The Widower

Yesterday, I was having what I had thought was an innocuous FaceTime with my father. There was our usual current discussion of the weather in his northeast Pennsylvania, and any snow – including what is up at our house in the Catskills. There was also the required exchange about what the new U.S. president is up to. And there was other chitchat.

As I thought we were about to sign off, abruptly he veered without warning into again reviewing my mother’s cancer and death in October 2015. Through hard personal experience, I’ve learned a lot about widowers since then. “The widower” is a particularly difficult area in our culture.

My father looks like he’s fine, but underneath the surface he’s a wreck. I never know what will come flying my way from him subjectwise about my late mother, or what mood he’ll be in about her. I get upset too reliving her death, but I know he needs to talk about it so I don’t stop him from getting it out of his system.

This time, he started on (again) about their former family doctor, whom my father now despises with the heat of a thousand suns. He feels strongly that my mother’s cancer was sloppily undiagnosed and her symptoms played down by that doctor until it was too late. I was not there to witness what went on, but based on how I recall events as they unfolded that spring and summer I do believe there is truth in my father’s assertion.

“Eh, it’s now just water under the bridge,” he finally shrugged. Which it is. We can’t turn back the clock to May 2015. It’s over.

He’s angry and he’s largely alone. Oh, he does know people, but he is not one to share feelings, or to seek out help to unload the grief. That seems common with widowers. Men don’t seem to have friends in the way women do. We have buddies. Drinking pals. Golfing mates.

Women have confidantes and support from other women and a closeness between them that men seem generally to lack with other men. A recent widow receives lots of sympathy and help from her women friends, some of whom may be widows themselves. But “the widower” is not one our American or European society – or even most societies, it seems – appears well-equipped to handle.

And that is not a new reality. We expect – even we men do – to see widows around us. Husbands expect to die before their wives because women tend, as we know, to outlive men. Even wives usually think they will outlive their husbands.

My parents were typical in that way. My dad was 2 years older than my mom: no way, they were SURE, that he was going to survive her. And I bought into that belief as well. I was certain that I would have my mother AFTER my father, not the reverse.

Stock photo. Men Symbol.
Stock photo. Men Symbol.

On her deathbed I witnessed my mother tell my father to find another woman. He had her “permission” to marry again, she declared. She seemed partly trying to make light of a tragic situation we were all experiencing, but I felt she was also being quite serious as well.

That seems to be what’s expected in our society of widowers even by women. A man is supposed to keep re-marrying until he finally finds a wife who buries him. It is as if, for a man, that woman he loved dearly and has lost forever is instantly replaceable by another woman at the drop of a hat – as if men are actually that emotionally shallow.

I suspect for most men in a happy marriage – although we are unlikely to go on and on about it over the decades with our buddies, drinking pals and golfing mates – our closest FRIEND in this life has been our wife.