Gay Grief and Gay Widowers
by Michael Shernoff, MSW
Published in LGNY, September 1, 1997, Issue 62
1997 Michael Shernoff
Permission is granted to copy or reproduce this article either in full or in part, without prior written authorization of the author on the sole condition that the author is credited and notified of reproduction.
Grief is madness--ask anyone who's been there. They will tell you it abates with time, but that's a lie. What drowns you in the first year is a force of solitude and helplessness exactly equal in intensity to the love you had for the one who's gone. Equally passionate, equally intimate. The spaces between the stabs of pain grow longer after a while, but they're empty spaces. The cliches of condolence get you back to the office, back to your taxes and the dinner table--and for everyone else's sake, you collaborate. The road of least resistance is paved with the gravel of well-meaning friends, rather like the gravel that cremation leaves.
Paul Monette, Last Watch of the Night
"Initially I didn't even know if he was turned on to me. I knew I was attracted to him, but it wasn't until after dinner, when I suggested that we get dessert and bring it back to my place, that I began to flirt with the idea of possibly having sex with Dennis," Michael said to me during a therapy session two months after the death of his lover Leonard. "I hadn't felt that kind of uncertainty in years. I hadn't been on a date in over ten years since I first met Leonard. Now I am a middle-aged, HIV positive widower." I thought to myself, "It's not that long since Leonard died, but this seems right."
I asked him "How did you begin to know when you were ready for that kind of date?"
The ensuing conversation is one I have had with widowers countless times. For Raphael, it was very different than for Michael. "The problem wasn't the first date. The problem for me was the first person who slept over the whole night," he confided during one of our sessions a year after the death of his partner.
For each gay widower it is always different, different, and complicated. With no rules and no one to rely on for advice, it's an unknown world out there for gay men whose partners have died. All too often gay widowers have no idea what they're doing.
The first record of one man mourning his beloved is in The Iliad with Achilles publically lamenting the death of Patrocolus. As long as men have loved other men, they have buried their partners and struggled with how to redefine their lives in the aftermath. The most striking dynamic facing the surviving partner of a same sex relationship is that the relationship is not universally recognized, validated and valued. Psychologist Steven Schwartzberg explains: "The heterosexual widow or widower who loses a mate receives a tacit level of social support and condolence. Gay men who have been widowed may be more apt to encounter scorn, ostracism, fear or blame." Thus many gay widowers' mourning is complicated by the fact that theirs is a "disenfranchised grief."
Gay widowers all too often experience hostility from families and exclusion from the planning of funeral arrangements, or even from the service itself, stresses that a heterosexually married man almost never faces. Even a completely open gay man may experience homophobic reactions following the death of his partner -- it is not unusual for a gay man to be denied the same bereavement leave from his place of business that a heterosexual receives. Surviving partners may not receive condolences from family or workers who do not view a gay relationship as the equivalent of a marriage.
Obviously gay men have endured widowerhood long before AIDS. But the health crisis of the past 15 years has brought an urgency and focus to the issue of gay men surviving the death of a partner. As social workers Joan Dworkin & Dean Kaufer note, "The bereavement process experienced by gays and lesbians who experience losses due to HIV/AIDS must be understood as a chronic state of mourning. The implications of overlapping losses where the onset of mourning for one loss overlaps with the end stage of mourning for another loss are significant. Complicating this chronic state are post traumatic stress, loss saturation, unresolved grief, survivor guilt, and fear of infection with HIV."
Psychologist Laura Dean stresses that "not only are gay men losing those with whom they have shared strong emotional ties, but they are also losing acquaintances, role models and co-workers at a very fast rate."
Numerous questions about gay widowerhood remain unanswered and need to be examined. I do not believe there are any hard and fast answers to these questions, but rather individual responses that evolve over the course of time. How long does one remain a widower? What is entailed in developing an identity as a gay widower? Is it even desirable or appropriate to have a self-definition that largely revolves around the death of one's most significant other? How does a gay man go about adjusting in healthy ways to the trauma of a partner's death? Does he still consider himself a widower even after falling in love with someone new and moving into a new relationship? How does his place on the continuum of "coming out" affect his grieving and ultimately resolve his mourning? Is there in fact any resolution to a loss of this enormity? Some gay widowers experience a carefully released grief, then cautiously move onward with their lives. Others go through a period of deep depression and years of reassessment. There are men for whom the period following the death of their partner brings a tremendous blossoming -- redecorating the apartment, traveling around the world, putting together a new circle of friends, or physically improving themselves. Others withdraw into what is familiar feeling fragile and vulnerable since the cornerstone of their security, happiness, and identity has been removed. Each widower undergoes different kinds of transformations as he moves from being part of a unit, couple, a group, into being a single person again, changes barely recognized by society in general, or given more than lip service by much of the gay community.
Becoming a widower is a process. And it is a process the surviving partner shares with his loved one. A continuous process, it begins the moment that one is forced to half-consciously accept that you are about to lose someone very close and may not end until even many years later. Widowerhood more or less occurs in three phases. The socially accepted year or so of grief after you've lost your partner is merely the middle period, flanked on one side by a period of widowerhood in which your companion is still alive, and on the other side by a period of widowerhood long after he is dead.
If your partner's death follows a long illness like Cancer or AIDS, during the first phase your partner is still alive. The grieving begins with the various losses his illness starts to imposes on your life as your relationship changes from an equal partnership into an unequal dependancy. This early grieving is almost always overlooked because of the external distraction caused by dealing with hospitals, labs, doctors, social workers, sometimes ambulances, police, lawyers, various business and governmental bureaucracies, and enormous amounts of data and new routines. Amidst all this, the two of you are forced to renegotiate your partnership contract.
At the same time, something even more subtle, and insidious, is occurring: you are learning to deal with him being gone. If you doubt that, speak to anyone whose loved one has left home for the first time with some minor symptom of AIDS requiring a short stay in the hospital. The fear and panic -- or denial and frozen emotions -- these first week-long hospitalizations cause may seem greatly exaggerated overreactions to others. On the contrary, they are often healthy, early recognitions of the widowed future.
The second phase following a partner's death is when your loss is complete and obvious and this phase also has its hidden dangers. The support network, so useful during your loved one's illness and death, is often suddenly removed at this stage. People you've come to rely on often vanish, incorrectly thinking you have no need for them in your life. Others, hoping to help you, or perhaps feeling guilty about your loss and their helplessness, attempt to push you through your grieving at an unreasonable speed -- perhaps pulling you into a constant chain of social events and distractions, so you won't stay home and mope. This doesn't recognize your special need to be alone more than before, partly to rest from the mental, emotional and sometimes physical exertions you've just gone through, sometimes just for you to try to remember your loved one whose presence in your life is fading so quickly and sadly.
The third phase is the least obvious and least talked about part of widowerhood. Paul Monette again proved himself to be the gay community's bard, describing his extended mourning for two different lovers in painfully eloquent essays in Last Watch of the Night. Long after the world and those around you have ceased to deal with your great loss, you're still stuck with it. Often new information about your loved one, or simmering resentments about his life suddenly surface and must be dealt with. Bills, letters, and legacy details can take a long time to show up and are upsetting or infuriating.
In some cases, the challenge is merely that your partner has so defined your life, that now you are completely thrown on your own, and must redefine who you really are as you did when you were an adolescent. It is a difficult, often harrowing time, yet also a potentially wonderful period and crucial to any further growth in life.
Most likely all people who have buried a spouse remain intimately connected to the deceased and to that relationship long after their conscious mourning has ended. In the last decade an extensive literature has evolved about grief, but until very recently, little or no recognition has been given to the grief of homosexual men who survive the death of a partner or friend.
Intense anger, whether at the unfairness of life, at God, at the cause of death, at the deceased or just being in the unenviable position of having to pick up the pieces and rebuild a life is typical when grieving a lover. When a partner dies, a man has no choice but to become a widower. How actively he accepts or rejects the identity of a widower will determine how he deals with all the angers. Recognizing that there are numerous good reasons to be angry, and expressing and integrating that anger are essential components of adjusting to widowerhood.
Prior to AIDS, few young or middle-aged gay men knew any other gay men who were widowers. Like most people, they generally formed their impressions of who and what a widower was earlier in life. Perhaps it was an elderly grandparent whose wife had died. In any case rarely was it a young man in the prime of his life. Those first images of a widower are usually not consistent with the man's self image. Identifying as a gay widower is very likely complicated by the absence of visible role models.
While some people may in fact follow expected patterns, many do not proceed in their mourning in a linear fashion. The gay widower has lost something very valuable and intrinsic to his own identity, his partner who must be mourned in order to move on with his life. A central part of the widower's identity was previously bound up with his relationship with his partner, who is no longer physically present. The surviving partner must now face the struggle of internalizing what used to be his most significant external relationship, through which he defined himself and to whom he still relates alone internally.
My clinical and social experience confirms that most gay widowers experience some combination of the following symptoms following the death of their partner: distressing emotional reactions such as anxiety, dread, horror, fear, rage, shame, sadness and depression; nightmares; intrusive imagery of dying; avoidance of situations that trigger these images; sleep difficulties; substance abuse; impaired social functioning; interpersonal difficulties; sexual dysfunction, hyper sexuality and difficulty sustaining intimate relationships. Very often the widower interprets these symptoms as an indication that he is losing it or going crazy, rather than a normal component of his mourning process.
Gay widowers need the support of others who are further along in their journey of recovery in order to gain hope that the future can be better than the excruciating present. Without this support, their trauma is only compounded. Their extended mourning process and any resulting social awkwardness must be accepted by friends and family members who may find themselves uncomfortable with the widower's emotional wounds. For some men thinking of themselves as a widower is a transient identity that ends once they feel that their period of acute mourning is over, or they have entered into a new romantic relationship. For other men, being a widower becomes integrated into the totality of their personhood.
Social support is the key to coping with any loss, especially multiple loss, which is why support groups, grief counseling, psychotherapy, or at least an informal network of other men whose partners have died is essential for moving through grief following the death of one's partner. Yet with many entire friendship networks being wiped out by AIDS, the therapist, group leader, and grief support group members are all challenged to assume multiple roles as counselor, friend, significant other and just fellow human being. For the surviving partner, weekly therapy or group sessions may be the only remaining ongoing regular contact with any individual with whom he has a history.
My own journey over the past two and a half years from being a newly bereaved man to where I am now, further along, and my experience counseling scores of gay widowers in psychotherapy have shown me that there is no one, correct path. The death of a partner is often the reason why people begin psychotherapy or counseling, but it is important to remember that traditional psychotherapy is by no means the only useful or appropriate way that professionals can be of assistance during this period following the death of a partner. Referring gay widowers to a gay-specific bereavement group is often one helpful intervention in assisting the surviving partner to work through his grief.
New York has several excellent bereavement programs geared specifically for gay men who have lost a loved one to AIDS. The Supportive Care Unit of St. Vincent's Hospital runs a free ten week bereavement groups for any person who has lost a loved one to AIDS. The Center Bridge program at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center also has bereavement groups conducted by a professional for any gay person struggling with grief issues. These resources have been of enormous value to hundreds of gay widowers seeking to restructure their lives after the death of their partner. One of the prime tasks of the counselor, therapist or group members is to bear witness and hear the stories of the survivor while at the same time offering faith and hope for a future that is less filled with pain.
Invariably, each widower ponders am I doing this correctly? There is no right or wrong way to go about the process of moving on after the death of a partner. Perhaps the only incorrect thing to do is to try to avoid the painful feelings that must be experienced in order to come out the other side. In our society there are powerful cultural myths, usually unspoken, about how to mourn "correctly." Many of these myths are not always true. My clinical experience has shown me that many of our most basic, unquestioned assumptions about how people cope with loss may not match people's actual experience. For instance depression is often one but not an inevitable consequence of loss. The absence of depression does not necessarily indicate a pathological response to grief.
Psychologist Schwartzberg explains that in western culture many people follow a similar path in grieving a major loss. The individual responds with depression and pain for a discrete period that can last upwards to a couple of years, and then gradually returns to his previous level of functioning. Schwartzberg notes that a sizable minority do not follow this path. Some people have a very prolonged reaction. Other people have a very abbreviated grief reaction, regaining full momentum of their lives quickly. To react differently from the cultural norm, by grieving too long, for example, or too little, needn't mean that a response is unhealthy.
For most bereaved people, to keep going after the painful life changes caused by death is the most difficult task of all. When a lover dies, the loss plunges the bereaved person into a world where many of his known and habitual structures of daily life disappear into a world more full of confusion, disorganization, and anxiety. A new order has to be constructed. Surviving the death of a partner is a potentially devastating emotional experience. Yet some people emerge from their grieving process with unexpected gains. By facing despair, and not succumbing, they know their inner capacities in a more complete way. These gains do not in any way diminish the fact of the loss. But they are benefits -- dearly purchased, hard earned benefits.
Widowerhood is a period of both crisis and of resolution. It is a time of transition, for reflection on both the past and for sowing the seeds for new beginnings. Often it is full of new, exhausting, and potentially thrilling challenges -- of rediscovering and possibly reinventing one's self. Listening to widowers describe their journeys, and as I reflect on my own path since the death of my partner more than two years ago, I am often reminded of the myth of the Phoenix which is reborn out of it's own ashes. Each gay widower who survives, experimenting first with an identity as a person now alone and then with countless possibilities, new relationships, and innovative directions in life, has the possibility of creating something fresh and unforseen that can emerge from the loss of a beloved partner.
Michael Shernoff, MSW is a psychotherapist and author in Manhattan. He can be contacted either through his web site http://members.aol.com/therapysvc or via email at email@example.com. His forthcoming book Gay Widowers: Surviving The Death of Partner will be published by Haworth Press in late 1997.
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