Sam Feldman turned grief into a support group for widowers

Sam Feldman turned grief into a support group for widowers

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Gretchen and Sam Feldman, supporting an event at Polly Hill Arboretum, in 2008. — File photo by Nis Kildegaard

Sam Feldman was a captain of his industry. The innovative retail entrepreneur built, then sold a chain of menswear stores that were successful both in the eyes of his customers and his apparel industry peers nationwide. He and his wife, Gretchen, retired happily to Chilmark.

But on November 9, 2008, the lights went out. Mr. Feldman, then 79, was alone. Gretchen, his wife of 53 years died that day and the Chilmark resident was empty, “under a heavy black cloud,” as he would describe his state of mind later in a CBS radio interview.

Seeking ways to deal with his grief and feelings of loss, Mr. Feldman first attended a mixed-gender grief group. But eventually he found another widower on the Island with whom he could more easily share his feelings and emotions.

Research shows that women and men grieve differently. Women are more intuitive in grieving, while men struggle with the emotional aspects of grieving. Men tend to do things, to take action as a grieving mechanism.

In Mr. Feldman’s case, the cloud gradually lifted, enough to allow him to look for ways to help himself and other men to handle the loss of their wives. Fast forward three years and the Island is home now to the National Widowers Support Group, a precursor to the National Widowers Organization (nationalwidowers.org), formed in 2011 to offer support to widowers. For example, widowers can call NWO and speak one on one with a peer widower.

Last month NWO launched its first publication on Amazon, titled “How to Start a Widowers’ Group: A Manual for Men,” The downloadable online guide is directed at how to set up groups at the local level. It offers advice, lists of publications dealing with grief and loss, references to several dozen local widower groups around the country, and answers to simple but compelling questions, such as, “How do I handle coming home to an empty house?”

Aided by NWO board member Dr. Phyllis H. Silverman, a nationally recognized therapist and grief researcher and by Fred Spero, NWO executive director, what Mr. Feldman and his colleagues found was a national population of nearly three million widowers that is growing at a rate twice as fast as the rate of widows are growing.

The U.S. Census calculated that 415,000 men became widowers and 975,000 women were widowed in 2010. In all, nearly three million widowers and more than 11 million widows live in the U.S. “Men are living 15-20 years longer than we did 30 years ago,” Mr. Spero explained, noting that the “boomer generation” is on the cusp of joining the widowed population. He estimated that less than 50 widower groups are active nationwide.

“Everyone, man or woman, faces the loss of their partner during their lifetime. It’s inescapable,” he said, noting that the research and services available are minimal or non-existent compared with those available to Americans grieving loss from suicide (37,000 annually), military (2,000 annually) and other causes of death.

“Those are terrible losses to deal with and the survivors deserve all the services we can provide,” Mr. Shero said, adding that more needs to be done for the widow/widower population. NWO represents an early step in that direction, he said.

Reached by phone at an airport in Costa Rica last week, Mr. Feldman said, “Our Island group was the genesis of NWO. It’s very exciting and good for me and it’s good for men throughout the country. That’s why we created the National Widowers Organization. We continue to get interest from widowed men.

“That opportunity to connect with another man around this life issue is important. Recently, a widower from Philadelphia flew up to the Island just to meet and thank a man who had helped him by talking with him over the phone. The network is a wonderful place for men who are in a horrible place to have peer-to-peer contact, someone to talk to. In some ways, the therapy of camaraderie is better than professional therapy can provide.”

He said NWO educates the public about the special needs of men who have lost their spouse or life partner by promoting the development of support groups for men to manage their grief and adjust to a new life and by advocating for research into the unique needs of men to deal with grief and spousal loss.

“We’re a nascent group but as we develop and evolve, we want to frame this issue and frame it to get more attention focused on the needs of this huge group of citizens,” Mr. Feldman said.