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Helping Parents with Grieving Children
Grieving Children continuing education social worker CEUs

Section 22
Grief and Widowed Fathers

CEU Question 22 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Grief
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEU

Research shows that some men cope with the death of their wives by replacing them. Campbell and Silverman (1996) assert that, in the USA, 52% of widowers remarry within eighteen months of their bereavement. Of these remarriages half will break down. They suggest that some men are particularly vulnerable to the secondary losses of widowerhood because they depend on their wives not only to manage domestic aspects of their lives (washing, ironing, cleaning the house, childcare), but also to maintain their social connectedness. Women appear more comfortable with emotions and their articulation (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993), and more experienced with issues of loss and attachment (Chodorow, 1978; Hart, 1996). Hence many widowers lose the one individual on whom, more than anyone else, they depend for their psychological wellbeing.

Men's experience of suffering may not be as direct or expressed in such emotional terms. They may be less inclined to seek or gain emotional support (Cook, 1988). Widows on the other hand are more likely to spend longer `ruminating' on their loss. Evidence suggests that while widows benefit from financial and practical help, widowers need more help exploring and expressing their feelings (Stroebe and Schut, 1998). In the absence of such opportunities for emotional expression, men may be more inclined to cope with bereavement by adopting what Stroebe and Schut (1995) call a `restoration' orientation to their loss. That is, rather than ruminating on their feelings, they concentrate on `repairing' the routines disrupted through their wives' deaths. Opinion is divided over whether or not such an approach to grief constitutes unhealthy `avoidance' or helpful repair of a damaged identity (Wortman and Silver, 1989).

It is not the purpose of this paper to debate these opinions. Rather, we aim to explore how processes of adjustment in bereaved families may be impaired when father and daughter adopt contrasting approaches to their bereavement. According to Stroebe and Schut's (1995) dual process model of grief, adaptation may involve shifting backwards and forwards between painful thoughts and feelings of the loss and practical activities that divert attention from the bereavement. For the bereaved partner, early remarriage represents a `restoration' strategy that may provide both a new identity project and opportunities to repair many of the secondary losses caused by the death. In contrast, for a bereaved daughter, such remarriage may not only intensify feelings of loss, it may also threaten those roles she has undertaken on behalf of her deceased mother. Hence opportunities for a daughter to `restore' a sense of identity through focusing on the practical problems of organizing home or family may also be threatened by her father's early courtship and remarriage.

The presence of the deceased in the family system
A number of writers have drawn attention to the ways boundaries between the living and the dead are breaking down in late modern societies, with survivors coping with bereavement through transforming relationships with the deceased and finding new ways of holding on to them (Klass, 1996; Walter, 1996). Howarth (1998) has argued that the dead continue to exert an influence on the identity projects of the living, and this may be especially so in the case of surviving daughters. Brabant et al. (1994) notes that some family members hold on to their deceased loved ones as an abstract presence -- a `social ghost' -- who still inhabits the family as they perceive it. Other family members may not. Others still, even if they have such thoughts, may find it difficult to share them with anyone but the most intimate of family or friends. The following problems of father-daughter misperception illustrate how conflict over the place of the deceased mother and ambiguity over the roles of daughter and new partner can prevent the family as a whole from reaching a comfortable perception of itself following the death of the mother.

Therapeutic implications
Recent developments in theorizing grief as a continuing, rather than a severed bond (Klass, 1906; Walter, 1996) stress the value of conversations about the deceased. Based on work with The Compassionate Friends, Klass argues that opportunities for exchanging stories and recollections about the life of the deceased help transform the nature of the relationship from one resting on actual physical interactions to one based on abstract, internal representations. Walter stresses the value of these conversations in creating a complete biography of the deceased's life Following Giddens' notion of reflexive self-narrative, memories need to be edited, rearranged and repositioned in order tot the bereaved person to make sense of life without the deceased's physical presence (Giddens, 1991).

Where a bereaved mother or father remarries and their children's grief is far from being resolved, certain communication problems in sharing memories may be identified. Conversational remembering, if it takes place at all, is most likely to happen either within the social sphere of family and friends, or within the imagination of the bereaved. As the place with most potential for sharing memories of the deceased, the physical fabric of the family home is changed and familiar routines and relationships lost. Other settings where friends, relatives and acquaintances of the deceased might have explored their memories will also be altered by their need to take the new marriage into account. The bereaved's own internal conversation may be preoccupied with trying to make sense of the radical changes within the family, rather than moving back beyond the death to warmer memories of the deceased (Klass, 1996). Imaginary conversations with the deceased themselves might also focus on family relationship changes.

For daughters whose fathers remarry early, we would suggest that opportunities for conversational remembering -- and therefore opportunities for resolving grief -- are reduced. The family home the physical location of so many remembered events and `linking objects' --is transformed by the addition of the stepmother's possessions and her own rearrangement of familiar furniture (and, in our case example, by the addition of her own children as well). The lost mother's photographs, if still displayed within the home, may not be given the prominence the children would want in deference to the feelings of the stepmother. Opportunities for the surviving system to apprehend, mourn and discuss the meaning of the mother s loss may be substantially reduced. To continue to do so would be to exclude the new wife, and the daughter's `difficult' behavior provides a safer object of emotional conflict than any unfinished business with the deceased wife. Opportunities to share past memories involving the deceased mother are minimized, again through deference to the presence of the new wife. The formality of marriage to a second wife, whatever the children's reservations, pre-empts their own contribution to the public perception of their bereaved family.

Differences between widowers' perceptions of loss and those of their daughters may be accounted for in a number of ways, but perhaps one of the most important explanations lies in the distinctiveness of men's and women's emotional repertoires and in their strategies for coping with crisis (Altschuler, 1993).

Men appear generally to be less sensitive to certain emotions and levels of relationships than women (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993). For example, one widower noted that his closest friend, though very supportive, used jokingly to equate the length of his widowerhood with the number of weeks since he had had sex. A number of researchers argue that this difference in perspective may reflect traditionally gendered divisions of labor. Although prone to generalization, and acknowledging that many exceptions can be found, much research into men's grief confirms a tendency for them to adopt more concrete strategies than women for coping with loss (Cook, 1988; Schwab, 1996).

Chodorow (1978) and Scarf (1981) argue that women are more skilled than men in making emotional connections, being sensitive to, and managing the needs and feelings of those around them. More recently, Lupton and Barclay (1997) have suggested that intimacy comes more easily to women, and that mothering as an activity creates in women a set of preoccupations unknown to many men. `Mothering', like `nursing', may increasingly become a gender-neutral description as more men undertake full-time child and home-care activities. Similarly, `fathering', like `doctoring', may be a role occupied increasingly by women who maintain a full-time career and involve themselves less in the day-to-day detail of their children's care. Many parents -- most obviously single parents --may well share aspects of both mothering and fathering.

Differences between widowers and their bereaved daughters may reflect a division of emotional work within families and a more general cultural discourse about the role of men and women within families. Mothers, and through their influence daughters also, may tend to face inwards, attending to the private and emotional requirements of family living while fathers and sons may focus more on the practical and public relationships between the family and the outside world. In the face of death therefore, men may tend to interpret their loss in more pragmatic and objective terms (life must go on), while many women are more likely to experience bereavement as a fundamental threat to the meaning of their lives (life is crazy, what's the point in anything?) (Das, 1993).

Hindmarch (1995) argues that children may postpone their own grief, and demonstrate `advanced maturity' in order to minimize the emotional distress of their bereaved parents; so, like their fathers, bereaved daughters may adopt a practical strategy for coping with their mothers' deaths. Caught between feelings of responsibility for their father and uncertainty about their own feelings, they may willingly take on many of the practical and emotional roles left by their mothers.

Like their fathers, bereaved children appear to experience social and cultural pressures to control rather than express their grief (Kandt, 1994). In the case of adolescents, this can be for a variety of reasons. Adolescence is already a period of loss -- of childhood, of confidence in the ability of parents to make things right, of certainty about who they are or are supposed to be. It is marked by ambivalent and often conflicting relationships with one or both parents and at a time when the home may be a tense and uncomfortable place to be. In addition, many adolescents are also sensitive to differences that might mark them out from their contemporaries, and fear of the stigma of bereavement may also discourage them from acknowledging tlr sharing their feelings (Corr and Corr, 1996).

Adolescents possess the conceptual skills to understand the irreversibility of death, but generally lack the life experience to contextualize it or to find opportunities for acknowledging or working through their feelings. Some benefits derive from the daughter carrying out tasks previously undertaken by the mother. She avoids facing ambivalent feelings towards the deceased mother, avoids facing memories of recent disagreements tlr anxieties of life without her, and structures her thoughts through concrete activities. A kind of symbiosis might be achieved whereby for a short time at least, both primary and secondary losses are compensated for by father and daughter concentrating on `restoring' their lives through keeping the family functioning. For both, a need to explore personal feelings may be postponed in favor of the practical needs of the present. This initial collaboration may further increase daughters' sense of betrayal when their fathers develop intimacy with other women.

A major problem with using this case study is that inevitably we have presented the argument from a daughter's perspective. Fathers' stories would be very different. For example, a feature in the Mirror of Wednesday, 9 September 1998 criticizes Vanessa Feltz (a celebrity chat show presenter on British television) for her `childish' refusal to speak to her father since his remarriage three years after her mother's death (Weathers, 1998). In the small print he acknowledges that her original anger was because he had taken out `respectable Jewish ladies of a certain age' shortly after his wife's death. Vanessa's father rejects her view that it is his fault she has been unable to come to terms with her mother's death. Unlike this study, the Mirror feature is written very much from the father's perspective and contains descriptions that Rhona would recognize in her own father's criticism of her behaviour.

There is, nevertheless, sufficient research on men's grief in other settings, and on problems which daughters experience within step-families (Grinwald, 1995), to tentatively construct a theoretical argument -- irrespective of the anecdotal nature of the sample used here -- that a daughter's grief is likely to be longer term, more emotionally problematic and less easily resolved when a father remarries within a relatively short period of his wife's death. We have argued that much of this difficulty arises from fundamental differences in perception of loss between men and women.

We are not suggesting that either strategy is right or wrong -- rather we note that, as Stroebe and Schut (1995) argue, effective grief resolution might involve bereaved people using both strategies -- that is, spending some time facing what they have lost, ruminating on their relationship with the deceased and confronting their feelings of loss, while also, at other times, `taking time off' from grieving, involving themselves in practical activities that help return their lives to some sense of normal routine. We have suggested that widowers' early remarriage may be one extreme form of this restorative strategy, where they either grieve sufficiently early on, then move swiftly to a new set of mentally distracting relationships, or where they fail to ruminate on their loss at all, blanking out painful feelings and avoiding the impact of secondary losses by replacing the lost marital relationship with a new one. In either case, the nature of the `continuing bond' becomes problematic. At the same time, the father's way of coping may well deter surviving children from collective conversational remembering. The original family unit and the home that held the mother's memory can no longer be fondly recaptured. Many of the memory bridges to the past appear to have been burned.

Differences in the way fathers and daughters deal with the death of the mother might create a blockage in the daughter's exploration of her feelings of loss and grief. Her internal conversation may remain preoccupied with the early remarriage and the way in which it spoils her memory of the parents' life together. It is therefore difficult for her to find others with whom she can construct a shared comfortable memory of her mother. Consequent communication problems further reduce the family's capacity to provide the support which each member needs to negotiate a collective memory of -- and appropriate role for -- the deceased mother.
- Riches, Gordon & Pam Dawson; Daughters’ dilemmas: grief resolution in girls whose widowed fathers remarry early; Journal of Family Therapy; Nov 2000; Vol. 22; Issue 4.

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about about grief resolution in girls whose widowed fathers remarry early.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Jones, C., Foley, S., & Golombok, S. (2021). Parenting and child adjustment in families with primary caregiver fathers. Journal of Family Psychology.

Talen, M. R. (2019). A silver lining playbook? My mom’s death. Families, Systems, & Health, 37(3), 260–262.

Yopp, J. M., Deal, A. M., Nakamura, Z. M., Park, E. M., Edwards, T., Wilson, D. R., Biesecker, B., & Rosenstein, D. L. (2019). Psychological and parental functioning of widowed fathers: The first two years. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(5), 565–574.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
According to Riches & Dawson, what are some benefits derived from the daughter carrying out tasks previously undertaken by the deceased mother? Record the letter of the correct answer in the CEU Test.

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