Martha's Vineyard's new Men's Bereavement Group
"Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." Tennyson's words of comfort have rung true for many of us at one time or another, but they became especially poignant for Chilmark resident Sam Feldman when Gretchen, his wife of 53 years, died last November. The joy of love was eclipsed by the pain of loss and emptiness.
"I loved her as much the day she died as the day we met," says Mr. Feldman, whose soft eyes fill with her memory. "The hardest time is when I come home at night and enter the house; I am enveloped in loneliness."
In deep despair last winter, the new widower looked for a way to share his grief among peers. He found a bereavement support group in Boston and tried to join, only to be told it was already in session and he probably wouldn't feel comfortable anyway because it was all women.
In a highly charged emotion like bereavement, Mr. Feldman believes that gender-related reactions can be a deterrent to the healing process. "Men and women are so different emotionally," he says. "Women are used to being more open emotionally; men feel they have to be tough and self-sufficient, especially in the presence of women. As a man, there was just nowhere to go with my grief."
For Mr. Feldman, this served as the genesis of the Island's Men's Bereavement Group. With the help of Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Feldman found the names of men who had recently lost their wives. "The need was immediately visible," he says. "We found men who were so depressed they weren't leaving their houses."
Mr. Feldman invited the widowers to join a weekly hour-long session where they could talk safely and freely. "The philosophical concept was that it be an ongoing group always open to men who needed it," he says. "It is a peer-led group as opposed to a professional-led group."
An energetic entrepreneur, Mr. Feldman has initiated efforts to take his Men's Bereavement Group to a national level. "I think it's possible to set up local groups like this around the country," he says enthusiastically. He has hired an executive director, Islander A.C. Miller, to help network with national hospices and bereavement organizations. "If we can help 100,000 grief-stricken men a year, we will have helped 1,000,000 people when you include all the family members involved around the widower's pain."
In the meantime, the local group serves from five to eight men ranging in ages from 45 to 85. Some men have had one long-term marital loss and others multiple losses. Island psychiatrist George Cohn serves a consultant and attends all meetings.
"Unlike women, who are accustomed to having girlfriends with whom they can talk and cry and who will rally around them in bad times, most adult men do not share intimacies with one another," Mr. Feldman says, adding, "Women do not understand men's inability to express their emotions in an open, honest way. It is almost a metaphor for the Vineyard where women come to heal and men to escape. Men escape because they don't know how to heal. The healing asset of the Men's Bereavement Group is that men are able to express and release their feelings with other men."
A Harvard Bereavement Study supports Mr. Feldman's findings, reporting that, because men often have trouble asking for help or expressing emotions, they suffer more than widows. With the death of a wife, many men lose their primary source of protection, support, and comfort. For widowers, it is like being without a compass. This may be why, according to statistics, 50 percent of widowers re-couple within three to six months, something Mr. Feldman has observed among the group.
"Loneliness and the need for physical intimacy are men's motivators for finding new relationships," he says, "but it is mixed with feelings of guilt and betrayal. Some feel guilty about not feeling guilty."
Others fear never getting over the grief. "We came to a consensus that you don't get over the loss, you just get over not getting over it," Mr. Feldman says with wry resignation. "There are so many conflicts and ambivalences, so much new intense emotion, that it is hard to deal with it alone. Sometimes we just listen to one another. The openness of the men in the group is astounding. We cry, get angry, and even laugh."
Humor, they have discovered, is a natural healer. "We often make fun of our situations in moving ahead in relationships," Mr. Feldman says. With a smile, he adds: "Gretchen gave me her orders in advance: I couldn't accept casseroles with email addresses attached. It's amusing, but it's also very serious because moving on presents a whole new set of challenges that we haven't experienced before."
A common challenge the group discusses is how children react to their father's changed lifestyle and new partner. "Sons seem to accept their father's dating relationships better than daughters," Mr. Feldman says. "Daughters fear their fathers will be vulnerable and do something stupid. It is a major family life change, and we discuss how to respect where others are in their grieving process."
Mr. Feldman visits his wife's gravesite every day to talk with her. "I hear her voice," he says. "She gives me rudder advice," he adds, smiling. "She will tell me if I am on or off course."
Men's Bereavement Group of Martha's Vineyard meets Wednesdays, 2 pm, at 25 Osprey Lane, Chilmark. For info, 508-939-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Case Senchak is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.