As a widower, you know that you are not the only one grieving. Following the loss of your wife, pain is felt by many others, such as your wife’s parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, fellow parishioners, or friends. It can be just as intense as what you experience, and this is especially likely for children. Being the surviving parent of grieving children is yet another challenge you may face, and sometimes it is the most challenging role of all. You need to understand that role and help tend to your children’s grief while you tend to your own. It may be especially critical for men who are fathers to young children.
The challenges are many, from communication to obstacles you may face, to how to handle questions or issues your children may have if you start dating. And there are many others so be prepared as they are sure to arise.
Just as there is no single way to grieve, there is no one way to become a single, supportive parent. But I will propose one hard-and-fast rule: Be open. Men who suppress their emotions hurt or permanently stunt their recovery. And experts tell us that as you deal with grief yourself, openly and honestly, you are also helping your children. Nothing is gained by suppressing or hiding your own recovery – in fact, that can be detrimental. Says clinical psychologist Edward Zimmer: “If the widower cannot allow for expressing and processing his own grief, then he will inhibit that process for his children. This unresolved grief will have emotional consequences for both of them later in life.”
And if that isn’t motivation enough, there is a silver lining to sharing. Professor Deborah Carr of Boston University says the death of a mother can bring fathers closer to their children. “Women are usually the ones who make the phone calls and that the kids lay their hearts out to. Often a husband will just say, ‘Talk to your mother.’ But when the mother is gone, they may see a real increase in the level of closeness with their kids.”
That was the experience of widower Chris Sweet, who said playing dual-parent roles was difficult, but it bought him and his three children closer. “I was close with my kids before, but we bonded further. It was a tough time for us, but I always made sure that we enjoyed our time together. We were able to laugh, and we had as much fun as we could have.”
Of course, how you support your children (or how children support you) varies based on the child’s age. Here’s one good example. While adult children are often a source of support for older widowers, young children are often confused, traumatized, or scared by a mother’s death.
Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., of the Child Trauma Center in Houston, Texas, and an authority on brain development, writes “Most children do not know what to expect following the loss of a family member or friend,” and he encourages people not to be afraid to speak with the children. “When discussing this issue with children, be sure to use age-appropriate language and explanations. As the child gets further away from the event, he or she will be able to focus longer, digest more, and make more sense of what has happened.
Not all communications with children go as planned. Should a widower’s interactions with their children break down, the widower may want to seek professional help. “Some families may benefit from family therapy,” says Dr. Carr, “as it gives them a safe space to have a conversation led and moderated by an expert.
Remember, if you are a widower, you are not the only one who is grieving. By proactively engaging your children in their grief, you will actually be contributing to your own recovery.