The death of a wife could be one of the most challenging events an older man can face, leaving family members and friends wondering about ways to comfort a widower. Prior to the death of a spouse, married men enjoy better health and greater longevity than those who are not married.
But there’s a big problem once a spouse dies. Of all the unmarried people, those who have the worst health and elevated risk of death are those who are widowed. Widowhood increases economic vulnerability and financial strain, especially for women and racial ethnic minorities.
As noted in our article on 8 ways to help a widower, there is significantly less written on helping widowers than there is on helping widows. This is is because women overwhelmingly outlive men, so it only makes sense that there is more content on widows. However, widowers need help as well, evidenced by the prevalence of widower’s syndrome.
What is Widower’s Syndrome
Widower’s syndrome is when there’s a much greater chance for a widower to die within three months after his spouse dies. It’s also called widowhood effect.
Loss of income is sometimes cited as a reason for why widowhood brings negative effects on health among women but this hasn’t necessarily been found to be true for men.
Just because dying early is reality for many widowers and widows, it doesn’t mean that it has to happen to you or a special loved one you know.
In one National Institutes of Health study from 2014, researchers did look at the positive side of widowhood and found that older adults can be highly resilient and successfully cope and adapt to the loss of a spouse. Social support is what alleviates the deleterious effects of negative life events.
6 Stages of Grief for a Widower
There are seven stages in the grieving process for a widower. Understanding these can help you offer much compassion for someone who has lost their spouse.
While these stages are listed in numerical order, they are not necessarily linear. A widower could start at one stage, move backward, forward again, etc.
1 – Denial and Disbelief
The denial and disbelief stage is often associated with uncontrollable emotions. It’s closely associated with a state of shock. Along with these feelings is a type of brain fog that includes short-term memory loss.
Feeling that a spouse’s absence is only temporary is common. What goes with this denial is the feeling that any minute, she will be preparing your dinner. Another characteristic is talking to the spouse as if she is there. This occurs until there is acceptance that she’s not coming back.
2 – Anger
A widower’s anger could be at oneself, at God, at any person the widower may see as having been negligent, etc. The anger is often manifested at those who are nearby. Expressing anger is better than holding it in. However, asking for forgiveness when you took your anger out on others is important.
3 – Bargaining for a Different Outcome
Widowers may start asking God why He didn’t take you instead of your spouse. It may involve bargaining for a different outcome. Even though this may be irrational, it’s an exceptionally common response. The widower may promise to make changes, to repent, even to offer his life in exchange for the return of his wife.
4 – Guilt
Guilt occurs because many people believe that they should have been the person that died instead of the spouse. It’s associated with self-blame. Guilt starts out by making a widower feel there were things he should have done differently but then exaggerates itself if he starts feeling bad for being alive, eating, breathing and progressing forward in life. Guilt can progress to depression.
5 – Depression
Depression may take time to develop. Caregivers may be looking for it from the outset wondering why it isn’t immediate. Depression is a common response, and it will almost certainly come when the widower is coming to accept that nothing will bring his wife back and widowhood is his reality.
Watch for signs such as the inability to sleep, appetite loss, sadness that doesn’t leave, lethargy, and feeling as if there’s not much hope.
6 – Acceptance
In this final stage of grief, the remaining spouse begins looking forward instead of backward. They are accepting their situation. It may take a few years to enter this stage but it is possible. Just know that acceptance is not necessarily the same as hope.
4 Main Ways to Comfort a Widower
There are always things you can do to comfort a widower. You can use your words, your good memories, food, and your actions.
1 – Comforting a Widower with Your Heart Through Words
Words can be as sweet as honey or cut like a dagger. Choosing your words carefully is one of the best ways to comfort a widower, and those words can affect the outcome of a widower’s life. We are all prone to accept words spoken to us as ‘gospel’ whenever we are in a state of trauma or in a highly charged emotional experience.
What to Say to a Widower
Saying the right things are important. Here are some examples:
- I’m sorry for your loss.
- My condolences.
- I’m very sorry you are going through this.
- My heart goes out to you during this time of grief and readjustment.
These statements express heartfelt intentions to the widower. They do not harm in any way.
- She will be missed a lot!
This statement is comforting and assures the widower he is not alone in missing her.
- I’m here for you.
- I’m listening.
The #1 thing a widower needs is to be listened to. Maybe he is feeling some guilt about something not done for his spouse. Maybe he wants to confide in someone (you) about a situation. Listening is your best skill during the grief process.
- I love you.
- You are in my thoughts and prayers.
These statements express love and intentionality. Religious and spiritual individuals may appreciate your including them in your prayers.
- You are not alone.
This is comforting because in grief, there is always a feeling of aloneness, and a feeling that others have no concept what the person is going through.
What Not to Say to a Widower
Just as there are comforting things that may be said, there are statements that can bring harm. Here’s a list of some of them.
- Well, at least you had 40 years with her…
This statement doesn’t lessen the pain in any way, shape or form. It lends an air that says, “Get over it. You had your good times. It’s over now.”
- She’s in a better place.
This statement is a judgment on your part. The problem is that you aren’t sitting in the judgment seat at the person’s time of death. We can never know the state of another person’s heart or the state of their soul/spirit. Thus, you may think that it’s comforting for a widower to hear this statement but it may bring up doubt and anxiety that the deceased really is in a better place, and that’s a frightening thought likely to bring up more guilt.
- Everything happens for a reason.
This statement assumes that evil does not exist. Evil can interrupt a good person’s life and take them out before their time. Perhaps good can eventually occur as a result, such as in the woman whose family member died from a drunk driver, and she started an organization called Moms Against Drunk Driving (MADD). But these good things can’t be seen during the grieving process, as no one has a crystal ball to look into the future.
- You’ll feel better in time. Time heals all wounds.
Telling someone this doesn’t help the now period of time they are in.
- How are you?
This question is insensitive. How do you expect them to be – happy and joyful? Unconcerned about all the changes that are looming on the horizon?
- Everything is going to turn out okay.
This is called “forecasting,” or looking into the crystal ball. Do you really have that kind of power?
- At least you had time to prepare for her death.
There is no training anyone can take to psychologically prepare for someone’s death. There is financial planning, but no psychological planning. Thus, when the death occurs, there will be several steps someone goes through no matter if the death was expected or not.
- It’s been a few weeks. Isn’t it time to get over it?
This is a very damaging statement because it assumes the grieving person isn’t meeting your expectations. It’s also potentially narcissistic, as often the person saying it wants the help of the person for something.
- How did she die?
If the grieving widower answers this question, he is essentially reliving the incident. If the widower was on the scene at the time of the death, your question is asking him to relive it. That’s like asking a veteran to relive their war events that caused post traumatic stress disorder. You are shifting their mind into a state of trauma.
2 – Your Good Memories of the Deceased Person
Sharing a memory does a lot of good to the soul of someone going through grief. First, it gives the griever another perspective of their loved one. In every relationship, there are always going to be good and bad experiences – and both will most likely be replayed in the grieving spouse’s mind. By giving him one or more pleasant memories you shared with the deceased person, you strengthen the links to those good events in his brain.
Sharing good memories also puts your friend in a better mindset and may help him prevent spiraling downward into depression. In fact, if you have several good memories, you might spread them out over time to share with your friend, giving him another boost of positive energy that will last at least for a little while.
3 – Comforting a Widower with Your Heart Through Food
During the grieving process, making one’s own meals often seems like too much effort. Once the widower stops eating regular meals, it’s too easy for him to start developing deficiencies of B vitamins and minerals such as calcium and magnesium. A B vitamin deficiency, and deficiency of calcium and magnesium as well as a vitamin D deficiency will contribute to poor moods and depression.
One of the best things you can do is make sure the widower is eating regular meals. Getting him qualified for Meals on Wheels or bringing in one of his favorite meals can help this process. Also, consider the idea of checking with the person to insure he is taking at least a multivitamin/mineral tablets, their vitamin D status is good (about 65-75 ng/ml is excellent), and extra calcium and magnesium (these are difficult to get in the normal diet).
4 – Comforting a Widower with Your Heart Through Action
When someone goes through the grieving process, he or she will not want to do ‘usual’ activities, especially the ones that are drudgery to begin with. The list includes laundry, dishes, cleaning the bathroom, going shopping, and even doing daily activities with the pets such as giving them food and water or taking them out for walks. You can be the one that devotes two hours a week to one of these activities, or you could hire someone to help the widower for a period of a few to several months. Your efforts will not go unnoticed.
Another action that has long-reaching benefits is to consider giving the widower a bottle of the Bach Flower Emergency Rescue Formula Remedies.
These are very diluted flower essences – which will not interfere with any medication usage. They are specific for ‘rescuing’ the person from emotions that are raging, whether the emotion is grief, sadness, depression, anxiety or anger.
One additional action could be including the widower in some of your own plans. For example, when you go to church and hear an uplifting message, wouldn’t it be great for the widower to hear it, too?
How Long Does a New Widower Grieve?
The grieving process is different for everyone, but researchers report that the most critical time is the first 12-18 months. However, follow the person’s progress over the first two and a half years, as some may need the extra time.
In the meantime, I hope this advice on ways to comfort a widower will yield results that help lessen the period of time in grief.