By Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D.
It was with some excitement that I read the article on men and grief in the July 25th edition of the New York Times. It mentioned Widower: When Men Are Left Alone, which I had written with Scott Campbell, a text that is now 20 years old and still very relevant. I was pleased for another reason that took me a while to recognize. The article was basically about grieving men seeking help, describing several programs directed to their needs. The common and important theme was how they came together to help each other.
My own professional history comes into play here. I began to appreciate that this reflects the success of my early work. In 1965, at the Laboratory of Community Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, I directed a project that focused on the needs of the widowed. The project came to be called The Widow-to-Widow Program. We found that the most helpful person to someone newly widowed was another widowed person. Women who had been widowed for 2-3 years reached out to every newly widowed woman in a neighborhood of Boston. Over three years we reached out to approximately 400 women. This was a time when programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous were earning a good deal of attention for their success in their members, recovering from alcoholism and keeping people with alcoholic problems sober. Another program, Compassionate Friends, was growing in the United States offering help to parents whose child had died. The helpers were other grieving parents. Mutual help or self help was becoming recognized as a meaningful way of helping people at times of loss and change in their lives and we were part of that movement. The American Association of Retired People developed a Widowed Persons Service that took the widow-to- widow program to the National Level. (My work is described in the book Widow to Widow, 2nd edition.)
As I read the article in the Times I realized that the ideas that we developed in the Widow to Widow Program are very much alive. In reading about what men are doing for each other in addition to reaching out to new widowers, I did feel very proud of what we had done many years ago. These grieving men are working with professionals as collaborators, not as patients. The widowed are developing programs for themselves. They are taking the initiative. We see the power of learning from peers who bring to the table experiential knowledge. Our professional knowledge is finally catching up with what we’ve learned over the years from the widowed I talked with. We need to appreciate experiential knowledge as a critical source of information as we try to understand grief and what help is appropriate for the bereaved. What are the gains gained from mutual help activities? It legitimates the pain; it normalizes it given the circumstances. It provides opportunity to learn new ways to cope. Personal experience is valued. The individual is not a client but an informed consumer. There is no sense of uniqueness; members don’t feel alone in their grief. And your helper is another bereaved person.
As I try to summarize what I have been saying, I think that as professionals our best teachers are the people we are trying to help. We can be their partners, we can collaborate, but we need to appreciate their building on their own experience. We too will be bereaved and we need to use what we learn from this experience as well.
Phyllis R. Silverman has received many awards for her work and is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of bereavement. Her most recent book is A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children.