Fred Colby On How A Widower Handles His Grieving Process

Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower

 

There are almost four million widowers in the United States alone. Unfortunately, there are very limited resources and services available that could help them with their grieving process. Fred Colby, a widower himself, is on a mission to make a real difference in this alarming matter. In this conversation, he shares how he raises awareness about the utmost need for widowers to access proper support systems, saving them from adopting unhealthy practices or starting an addiction. Fred also explains how widowers can reinvent themselves after losing their partners, the benefits of in-house care, and why they must never make huge decisions (or get into a new relationship) in the first year of the grieving journey.

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others. 

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide.

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Fred Colby On How A Widower Handles His Grieving Process

Our conversation is with Mr. Fred Colby. He is the author of Widower to Widower, the conversation regarding his wife, Theresa, his journey, learning how to live again, and being able to provide a voice for the widowers who are often underrepresented in this conversation of grief. This conversation will be helpful, and I would recommend picking up his book, whether it’s for yourself trying to understand a widower or if you are a widower looking for guidance on how to manage your grief journey. Let’s get into this conversation now.

 

Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower

 

Fred Colby, welcome to the show.

Tina, how are you doing?

I am doing good. I am so looking forward to this conversation. I found your information on YouTube and I was talking about different things as far as when you’re prepared to date. What drew me to you were the things that you spoke about to allow someone to consider these items. The idea about envisioning walking on the beach with someone and seeing a future with them was very telling to me from your perspective. To be able to have your book Widower to Widower and have this discussion with you, I know will be very helpful to our community.

I’m looking forward to it. I always enjoy reaching new audiences, so I take every opportunity I can get because I’m a man on a mission to reach the other widowers out there and help them get through this.

That’s very good because you and I both know that. When you look at the word widowhood, the men are the smaller percentage that are accounted for. They don’t always have a voice in the conversation. To be able to have a conversation with someone who has written literature has been a widower and bring that voice is very important. Thank you again.

Thank you.

Looking Back

Where are you at right now?

I’m in Fort Collins, Colorado. I have lived here since 2008. My wife and I moved here to be near our two daughters who decided to move here and start having grand babies, which decided it for us.

That is a deciding factor. Where were you before then?

San Diego for about all my life.

Were you born and raised there? What had you in the area?

I was born in Seattle right after World War II and my dad died when I was about 5 or 6. My mom moved in with my grandfather, who had a place in San Diego. We lived with them for a year or two, and then he remarried. He had lost his wife. My mom moved into another place, and then she met my second dad, who remarried a couple of years later. I was very fortunate to have a second gentleman come into my life to be a father as well.

Thank you for sharing that. Do you look back on that differently now, being an adult and seeing the things that people in your family experienced in their losing a life partner?

Very differently. I think back to my grandfather. My grandmother had gone through a phase of dementia of some type. Back in those days, they didn’t define it very clearly, but he and my second father, my stepfather, met at a church and they had been part of rebuilding the church. After he met his new bride, my grandfather introduced my second father to my mom.

Back in the day, people didn’t always look kindly on that. I think we have a different view these days. It’s still something you have to be careful about how you approach it. It brings up a very sore subject for many people and families and can become the cause of divisions and all kinds of things. I was very lucky that this blending worked well because my mom had four kids. Why did he want to take on four kids? God only knows, but he did, and then they had two more. He died when I was around 21, 22.

Looking back on what my mom went through, losing her first husband after World War II shortly, and then her second husband when I was around 20 or 21, I look back on that and say, “How did she get through that?” It’s rough enough going through one, but a second one is on top of that. When I lost my wife, Theresa, it’s funny, my mom and I didn’t emotionally connect in a lot of ways, and we did not go over that either, but I could tell that she understood what I was going through and was supportive. She had a German upbringing, so they weren’t real emotive, if you will. Same with her dad. All my brothers and sisters talk about that. “Why wasn’t she more expressive?” Some of my siblings have had a reaction to that by being much more emotive than our mom was.

Mindset And Support

My last name is Fornwald, which is German. My late husband, Mark. In German, it means before the force. I want to circle back to something you said about the mindset. When you were speaking about the mindset, were you referring to your mother remarrying or for your grandfather or both?

Both. The mindset in the community back in those days, it may have started changing around then because World War II definitely affected a lot of things. For example, my mom’s sister also lost her husband and she never did remarry. She was a beautiful, smart woman. She never remarried. Attitudes were beginning to change because of World War II, but still, it was a difficult thing to do.

Thank you for sharing that. I find that even now, when I am speaking predominantly with women, there is still more of a mindset that, “I will never remarry. That that was the love of my life,” and not allowing themselves permission to be able to see that life could hold another love of your life. You could have another relationship that can be extremely fulfilling. I will not lean towards comparing one to the other because no one’s going to win that. Fulfilling for you in this season of your life is different than when you probably met your spouse.

Men do experience this differently. I like to touch on if I had died first and my wife was the survivor. She would have had literally twenty close friends embracing her, loving her, holding her and offering their support in so many ways, whereas I and so many other widowers find themselves alone. If they’re lucky, they have 1 or 2 close friends. If they’re lucky, 1 of the 2 close friends is willing to give them a hug. They don’t know how to react and deal with it. It’s very common to hear a widower say, “I was such a d***,” because before I lost my wife, how I treated other people who had lost theirs was so lacking in empathy and understanding. Now they’re like, “I didn’t know it was like this.”

Many widowers find themselves alone. If they are lucky, they will have one or two close friends willing to give them a hug. Share on X

It’s a new awakening for men to go through this. Widows and women tend to have not just social but emotive side and so on that lends themself to that support, whereas men find themselves not alone, I mean totally alone. Let’s face it: they become reliant on their wives to provide them with social interaction, support, love, and caring advice. You name it, it goes on and on. When that is gone, it’s literally not only ripped half a person away from you, you don’t know what to do with what’s left.

It’s very painful. As a result, men tend to be much more willing to enter the dating scene earlier because they’re so desperate for that companionship, for somebody to talk to, touch them, hold them and wish them support, that type of thing. I’ll never say everybody’s like this because they’re not. Everybody’s experience is unique, but I’ve run into a lot of widows that wait, not 1 but 2 years before they start dating because they don’t feel the same urgency as the man. They’ve got the support system and the love. When they look for a male companion, they’re truly looking for a companion to go and do things with, go to the shows with, or maybe take a hike with all those kinds of things. They’re not so desperate for somebody to be in their life 24/7 as the men off an arm.

All About Teresa

That is very common. Thank you. Tell us how you met Theresa.

I love to tell that story. I was 20 or 21, going to community college and a friend of mine and I would alternate hosting rather large parties at each other’s houses. One time, we were having it at his house and he said, “Fred, I met a gal that reminded me of the one that you told me about that you had met at the college.” I said, “Sounds great.” He says, “I invited her to come.” She and some other gal friends stopped off at our party on their way to Los Angeles to a big party. I saw her and she was not the one I was talking about, but I saw her and I instantly was drawn to her.

We sat and talked for half hour. I took her out back, talked to her for another twenty minutes, got her phone number, and then they flew out of there. I called her the next day when she was back home and we never dated anybody else after that. We got married within a couple years and had a wonderful 45 years together.

There’s so much that happened in that 45 years. How did you propose?

It was pretty funny because initially, I proposed to her when we were out on a date and I said, “What do you think? Let’s get married.” It wasn’t a real down-on-the-knee type of thing. She said, “Sure, yes.” We went back and told her parents, but they ignored us. They were like, “No, not happening. Not now.” We’d been together what, maybe six months to a year. They weren’t ready to accept that that was going to happen. Plus, I found out later that they had no money in the bank to pay for a wedding.

At that time, it was expected that the bride’s family would pay for the wedding.

We moved in together and lived together for about another six months to a year. I think that parents got the message that we were serious one way or another. We came back and said it again. This time they said, “Okay, let’s figure it out.” They were very supportive from that point forward.

Tell me some of your favorite memories about Theresa.

There are so many. What I always loved about her was that everyone was drawn to her. She was one of those wonderful women who was so loving and accepting. I don’t care what the person’s culture or background was. It doesn’t matter. They would all be drawn to her, and she would welcome them in and make them their best friend. It was fun to watch her. It didn’t matter whether it was a work environment, volunteering at the schools or whatever it was. She had a way of laughing and enjoying life every day that made the world brighter for everybody around her. She accepted everybody in. I was very fortunate because she taught me a lot about being more empathetic and loving and things of that nature.

Handling Teresa’s Transition

You actually answered my next question about what did you learn from her. You mentioned that. Thank you. I want to give you space to answer this question without me asking a lot of questions as you go along this. I would like for you to share what led to Theresa’s transition from this world, from wherever you want to pick that up to however you want to say that part of your journey.

We were pretty fortunate not having a lot of serious health issues. I had one about 3 or 4 years prior to her. Around 2010, I had some bad skin cancer. Not melanoma, but basal cell type skin cancer and stuff. I went through a year of radiation, treatment and so on. We had two years together with we could do whatever we wanted to do. We’re able to go and travel and things of that nature. All of a sudden, about halfway through 2014, she started getting these rashes, and we didn’t know what they were. We went to the doctor and doctor couldn’t explain it. We went to another doctor who couldn’t explain it. The rash got worse. It was driving her nuts. Finally, my older daughter saw her and said, “We’re going to the emergency room. We’re going to go figure this out.”

She took her in and they started running a lot of tests like they should have before, but they didn’t and found out that she had uterine cancer. We found a good doctor to work with on that. She had to go through a whole series of surgeries, chemotherapy, and then radiation. That was over a 4 or 5-month period, something like that. Six-month period, starting with the surgery. The people around her were getting better. I noticed that she wasn’t, and she seemed tired all the time. I asked the doctor and he said, “Let’s get a transfusion. Maybe that’ll help her.” I took her in, walked her in to get the transfusion, then I had to take her out in the wheelchair because she was so wiped out from the treatment. I got her home and she had a mild stroke that night.

They came and took her away. She went to the hospital and they said, “We’re sorry. It’s back in full force. There is nothing we can do now.” That started the dreaded death knell, if you will, waiting and seeing how this is going to happen. Something I hadn’t experienced firsthand before. I had lost people before, but I had not been there with them when it happened.

My daughters found Pathways Hospice, and they helped us set up the hospice in the house within a couple of hours. I brought her home, put her in there, and she only had a week left to live. We didn’t know that at the time. We thought it was going to be 2, 3 or 4. I had started setting up CaringBridge, which your readers may or may not be familiar with. It’s an online website where you can exchange messages and let people know what’s going on in somebody’s process of either healing or passing so that you don’t have to call 50 people.

You don’t have to email 50 people. You put it up one place and then can check it at their leisure and send their support messages back, which I or my daughters would read to her in our case. They send her cards and all that type of stuff. You’re numb to it when you go through it because you’re so focused on doing the job at hand, making sure she is okay. We got to about a week into it and one night, I felt like she’s close to the end, but I’ve been up all day. I told her, “I got to go lie down for a couple hours.” I did. I set the alarm. Before the alarm went off, I woke up and I could hear her very labored breathing. It was a different kind of breathing than I usually would hear.

I knew something was going on. I knew it probably was near the end. I ran downstairs and I sat next to her. I was so glad I had this opportunity to do this. I sat there and held her hand, stroked her arm and let her know, “It’s okay, honey. If you got to go, this is the time. Go ahead. We’ll be okay. I’ll make sure the girls are okay. I’ll be okay.” She suddenly hit this little period of breathing where she was going like, “Ah.” She’s trying to take the air in but she had nothing to give. There was no breath out. It was like she couldn’t take anything in, she couldn’t give anything back to the world. It was her time to go. That’s when she passed. My daughters were able to come over and be with her a little bit after she passed, before they came and picked up the body.

Thank you for sharing that. I know that may be something you share a lot. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes, it can bring you right back to that place and take something out of you. I don’t take these conversations lightly. I know you’re doing this to be able to help other people. I do want to acknowledge that that is not always an easy conversation to have. How old were your daughters at that point?

They would’ve been about 30, 35.

You told your wife you would be okay. Were you okay?

I was numb for a week. You can’t decide if you’re okay or not. You’re just going through the steps that are required, going to the funeral parlor, making the arrangements for the body, and notifying the right people that you have to notify. In our case, my daughters helped me set up a celebration of life at a little restaurant where we can invite all of her friends. As I said, I sleepwalked through that all. I went around, had a smile on my face, said hi to everybody because that’s who I am normally. The day after it, I went to the mountains. I escaped to the mountains because I knew I needed time alone and I didn’t want to be around anybody when I was going through what I was going through. I was very fortunate to have a place to go to.

I would go outside and I would yell at the top of my lungs. I let it all out. That did help some. It took several days for me to get from the very peak of the grieving down to something I would say was moderated enough that I had control of myself. It felt like I could go back home. I did and went and visited my daughters and let them know I was going to be going through hell for the next few months. We need to have a code word to say to each other. I feel like crap or something like that. They would know to leave me alone. They could do the same with me. I’d know they’re going through their process. Just leave them alone.

One thing you learn through this that I think is very important and I try and get this message across all the time. You cannot escape the grief. You must confront it. You must process it. It is painful. There’s no way to make it not be painful. It’s better to accept that you’re going to have to do it and face it. Now you ask, “How can you face grief?” For me, it meant that when those waves of grief would hit me, I wouldn’t try and all of a sudden get busy. I’d sit down right there and I’d let it hit me. I would cry. I would scream. I’d do whatever I had to do to work my way through that, anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, whatever it was. That helped me get through some of the worst of it.


Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower
Widower: You cannot escape grief. You must confront it and process it even if it is painful.

 

The other element is, for example, bringing out your old photo albums of the family. You want to guarantee you’re going to make yourself cry. That’ll do it. You have all these wonderful moments you had, and now she’s gone. You don’t have her with you anymore. It’s actually good for you to do that. By facing it head-on, you’re recognizing. I say it’s a way of remembering, honoring and loving your wife or in the case of a widow, your husband’s life and that’s important. It’s important that we don’t try to forget. When we try and do busy projects and ignore it, we’re putting it off. That’s all we’re doing. I know of people because I’ve talked to them, who a year, two years later, they’ve been busy redoing their basement, all kinds of different things.

All of a sudden, they have a day where they don’t have that going on and they get clobbered. It is so painful. They say, “Why am I back to month one?” That’s because you didn’t process it during months 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. That’s like the minimum period of time it takes to process the worst of it. I’ve talked to these people and I try and figure out what is it that’s different about their experience from mine? Why are they still deep grieving after 2 or 3 years?

It takes a minimum of two to six months to process the worst of grief. Share on X

I think sometimes it’s because they tried to avoid it. Sometimes it’s because they isolated themselves in their house and didn’t interact with other people. Sometimes, I hate to say it, it’s because of alcohol and drugs. You don’t process grief when you’re in alcohol and drugs. I found out very quickly that if I had a third glass of wine, I would get so wallowing into my grief and like, “Woe is me,” and so on. That didn’t help a thing. I learned very quickly. I learned to limit myself to 1 or 2 drinks of wine, whatever I was having, at most. To never have that third unless I was out with a group and having a good time and not going to get into that mode again.

Unhealthy Patterns

Those are very good points. I want to go back to something. What I think you identified were patterns that you could see in people who seem to be in a place of being stuck. You mentioned isolation, alcohol, drugs. The other two things I will add into that I see very often is people coping with sex. Not so much as a relationship but running from one sexual relationship to another.

The item that is also difficult, and this is not so much as someone not processing, it’s the nature of the situation, someone with young children. That changes the dynamics of your grief. Those people have processed it. Those people are having therapy for their children and grieve for themselves. When you are raising young children and you are grieving that partner, the dynamic of working through being stuck in depression is a different dynamic that no one else would be able to understand.

I wouldn’t put them in that category based on the nature of conversations I’ve had with people and what that looks like when you are raising young children. I know a woman that, as she shares very openly to educate other people, her youngest daughter saw her dad’s shirt and go, “How is dad’s shirt here and he’s not here?”

The parenting of that where you had this plan to be this couple, and now you are operating as a single parent. The world doesn’t know how you’re showing up. The layers of all of that. You and I happened to have adult children when our partners passed. For people with young children, that dynamic could take 2, 3, 10 years until those children are adults because oftentimes, they are not allowed to able deal with their grief because they’re so busy parenting and doing those things. I would escape them from that group.

I agree that what I say applies mostly to people 55 and up. When I talk to gentlemen who are younger in their 40s and have a couple of kids and so on, I recognize it’s a very different experience. I got to give them all the credit in the world. Some of these guys are amazing at what they have done for 5, 10, 15 years, and painfully, they often have to leave the dating world. It’s too much to try and build a relationship where you got 2 or 3 kids to take of that demand your full attention. It’s hard enough when you’re a divorcee, but even more so when you’re a widow or widower because you got to whole different elements you’re dealing with.

Writing ‘Widower To Widower’

What prompted the writing of this book?

A few months after I lost Theresa, I recognized I needed help and I went to Pathways Hospice and they had a nice little grief therapy program. It started with where you were in a small group of 4 to 6 people, which is common. Five women and me. That was for an introductory grief session. They had a group session, which was up to 16 people, even 20, I think. It was about eight women for every guy. Finally, they had individual grief counseling, which I took advantage of. I had a wonderful counselor. In fact, her name’s on the book. She helped me a lot. I kept asking her these difficult questions about what I was going through and what do I do about it. What have been other people’s experiences? Neither one of us could find any answers because there are so few books out there directed to men.

They’re directed to widows in general, which means women. If you’re lucky, in a 200-page book, you’ll find 3 to 5 pages about men. That’s about it. My therapist, finally, after doing all this, said, “Fred, why don’t you write the book? You know how to write.” I’ve written thousands and thousands of pages of articles, grant applications and PR materials, newsletters, things of that nature. I said, “Maybe I could do it.

About a month before Theresa passed, I started the CaringBridge account, which was basically blogs available through a website format. I went back and looked at those and I said, “I could use these,” because I had written them from there up until a year after she passed. I had still been doing them. I recognized that those blogs allowed me to go right back into the moment of when I wrote them. I felt the same feelings, had the same awakenings, the same realizations and things of that nature. I said, “I can use that as the basis.”

In the interim, I’d started a men’s grief group at the Pathways Hospice. I wasn’t relying on my experience. I was relying on the experiences of all the men widowers who came through that grief group as well, which helped a lot. Plus, I was doing research left and right. Any article I could find, any information I could find, I’d save it and write it down. I was able to take the blogs, which talk about what happens when you find out your wife is going to die.

You could spin off that with examples, data, and stories from other widowers. It wasn’t just my experience because I recognized mine was not the only experience. People had to see what somebody else experienced. They understood it’s okay for them to do it differently. That’s how I got started on it. Before I knew it, I had a 200-page book and I put that out there. I tried to get it published. I was too impatient, so I wanted to get it out there and start helping guys. I went and self-published and sold a fair number of books.

I recognized about a year into it, I said, “I’m still missing a lot of stuff.” I went back and re-edited everything that was already there. I added a whole bunch of new information I discovered, all kinds of new examples I’d gotten from various guys in my grief groups. I added sections of new things I had learned since then that made the book so much stronger and more comprehensive. It’s been doing very well. I’ve sold about 6,000 copies, which is pretty good for a self-published book.

Grief Group

You mentioned that you started a grief group and that was predominantly for men. Is that something you still do now?

I stopped doing it. I did the one at Pathways for about 4 or 5 years. When the pandemic hit, I realized there were guys out there who had no place to go. I started one online. It’s a small group, 12 to 14 guys and they would regularly join in. I had a hardcore group of about 6 or 7 of them. They loved it. It was great outlet for them. I didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of therapy because I’m not a therapist. I am a peer mentor, if you will, rather than a therapist myself. I could relate stories from others or research I had found, let them discuss it, and let them arrive at their own conclusions.

If a gentleman is interested in starting a grief support group for men, any recommendations or tips you would provide for them?

I would. Right in the back of my book, Men’s Grief Group, draft meeting template. I realized that there’s a lot of hospices, churches and so on that don’t have a grief group and don’t know how to start it. This is a guide to do that.

Deep Grieving Phase

It’s an excellent resource. Now that we’re into the book, I have a few notes of some items I want to cover. I’m going to start with the introduction. It says, “After losing your life partner, there are moments, many of them, in fact, when you may doubt your own very sanity. The greatest fear I had during the earliest stages of my grief was that I was going crazy, losing all control of my thoughts and that I might make decisions harming myself, my family, and my friends.”

Thank you for the transparency. You mentioned about how men don’t often share. It’s interesting, you came in this upbringing that was not very communicative and very emotional. Now that shifted to you being very much that so and now how that is being used to help other people. The opening of that and the transparency, how would you would like to unpack that a little further, if you would?

I’ll tell you, I ended up writing that and some of the other very trying and emotional moments like my wife’s passing after I got pressed hard by my therapist and my sister, who is a former therapist herself, to dig deeper in the book. My editor also said, “You got to go deeper, Fred.” I forced myself to do it. It was painful to do it. Literally, every time I read that and other sections, my tears well up. I’m right back in that moment. The most common comment I get from my fellow widowers when they first read my blogs or my book is that they are so grateful that they now realize that what they’re going through is fairly normal and that they’re going to be okay. That’s reason I put that in there so people could see, I’ve been there. I’ve done that.

Yes, you do get to that point, especially during that first six months, which I call the deep grieving phase. You’re isolated. The loneliness is something you think you’ve had before, but I’m sorry. Nothing like this. This loneliness knocks you off your feet. The grief is so painful that it can knock you down on the floor. I’d sometimes feel like I was punched in the gut. I would be trying to breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I call it the dry heaves of grieving because it’s like when you’re throwing up. You can’t breathe. On top of that, you’re imagining that your wife is lying next to you in bed and she’s not. I’d take walks and I’d reach down to hold her hand. I sometimes could almost feel it. The world becomes surreal.

Loneliness in the midst of grief can knock you off your feet and make you feel like you are being punched in the gut. Share on X

To aggravate it even further, in my case, and I’ve heard many others say the same thing, you’re lucky if you get two hours sleep a night. Not for a night, not for two nights. I’m talking weeks of getting 2 to 3 hours sleep. If you’re lucky, you can take a nap during the day. I couldn’t. That lack of sleep makes the surrealness of it all the more aggravated and your ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not becomes more and more difficult. I would try listening to tapes. I’d listen to meditation tapes. I’d listen to all kinds of things. The one thing that I found finally that helped me out some is a combination. I learned about melatonin. I started taking that. That helped a little bit. Even though you’re not supposed to prescribe it, it’s like anything else.

You could become addicted to it. I warn anybody that’s reading this, be aware and take it for a little while. The other thing I found was Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart Tolle is an interesting little guy with a funny laugh who he teaches me meditation. He teaches about how to calm yourself. He has this wonderful, quiet, beautiful little voice. He found it all himself the hard way. One thing he talks about is Laozi’s message which has become very famous. It teaches you that if you’re living in regret, you’re looking backwards. If you’re living in anxiety, you’re dwelling in the future. If you’re happy and content, you’re in the present. What we need to do is focus on being in the present.

Anytime anybody starts getting all anxious and talking to Eckhart Tolle about this and that, he says, “You’re getting into the future. You don’t even know what’s going to happen. Why should you worry about that? Why don’t you take care of who you are today and get in the right place and then the rest will unfold more naturally?” I did find, especially when I started dating again, the anxiety level was like dating as a sixteen-year-old again. You got all the anxiety. Did she like me? Did she not like me? It is crazy.

I had to go through that whole process and learn how to modulate myself. Eventually, that surrealism and anxiety and regrets, regrets is a big one, started to diminish. We so often allow ourselves to sink into this. I don’t know a widower who hadn’t done this to some extent. That is the regret side of things. “I should have treated her better. I should have been there with her more. I should have known the illness was prevalent earlier,” or that kind of thing. I’m sorry, you can’t do anything about them right now.

Looking At Pictures Vs Looking In The Past

We are going to leave this world. It is inevitable. Those circumstances are out of our control. I want to circle back to something you said. What is the difference between looking at pictures and memories of the life you had with your spouse versus this concept of looking in the past and causing yourself difficulty in that regard?

I find that you can’t get anything done when you get into that cycle. Your opinion of yourself is down here. You’re obsessed with trying to fix something you can’t fix. It makes it very difficult for you to process your grief. Remember, I talk about you have to face it and you have to process your grief. You don’t process it by dwelling on the regrets. It’s like a way of avoiding processing your grief the same way the anxiety thing is. “What do I do now? I’ve got the house. What do I do with this house? What do I do with the car? What am I supposed to do for my kids?” All these kinds of questions will eat you alive if you’re not careful.

 

Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower

 

Thank you for explaining that. I didn’t want someone to think that you’re saying you should no longer look at pictures. You should know you’re referring to not trying to fix or change what happened in the past, coming to some sense of an acceptance of that.

I’ll even take it another step which is when you’re looking at your pictures, what you want to get to the point of, and I think we most of us get there eventually, is to look at them and go, “I was so lucky to have her in my life and that was a wonderful experience. I am going to celebrate that. I love her for it, what she gave me in those moments and everything.” You learn to celebrate it. What you want to do with your spouse who passed away is to celebrate them and love them and honor them and remember them. All those things.

Other Helpful Resources

I have the next section of the book and so I’m going to let you guys know, I’m not going over everything. I’m going over some tidbits because you want to purchase this book. This is a resource. If you’re reading this conversation and you are not a widow or widower, but you have a friend that’s a widower and you are trying to understand how to show up in this space with them, this is an excellent resource to be able to have that.

This section says, “The frustration I experienced while trying to find materials that would be helpful to me, often left me floundering.” You covered this already, but I had this highlighted, so I’ll speak about it. Visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores, online searches from relevant articles to few resources I did find failed to provide answers. My therapist who consulted with others as well also could not find much that was helpful.” What do you feel is out there now? Obviously, it’s your book, but do you feel like there’s a better representation of the voice for men in going through this widower journey?

There is more appearing. One of the ones that came out right around the same time my book did was Herb Knowles, The Widower’s Journey. I read all the other books out there. Let’s say they cover the same area. I try and understand them so I can recommend them if they’re good because I want ones that compliment me to be available and to be able to recommend them. Herb’s is one of the better ones out there. Some other good examples here. The classic, A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, going back a couple of centuries, was one of the first out there by a man.

I did not know C.S. Lewis wrote a book on it, but it makes sense when you think about his life.

The best one I had found at the time. It’s Widower: When Men Are Left Alone. It covers twenty case studies, basically, of various widows and what their experiences were. You could see the wide range of experiences they have. Unfortunately, it’s not in print anymore. It’s sad that it’s not. The Widower’s Toolbox is another one that’s, again, going out of print as I understand it. It’s a lot of practical things you need to do as a widower.

There’s Fredrik Backman’s And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. It’s a nice little short one. That name may ring a bell because Fredrik Bakman wrote A Man Called Ove, which had a Swedish version and then Tom Hanks made the US English-speaking version. The other one I recommend media-wise is Ricky Gervais’ Afterlife, which is on Netflix, I think. The best rendition of the widower’s experience I’ve seen.

Reinventing Oneself

Thank you for those recommendations. The next section I want to cover is Upon Reflection. “My experience certainly offers proof that after publishing the first revised edition of Widower to Widower, I realized that there was more to cover.” I think when people go through the first year, there’s this imagination that we’ve got this grief thing covered. Now we’re going to go on with life. Upon reflection, what did you find to be different?

I certainly found that for up to two years after she passed, I’d have moments. The first six months were by far the worst. There were more moments in the one-year period, I’d say. Once I got past one year, it seemed like I was able to settle into a more normal life, but it was always there. It’s always hovering over you. You’re very aware of it. You have reactions when you see something. Hearing a song, for example, is a classic. It sets me off still. You talk to an old friend who didn’t know she passed away. That kind of thing.

How’s that constantly happening? It amazes me. It’s like, “How’s Mark doing?” “He’s dead.”

I still have it happen once in a while. Not often, but somebody finds me on Facebook, “How’s Theresa doing?” “She’s gone since 2015.”

Awkward. Now you’re consoling them in the mail.

I think it’s different in part, depending on whether you do one of the very necessary things, which is let’s talk about purpose and reinventing yourself. If you want to heal and become a contributing member of your family and society again, you need to rediscover who you are because you’re not the same person. Your wife’s not there to support you and tell you what to do. She has instilled into you a lot of good qualities, hopefully some smarts, and some understanding of the world around you. She’s not there to do it for you anymore so you have to learn to do it yourself.

Discovering who you are as a process we all have to go through. For me, part of it came through joining a group called The Breakfast Club, which is a group of 55 and older singles, again, about eight women to every guy but that’s okay. Interestingly enough, not only did I meet some interesting women, and eventually my new gal friend, I also met some guys.

 

 

As a group, we started going hiking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing. All these things I hadn’t done other than hiking. We’d go on long bike rides and stuff and talk and have a good time. Some were widowers, some were divorcees. It got self-confident. I felt better about who I was. I felt like, “I can do some of this stuff.” I was thinking I was 65 and older and dead. I was going to join my wife within another year or two.

That is very often something that people have to be concerned about if they don’t find purpose.

I joined the Pathways Hospice Board. I served on that for three years. I joined the library board. I’m finishing up my second four-year term there. That became my purpose, my way of giving back to the community as well as through the book, of course, and my blogs and things of that nature.

Also, identity. That part I was not prepared in his absence. It shook me to my core as far as who I am now because so much of myself was connected in this relationship, as it should be. That is why we’re married to someone and we spend a lot of time thinking about what a marriage would look like. There’s not much conversation in preparing for what I would say is the goal of a long marriage to end in one person leaving this world. The goal is not divorce. It happens, but we’re not prepared to be on that part of the relationship.

Let’s face it, the guys never expect to be the second one to go. They always think they’re going to be the first because that’s pretty much the norm. There are almost 4 million widowers in the United States at any given time, 400,000 new ones every year, and yet the services, materials and other things out there available to them pretty limited. I’ll be the first to tell you that out of that 400,000, maybe half of them didn’t have that great of marriage and they’re okay.

Those 200,000 who had a good marriage desperately needed help. Often, they’re finding that they don’t know how to deal with the family issues and things blow up in their face. They say the wrong things. They’re angry. They’re striking out at people because they don’t know how else to deal with it. They don’t have a therapist in the area. They’re willing to try much less to actually look for one.

To be vulnerable and say they need help.

If you’re a friend of somebody that you see suffering and is not willing to talk to you, give them my book or something like that and encourage them to do it. I’ve had guys that’s like, “I was three years later, Fred. I wish I’d found your book in the first year because it’s helped me a lot. I blew away 2 or 3 years. I could have had a better start of my life again.”


Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower
A Self-Help Book For Widowers: Surviving the End of Your Most Important Relationship.

 

Something you mentioned, I think, even makes it more complicated for the people who did not have such a great marriage, but there is still grief in that process. They wrestled with the idea, “We were on the verge of a divorce,” or these things were happening and then still giving themselves permission to go. The grief still exists in that process because, if nothing else, you may be grieving the relationship that you never were able to have and so many other pieces of that.

Not to mention all the guilt from making the relationship not be so good as it should have been. I did have one widow I met, and when we went out, I asked, “How are you doing?” She says, “I’m doing great. He was an awful husband. I’m relieved.” That does happen.

In-House Care

I talked to so many people and going back to something we started with, society does not always give kindness to that reality. They expect people to smile and have this pretense that everything is fine. The reality is, it’s not always the case. They have to hide how they feel. Not only do they grieve, but putting on this facade on top of it. It’s even more complicated. The role of hospice. “Hospice can come in two forms. Hospice facility provide care for terminally ill patients or in-home support to create a caring environment for a loved one who is dying. The focus here is on in-house care.” How did that impact your ability to be with your wife, and transition for her?

I’ll tell you the first thing was when we were in the hospital and my daughters and I had found this hospice availability that I mentioned it to my wife and her eyes teared up. She couldn’t talk very well at the time, but I could tell that’s what she wanted. She wanted to die at home with her family around her, not in the hospital. The hospital knows that, too. They try and facilitate this wherever possible. It was awkward at first figuring out all the things you have to do. They send somebody out to instruct you on how to do it. They send out a caseworker in case you got some mental health issues, other things you got to deal with and so on. They send out somebody to instruct you on the medication that you have to provide.

They check in with you. In our case, it was almost every day because it was only a week before she passed. They’ll stop by and up on her and give you a report and say, “I think she’s got a few more days. She’s only got another day or two,” that kind of thing. They were right and wrong, depending. I found it to be extremely helpful and much preferable to dying in a facility if possible. There are times when you need a facility and we built a new one over at Pathways that’s people actually come and stay at. That’s meant for people that require additional support, be it breathing apparatuses or medication adjustments and injections and things of that nature where it goes beyond the capacity of an elderly spouse to do.

If someone is considering hospice. They say, “I don’t have any medical experience. I feel like this is going to be beyond me. I’m not sure if I’m able to do this,” what would you say to them?

I am about as far over to the extreme of not having experience with medical as anybody you can find. I was raised a Christian Scientist, which means I didn’t go to the doctor much at all. I’m still like this. When I have to go to the doctor, unless I absolutely have to, I don’t.

As are most men.

It’s something you have to learn to deal with, and you have to recognize that’s a weakness in us.

I think what you’re saying is it’s not beyond somebody. They give you the skills and ability to be able to be there for your loved one.

They make it pretty easy. You do have to deal with things like helping her to get up and make it to the toilet and things of that nature. It’s amazing. Your mentality shifts and all those fears and stuff go away because you are so focused on making their last days the best they can be and the least painful that they can be that you don’t think about that beautiful. You can do it.

Living Again

That is going to be important because some people can be intimidated by that process. Thank you for having that. The next section, time length and other grieving issues address, “Can I live again?” I want to cover these four prompts, and then I’ll let you speak about this however you feel best. “Were others dependent upon my ability to remain functional, such as children? Did I have friends and family to support through all of this? Was there a business or a community activity that I valued?” Did your wife make it clear to you that you had to be strong and continue for the family’s sake?

My wife was so family-focused that I knew that was an important element that I was going to have to get better at. I was one of those classic guys. I’ve worked two jobs and be busy all the time. Come home, I’d be sitting in front of the TV reading through a thick notebook to get ready for the board meeting the next day thing. I was not as involved as I could have been, for sure, but I knew my wife was doing a fabulous job.

Even though my kids were older, I knew the grandkids and my daughters would be hurting. Maybe not as poignantly as I was, but I knew they’d be hurting and they were. One in particular had a tough time. She was mama’s girl. I knew I had to be there for them, support them and let them know that they could come to me. I reach out to them. I did right away.

For example, I invited the two daughters over to help me figure out what we were going to do with all mama’s stuff. We took it in stages. We did different days for different things like cleaning out the toiletries. Was there anything there worth salvaging? The clothes. We broke it into the old clothes that maybe meant something to us, the new ones that she never warped out, and gave them away. We worked through some of the things together. I made sure I included them when I started having to think about how I was adjusting the will and the trust and all that stuff with my wife gone so they’d understand it and not be shocked by any changes that came up. With the grandkids, we took her robes and they cut them up and made pillowcases from them.

Each grand kid had a piece of grandma with them when they went to bed. That was nice. The other part was getting active in the community as a means for me to give back because I knew I have a new purpose and that was how I was going to fulfill it. It made me feel good to be able to do that. It helped me to put the regrets and doubts behind me.

One statement on the next page stuck out to me. “Over time, my will to live gained strength.”

You would be the odd widower who loved his wife if you didn’t, at one time, consider suicide at some level. I had a blog out on that that I would recommend to everybody to read. I think it’s good to confront that and acknowledge, yes, I had those kinds of thoughts. Did I go deep into them? No. I didn’t start contemplating how I was going to commit suicide or anything. I had that sense of, I don’t know if I want to live without her.

I’d be perfectly happy to pass right now. If I had my opportunity, about six months after she passed, I was out having a beer with a friend, and all of a sudden, I doubled over and I said, “You got to take me to the hospital right now.” I’d been having a hernia problem for a while, and it suddenly took off on me. He rushed me to the hospital and they kept asking me. I had told them, “I want do not resuscitate.” They said, “What?” “No, do not resuscitate. If I’m going, I’m going. It’s my time. I’m going to go join my wife.” They had to ask me three times. Finally, they accepted. That’s what I had told them. I woke up a few hours later in the recovery room and I looked around and said, “I guess I’m supposed to live. I guess I better get to it.”

There is something about that, and I’m glad you mentioned that. I don’t think oftentimes it’s suicidal planned-out thoughts. It’s the concept of, “I’m okay if I’m not here. If this would be my last day breathing, if I were to leave this world, I would be okay and prefer to be where my spouse is.” Not that suicide is not a thing that happens. There’s a suicide hotline number on all our blogs to be able to look at that.

I want people to understand the idea of thinking that I want to be with my spouse, which is a thought that comes, not so much as the difference between planning and going out. If you’re doing that, seek help immediately. Make sure you reach out to someone. Call the suicide hotline. Call your therapist, call 911. Don’t let those thoughts hover in your mind and not be addressed because they can build to something serious.

That’s where isolation and loneliness are the deadliest enemies, because it clearly leads to those kinds of thoughts more often than if you’re active seeing your kids and going out with your grandkids and stuff like that. You’re not going to be thinking that way. I will tell you one thing though, that when you have that personal experience of holding the hand of your loved one as they pass away, my fear of death went away. I’m not afraid of it anymore. I’ve heard a lot of other widowers tell me the same thing. Did you have that experience?

That is very much my thought after Mark died. Exactly the same. In my husband’s experience, we were in close proximity. He had a major heart attack. We were there together. It totally changed my perspective of any fears or anxiety I had about death, which is part of living. And I won’t have to freak out or worry about this. It is part of life. As you said, have a purpose and do as much as I can while I’m here and living and make an impact and help other people.

There are a lot more people like you and me and Herb and another gentleman, Fred Spiro with the National Widowers Organization. Another friend of mine who runs a suicide education group and another friend who does Wings for Widows, the financial advice for new widows and widowers. There’s so many more of us emerging over the years reaching out and helping that. I feel like if a widower wants help, he has a much better chance of finding it now. Back when I lost my wife, you can hardly find anything. It was frustrating as heck, but it’s much better now.

Truth Or Bullshit

That is a good thing. I am on my last tab here. In this section, learning to live alone Truth or BS. I’m going to let you go from there.

I had some interesting situations arise when I got to the phase where I was saying, “I got to make a decision. What am I doing here?” Often, my sister, the former therapist, other women who I dated or met, tell me, “Fred, you got to learn to live by yourself.” I go, “What? What are you talking about? I’m sorry. I lived with my wife for 45 years. I had a great life. Why would I not want to live with somebody again?”

It wasn’t until later I realized there was some truth to that. If we become too dependent upon new people into our lives, we often make bad choices. When you learn to live by yourself, and by that, I mean you live in a residence by yourself, you still go out, do things with other people, you can still date and other things, but it means not feeling the need to have to have somebody in your life all the time, whether it be seeing them every day, marrying them or whatever it may be. It’s learning to be comfortable with yourself by yourself. What that allows you to do once you get to that point, you have a lot more self-confidence and comfort in moving into a relationship with somebody down the road.

If we become too dependent upon new people in our lives, we often make bad choices. Share on X

I would definitely agree with that. Unfortunately, I see so many people trying to fix their grief problem with joining a relationship. Nothing can fix that, because the only thing that would fix it would be our spouse’s return. Having that peace with yourself and knowing yourself and being comfortable allows you in a good space to be able to have a relationship. You will always grieve your spouse some form or fashion. I’m not saying that that needs to no longer be an issue, but if you are trying to plug and play and have to have somebody else, I’ve not seen that work very successfully for anyone.

 

Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | Widower

 

The phrase that been used with a therapist is you can’t put just another doll up on top of the wedding cake. It doesn’t work that way.

Getting Therapy

That has so many visual, like you stuffed the other one inside. That does not work. Fred, I picked out what I liked about the book and things I wanted to cover. Any particular areas of the book that you would like to highlight and speak about?

I think one of the things I talk about a little bit would be therapy in particular. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something that can help you work through things. I’ll give you a little funny example that happened to me. My sister, the therapist, has been going through some medical issues and we got talking. I was calling up supporters to find out what was going on and all this stuff. We talked for about an hour through all this stuff she’s going through and me providing her a little feedback type of thing. We got to the end of the conversation and my sister, the therapist said, “Talking to somebody else helps.” Often, we resist it and think we don’t need to do that but it does help.

I always use the example of in my men’s grief groups, and I also specify grief groups, grief therapists, not general therapists, not general groups, has to be grief-focused because it is a unique niche that needs people who understand it and can support people through it. In the men’s grief group, often, when they would come in, I could always tell the new guys like that, “Let’s sit there with their arms crossed like this.” It’s like, “You’re not going to tell me anything new. I can’t be helped. I’m a mess.”

About 40 minutes into the meeting, they’d be leaning forward and they’d be focusing and they’d be talking. They realized very quickly that there was added value by coming to the grief groups and not only hearing what others had to say, but sharing their own story. That brings me to a final point that I’ll mention, which is tell your story as often as you can to as many people as you can because every time you tell your story, the story of you, your wife, her passing, you heal a little bit and you feel a little bit better. You have to keep at it. It’s like you’ll tell your story 10, 20 times a day. It’s okay. It helps.

Tell your grieving story as often as you can and to as many people as you can. Every time you do this, you heal a little bit. Share on X

Questions For Tina

Thank you for sharing your book and sharing your journey. I asked you a lot of questions. Any questions of me?

I’m interested in where you are in your process now. How many years has it been since your husband passed?

It is seven years this month. We are recording In March 2024.

Very close to mine.

He passed in 2017. Yeah, seven years.

It’s quite a journey, isn’t it? You go, “Where’s it going to go from here?” I stopped worrying about it a few years ago.

I remember that first year, every day waking up going, “I’m awake again. I woke up again.” The hardest part was trying to start planning a future and come to terms with the future that could exist outside of Mark’s presence and come to peace with that. It’s like you talked about the financial plans, those things that needed to be done, administrative items. I was stuck for a good year, unable to make a lot of those decisions because I wanted to have a clear mind. I wanted to make some logical choices, not emotionally based. I gave myself space. There wasn’t anything that had to happen immediately. Giving myself space and then being able to make better decisions, I felt good about that choice.

That helped me a lot too. I emphasize it with every widower I speak with. Wait a year. There’s a reason they have that rule out. You’re not ready to make big decisions in that first year. If I had married a couple of the gals I dated in that first year where the relationship wasn’t going to go anywhere that was right. It would’ve been a horrible decision if I’d sold my house too soon or if I’d made various major decision-type things. You can’t undo those. It’s better to be patient and wait. Get your grief work through first, then deal with it.

 

 

That is true. Scientifically speaking, the prefrontal cortex is experiencing things such as trauma. The amygdala is experiencing that flight and fight mode. Part of our brain in the prefrontal cortex is making decisions that allow us to have memory. We have become very primitive. That is not the space and our normal cognitive skills that we want to make life-altering decisions.

Everyone will manage and house their grief differently, but scientifically, we’re made up of some of the same basic components and our body responds to different things such as the death of a loved one and the trauma and what that looks like. That one year, the swelling and different things that go on in our brain, that’s important to give our body. What we don’t see, we often don’t value.

If it’s going on in our mind, we’re not seeing that and realizing that is impacting our ability. We could be emotionally distracted, mistakenly, continually driving off of the wrong exit, not being able to remember a list of things that you need to do. If you’re seeing those different signs of your, for yourself, give yourself some grace to go through the process and hold off what you don’t have to do immediately.

When you look back and remember going through that, you say, ‘Now, was that a good time to start dating? Was that a good time to start entering a romantic relationship with somebody after you haven’t dated for 40-plus years?” The answer is no.

Any other questions of me?

No. That’s good. Thank you so much.

Closing Words

I will allow you to wrap up this conversation to the widowhood. Maybe there was a topic you wanted to cover that we didn’t, but I’ll allow you to wrap up this conversation.

I think I said it before. I would like to close with reaching out and telling your story. I think that’s such a basic issue. I think that’s a good one to close on. I don’t think I can add anything to that.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for joining us.

You bet. Thank you for doing what you’re doing. I’m sure you’re reaching some people across the country and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Thank you.

 

Important Links

 

About Fred Colby

Widowhood Real Talk with Tina | Fred Colby | WidowerFred Colby moved to the Fort Collins area in 2008. His two daughters and four grandchildren also live in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Fred previously served as Executive Director, Development Director, board member, and consultant for nonprofit organizations in California and Colorado. He served as President during his eight years of service on the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees.
 
After his wife, Theresa, died in 2015, Fred shifted his focus to writing and leadership roles where he could help his fellow widowers to heal and re-engage with life. He co-founded the Pathways Hospice Men’s Grief Group in 2016 and started a national online men’s grief group during the pandemic.
 
Fred was inspired to write Widower to Widower after struggling to find good materials to help him through his grief. His grief therapist and fell
 
His writing background in the nonprofit and political arenas included newsletters, articles, editorials, strategic plans, and grant applications. This prepared Fred for writing Widower to Widower, woven around blogs he wrote during and after his wife’s passing. This storytelling element allows the reader to be in the moment with him during the grieving experience and to see that their own experience is not uncommon.
 
Fred says, “As I’ve learned from hundreds of fellow widowers, mine was not a unique journey, but I am the expert on my own experience. There are common threads and shared experiences we can all learn from.”

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide