MAY 1998


Therapists Talk 
Shrink Rap 


    Michael E. Holtby, LCSW, BCD


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 comes?"

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 only yesterday."

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:

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

  • Isolating one's self from loving and supportive people.
  • Not returning phone calls, e-mail or answering the door when someone comes to visit.
  • Hopelessness that life ever will again be better than it is now.
  • Remaining in bed.
  • Not going to work.
  • A preoccupation with wanting to join the deceased.
  • Thoughts of wanting to die now that the lover is gone.



Last messed with November 15, 2001

Copyright(c) 2001 Michael E. Holtby, LCSW. All rights reserved.