if the members have lost the same person to the same cause, whether this is a wife to cancer, a friend to a heart attack, or a child to suicide. Often, they become ongoing fellowships.


Many topics are discussed, such as how to plan and cook meals when the grief casseroles from friends and neighbors run out, how to be a “good enough” parent (instead of trying to be perfect), when to remove your wedding ring, and how to talk about death with each of your children. Young children grieve differently than teenagers, and boys express emotions in ways that girls do not, although some of the differences are because of cultural expectations and social training. The men learned how to keep the lines of communication open and notice when a child was hiding their grief.


When we share our grief with others, the weight no longer feels unbearable.


When fathers with fully-scheduled lives had to take on all of the parenting duties, there was little time left to deal with their own grief because they first had to help their children deal with theirs. Like everyone else, the men exhibited symptoms of depression in the first six months. Widowed fathers have a heighted risk of this progressing into profound and clinical depression if they keep everything bottled up. These men recognized the danger and did something.


Because their wives were relatively young when they developed a serious illness, they assumed that some medical treatment or drug would be found that would allow them to live long lives, so most of them hadn’t talked about end-of-life matters. The mothers didn’t wrap up unfinished projects, didn’t write letters to their children for when they grew up, and then there was no time left. Many of their doctors compounded the problem by not being honest about the reality of a dire prognosis.


By spending more time with their children and listening, the men felt their relationships deepen in ways they never imagined. As the men shared their struggles with each other, they helped one another figure out how to be better parents, and how to incorporate the loss of a wife into their life narrative.


The two authors are professors of psychology and medicine. While the stories and interactions between the men are the heart of the book, the words of Yopp and Rosenstein add important context and background information. For the group, they used the Dual Process Model of Bereavement, created by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut, that speaks of post-traumatic growth. 


This model says that grieving is not the linear process that people expect from the common understanding of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dying. Rather, we begin with the challenge of dealing directly with the loss, and then we begin restoring our life without the person who died. There continues to be oscillation between the two as we focus on grief for a time, then on getting the rest of our life in order, and then back to grief.


Although the book’s focus is on widowed fathers, it has important insights for all grieving men, as well as anyone who is grieving. The authors have organized additional support groups to help other widowed parents, male and female, with all of the proceeds from the sale of their book going to support these programs. More information can be found at their website: www.widowedparent.org.


What those who are grieving want most is not advice or lectures, but companionship with people who understand.


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