Inside Look at Widowers Coping With Grief

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Title: The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life
Authors: Donald L. Rosenstein, MD, and Justin M. Yopp, PhD
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: January 2018
Price: $28.95; hardcover, 192 pages

Looking back, the cancer advocacy movement took shape in two waves: the first coming in the 1970s, when breast cancer “went public” and began to shed its long and punishing stigma. The second wave began in the 1990s, when cancer advocacy became grounded in political activism. This second wave also produced the cancer support group experience, which gathered momentum with the advent and sophistication of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Today, if you Google “cancer support groups,” you’ll get about 1.4 million results in less than a second.

Filling a Special Need

Although there is a mind-numbing amount of data on this subject, two professors at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill discovered an unfilled niche: a support group for widowed fathers, which is carefully and tenderly illustrated in their fine and important new book, The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life.

The authors, Donald L. Rosenstein, MD, Director of the UNC Comprehensive Support Group and current President of the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, and Justin M. Yopp, PhD, Director of UNC’s Pediatric Psycho-oncology Consolation Services, first began an original support group called Single Fathers Due to Cancer. Seven fathers signed up for the original support group. Initially, Drs. Rosenstein and Yopp had scheduled just six support group sessions; however, the men would eventually meet regularly for 4 years, and over that period, each widowed father navigated his darkest days and over time reimagined a future for himself and his children.

Navigating Complications With Children

Organized in three sections, the book explores and illustrates the true healing potential of shared grief. It’s important to note that none of the seven men identified or thought of himself as a “support group kind of guy,” and at the onset, all felt terribly out of place. But things changed as these seven men realized that, while still deeply grieving the loss of their wives, they could support each other in a way no others could.

For instance, figuring out how to honor the first anniversary of your wife’s death while managing both your and your child’s grief is an experience unique to widowed parents. This issue is illustrated early on by Neill, one of the seven men featured. His wife, Deanna, had died a year ago, and as the anniversary of her death drew near, Neill’s teenaged daughter, Julie, made a simple request: She wanted to go to a hockey game with her friends.

In sharing their grief, the widowers found one common thread: a feeling like the wrong parent had died. That is a very difficult issue to bridge.

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But to her father, who’d spent weeks and sleepless nights figuring out how to commemorate the first anniversary of his wife’s death, it wasn’t a simple request; it was a selfish affront that caused a huge emotional battle, and for several days, their life together was a silent chess game of avoidance. Understandably, Neill felt lost, and the authors draw his touching dilemma with grace and insight.

The men in the group immediately identified with Neill’s situation and supported his first instinct to hold his ground on an issue that was so important to him. That said, they also agreed the last thing Neill needed during his grieving was dragging a brooding teenaged daughter to the cemetery and out to dinner. “Let her go to the hockey game,” said Bruce, admitting it was a difficult concession that would hopefully be better in the long term. After a short tense silence, everyone, even Neill, nodded in agreement.

The anniversary of his wife’s death didn’t turn out as Neill had expected, missing some internal sense of balance and cosmic connection he’d hoped for. But Neill’s emotional crisis with his daughter had been avoided, and the short trip into the difficult terrain this book deals with demonstrates how fragile life becomes when negotiating the world of ongoing grief and healing.

Finding Ways to Mesh

One of the most interesting aspects of this compelling read is how the different personalities tiptoe around each other, finding ways to mesh, not only in the healing process, but also as men—strangers in fact—who have come together in the most intimate of circumstances. It didn’t always go well.

Bruce, the most outgoing member of the group, was the only one who’d previously been to a support group. He walked into the session not only as the youngest by a couple of decades, but also as a 44-year-old father with young children at home. He sat next to a 76-year-old widow who, like the others, was mourning a spouse he had been with for decades. Instead, Bruce’s wound was fresh, and he was morning a future he’d been robbed of and trying to rear three emotionally frail daughters.

This section of the book is particularly telling about the highly personal aspects of grieving, as Bruce, desperately in need of support, simply cannot overcome the feeling of being different from the others. After a few strained sessions, he left and never came back to the group.

A Common Thread

In sharing their grief, the widowers found one common thread: a feeling like the wrong parent had died. That is a very difficult issue to bridge. Interestingly, it wasn’t the special quality of maternal love as much as the nuts and bolts of parenting skills, simple as getting the kids off to school with lunch and on time, they felt they were missing. And they shared heartfelt stories of their wives, the facile ease with which women seemed to handle things. Small things. But when all the small things were synthesized into a whole, it worked. These discussions were some of the best and most productive.

Over the course of this important and lively read, the men become a “band of brothers,” and the healing, although never full, is real. They teach us that in times of grief, it is important to emote, share, and open up to others. It’s not easy, and sometimes it doesn’t work. “Once the children went off to school, Joe, who worked from home, was left alone with his thoughts and an empty house. Reminders of his wife, Joy, were everywhere—Joy’s medications and pill bottles still cluttered the bathroom countertop, and her side of the bed remained undisturbed,” write the authors.

Tough stuff. Some wounds never heal all the way. But Joe, like the others, was lucky to have an outlet for his grief. The Group tells a profound story and is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■