With Jane Clayson
Life lessons from men after the devastating deaths of their wives. Their stories are raw, real, and inspiring.
Dr. Donald Rosenstein, co-author of: “The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life.” Professor of psychiatry and medicine and director of the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Justin Yopp, co-author of “The Group” and leader of the support group for widowed fathers. Professor of psychiatry at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Bruce Ham, member of the Single Fathers Due to Cancer Program. Author of “Laughter, Tears and Braids: A father’s journey through losing his wife to cancer.”
On how the group started:
Rosenstein: “One week Justin came in and talked about the tragic early death of a woman with young children at home. And in looking around for support for this gentleman who was really struggling after his wife died, we realized that there really wasn’t anything out there and so that led to a series of conversations with other fathers we knew.”
Yopp: “These seven men, really incredible men — each of them had lost their wife. All but one lost their wife to cancer. One lost his wife rather suddenly. And by the time that they all joined the group they were all somewhere between I think four to nine months out from losing their wives. Each of the seven fathers had at least two children and a couple of them had four.
It was tough, it was awkward. None of the men really wanted to be there. I think most of them probably came for their children. And one of the fathers, Joe, mentioned that he was not really a support group kind of guy — and that got a lot of heads nodding around the table, and I think maybe relieved a little bit of pressure that first night.”
On his experience in the group
Ham: “I think I was just desperate. I didn’t particularly want to go to a group and bare my soul. But I was hurting so bad, and my kids were hurting so badly that I was just looking and grasping for anything that might be able to help us.
[That first night] We each went around the room and shared the story of losing our wives and talked a little bit about how helpless we felt and how and adequate we felt as parents and went one at a time — I think there were eight guys in the room that night — and it was just grueling. It was very very painful. But in a way it was cathartic to get those emotions out.”
On what bonded the group:
Ham: “A sense of being overwhelmed. I think a lot of folks lose family members all the time and it’s incredibly painful. But I think when you stack on top of that the parenting aspects, with the elementary or middle school-age kids, or a combination of both… We were all overwhelmed at the level of responsibility on top of the grief and on top of working full time and trying to provide for the family. There were so many components that we were getting lost and that we were just absolutely overwhelmed.”
Caller comments and stories:
Randy from FL: “My wife passed away last July. I can’t tell you how much I wish I had group like this here. It’s so hard to figure out all the things that need to be done. I’ve got three kids in middle school. The oldest is a girl, and they’re fantastic kids. And it’s just really hard to know what they need and what they don’t need, and to be there for them properly. Basically, you lose half yourself. My wife and I have been together 15 years and it really feels like you’re off balance all the time.”
John from RI: My brother, when his wife was 35 and they had seven children, she passed away from melanoma cancer. It was an insurmountable burden for my brother. He had to work and try to raise seven children and we all pitched in to help. But with the kids really that did the most psychological work. I would say they had the qualities of their mother, that is: generosity and energy. And my brother ended up being a grandfather, he never remarried. With grandchildren who he loved. I credit the kids and I credit the wife’s character. So even though it may not be a success for all the men involved who lose their wives, the children can be an enormous success in overcoming adversity.
From The Reading List
Excerpt From “The Group”:
The Charlotte Observer: “They lost their wives to cancer, then leaned on each other to get through their grief” — ” ‘The Group’ follows seven men – Ciriano, Bruce, Steve, Karl, Dan, Russ and Neill – through their grief journey. They discuss being a single parent, fighting depression, deciding whether and when to date again, and finding purpose in life after the loss of their wives.
From day one, Yopp and Rosenstein chose to collaborate with the widowed fathers. They wrote a professional paper describing the group and gave the men a draft before submitting it, Rosenstein said. The fathers also helped to craft a website, widowedparent.org, told their stories through videos and a short film titled ‘If I Should Not Return.’
‘We did not come at this as experts in bereavement,’ Rosenstein said. ‘We did not come at it as experts in parenting’ or gender roles, he said. Because there was so little written about widowed fathers and bereavement, ‘We were learning along with (the fathers).’
Vogue: “Picking Up the Pieces As a Newly Single Mother” — “When my husband died four years ago, our in-house math guy did, too. On the scale of loss, this was perhaps a trivial thing. Yet even on that first afternoon, as news of his suicide spread through the family and to MIT, where Seth was a beloved robotics professor, and as bouquets of white lilies and pans of macaroni and cheese arrived on our doorstep, I remember thinking: Who will help the girls with math? It wouldn’t be me.
That summer, with my two young daughters out of school, I didn’t have to confront the math issue quite yet, which was good, since our ability to problem-solve was low: We were just three zombie girls, stumbling through each hour of every day.
After the funeral, with critical documents signed, I somehow got us on the road: We’d escape for the summer to my mother’s cottage in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, a couple of hours from our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My parents had bought the house and an acre of land on top of a hill in 1964, the year I was born, and I’d spent every summer of my childhood there. The place was saturated in vivid memories of my own early years: my father’s arms around me, dancing to Donovan on the record player as we awaited the shower after a beach day; square-dancing Wednesday nights on the pier; and bundling up in pajamas for a night at the drive-in, a bunch of kids sprawled across pillows in the back seat of my mom’s baby blue VW Squareback.
The Cape was also where Seth and I first held hands, and where we married—at Crosby Beach on a cloudless September day. Our wedding was a dream: I was tan and pregnant with our first child and working as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Twelve years after that ceremony, I was a 50-year-old widow with two kids and a part-time job in public radio.”
Resources for widowed parents:
The Widowed Parent Project (https://widowedparent.org/)
The Children’s Room (http://childrensroom.org)
empower HER (https://www.empoweringher.org)
What would you do in the face of unthinkable loss? Seven men who lost their wives to cancer found each other. For nearly four years, they met and opened up about everything: single-parenting, grief, anger, love, and the unknowable future. They found strength in numbers and the courage to heal and reinvent a new life. Their stories are raw, real and full of hope.
This hour, On Point: life lessons from the widowers.
– Jane Clayson