Michael E. Holtby, LCSW, BCD
LIFE AFTER THE DEATH OF A PARTNER
First published in Resolute!, May, 1998
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.
One of the most common phenomenon of this epidemic, and yet least acknowledged and discussed is the plight of surviving partners. Now there is a book by my friend and colleague, Michael Shernoff, M.S.W. that addresses the subject: Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner (1997), published by Haworth Press. Michael not only addresses the subject from a professional point of view, with a healthy peppering of references; but also offers his own personal experience following the death of Lee, his own partner.
Shernoff concludes at the end of his book, "There is no right or wrong way to
go about the process of moving on after the death of a partner. Perhaps the only
incorrect thing to do is to try to avoid the painful feelings that must be
experienced in order to come out the other side." In this spirit the book
showcases the personal accounts of ten other gay men who have lost partners.
Among them are the lovers of such notables as Paul Monet, and Christopher
Isherwood. The authors themselves are equally prominent, including Craig Lucas,
the author of the screenplay Long Time Companion; Stephen Greco, a
former editor of The Advocate; and Phill Wilson, the founder of the
National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum.
In the final chapter, "Mental Health Considerations of Gay Widowers,"
Shernoff attempts to address what is unique about being gay and losing a
partner. He sites the concept of disenfranchised grief, which was
identified and written about in a book by Ken Doka (1989). Disenfranchised grief
occurs when (a) the relationship is not recognized, (b) the loss is not
recognized, or (c) the griever is not recognized. Gay relationships are often
not given the credibility of a straight marriage. It makes me reflect on the
contrast. When I flew back to support my sister, when my brother-in-law died of
cancer, the house was full of people and the process was one of unconditional
support. In contrast, when Tom's partner died his in-laws swooped in and put
sticky tabs on all the furniture and other possessions they wanted in the house,
and took his lover's body back to their home state. In John's case, he was fired
from his job because his employer couldn't understand why he needed to take two
weeks off when his "roommate" died. It also makes me think of the scene in
Torch Song Trilogy when the protagonist's mother gets angry for her
son's comparison of his loss with hers. As Michael observes, "A need to defend
the relationship with the deceased and attempt to prove the relationship's
validity" only complicates the grieving process.
Shernoff also tries to make the generalization that guilt is less of a factor
for gay widowers, versus their straight counterparts. The accounts in this book
do indeed make little mention of guilt. However, that hasn't been my own
clinical experience. One of the most poignant cases was a man who came to see me
when he found a letter from his deceased lover. It was one of those venting
letters you write a partner when you are angry, but never intend to deliver.
This man was wracked with guilt and regret. In another case a man could not
forgive himself for allowing his partner to die from liver failure caused by the
various medications he was on. He felt he should have been more on top of the
situation, more assertive with the doctors, and more knowledgeable about drug
interactions and side effects.
With death can also come the emergence of secrets, as was the case in the movie, Bridges of Madison County. A grieving man called me from San Francisco about finding a trunk in the attic. His partner of two decades had a whole secret life complete with many other partners, and S&M accessories. Another man, in his own despondency, let his partner's elderly parents go through his lover's apartment in which they found his extensive porn collection.
Anger, on the other hand, is an emotion both Shernoff and I can
agree on as an almost universal experience, "whether it be at the unfairness of
life, at God, at the cause of death, at the deceased or just being in the
unenviable position of having to pick up the pieces and rebuild a life." Unique
to gay men, this anger is "only fueled by homophobic reactions and insensitivity
to their mourning." When the survivor is himself HIV, the anger can also
exacerbated, "He abandoned me! Who is going to take care of me when my time
One commonality of all the accounts in this book was the trauma all the
authors experienced by the death itself. In every case they wanted to talk about
the dying process in some detail, and this was regardless of how long it had
been, or how much they had moved on. "The writers were still traumatized by the
experience and were able to recall it with a clarity and detail as if it were
Grief has often been equated to standing in the surf: waves hit you,
sometimes knocking you over, particularly at first. Then as time goes along they
hit you less often, and are more likely to not drown you in emotion. Shernoff
quotes Paul Monette, from Last Watch of the Night(1994):
Grief is madness -- ask anyone who's been there. They will tell you it
abates with time, but that's a lie. What drowns you in the first year is a force
of solitude and helplessness exactly equal in intensity to the love you had for
the one who's gone. Equally passionate, equally intimate. The spaces between the
stabs of pain grow longer after a while, but they're empty spaces.
It is with some irony that one of the most poetic metaphors in Shernoff's
book is written by Winston Wilde, Paul Monet's lover when Paul died:
Being in a loving relationship with a reflecting companion gives one a
window into his own soul. My pane has been shattered. Dutifully, I've swept up
the shards and put them in the recycling bin. But a great wind has scattered the
slivers about, ten thousand invisible land mines from a war now long lost, lying
in wait for unpredictable moments of fresh blood.
Lest we view the loss of a lover as a condition which is terminal in and of
itself, this book also illustrates how all the writers struggle with recreating
a fulfilling, productive life. For example, the majority were in new
relationships. Betty Berzon, Ph.D., the author of Permanent Partners,
in reviewing Shernoff's book writes, "The depth of the attachments
described in this book is exceeded only by the hunger for life and love that
prompts these widowers to move on and become involved in an intimate partnership
again." Michael concludes his book by reflecting on the myth of the Phoenix
which is reborn out of its own ashes:
As the stories in this book illustrate, survival, experimenting first
with a different sense of oneself as a person now alone and then with countless
possibilities, new relationships, and innovative directions in life, all have
the possibility of creating something fresh and unforeseen that can emerge out
of the ashes of the death of a beloved partner.
Shernoff himself is a great model for getting on with your life. When I contacted him about this review he was on his way to the Yucatan for two weeks. We share an avid interest in scuba diving, and he has logged well over two hundred dives. He also keeps up a regular e-mail correspondence with me, and a number of other people. And Michael is quite prolific in his writing with another book due out this year for mental health professionals on AIDS. His last e-mail to me signed off with, "Let the optimism and renewal of this season bless your life." Michael is the epitome of optimism and continual renewal, despite being HIV positive himself for almost two decades. If you would like to know more about Michael, his web site is: http://www.gaypsychotherapy.com/
To be able to move on, however, the surviving partner needs the help of
others. Shernoff makes this observation, and sites that of other writers, that
symptoms of psychological trauma are exacerbated by isolation. The account of
George Seabold, who sunk into alcoholism is a case in point. The difficulty
caused by this epidemic is that social supports may be devastated by multiple
losses. Its not uncommon to not only have lost a partner, sometimes two; but
also a brother, and all one's best friends and confidants.
Especially with the experience of repeated loss, can come an exacerbation of
internalized homophobia. AIDS, in the mind of the survivor, can become
associated with any sexual activity or even with being gay.
One of my own clients didn't want to be a "practicing" homosexual any longer,
having lost his lover, his brother, and his entire social network. He moved to a
small farming town in Colorado in an effort to leave the epidemic behind.
Many of my clients who are in their forties and fifties have lost dozens of
friends and acquaintances, and in some cases over a hundred. Kevin Mallinson, RN
, a Ph.D. candidate at John's Hopkins, lived in Key West during the early years
of the epidemic. He numbers his losses around one hundred and fifty. Not only
have they included a lover, but a subsequent boy friend, his best friend of many
years, the two people who encouraged him to go into nursing, a classmate in
nursing school, and on and on. As Kevin says, "I am not infected with
AIDS, but I have AIDS in that I have certainly been affected."
Those acquaintances who are left don't have the history or tolerance to listen empathically to the pain and grief the survivor needs to repeatedly express. If this is your situation, get yourself networked with other widowers either in a formal group, or by using your own resources to get to know other widowers. If the symptoms listed in the box accompanying this column fit you and are more than transitory, see a therapist or at least do your best to talk to others about your experience. And read Shernoff's book!
Symptoms of Pathological Grief
Last messed with November 15, 2001
Copyright(c) 2001 Michael E. Holtby, LCSW. All rights reserved.