Don’t Expect Others to Know What To Do Following Your Loss


Following the passing of a wife or life-partner, it is the widower who needs support, not the deceased.

So why is it that so many widowed men complain about their sense of abandonment by their families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers following their loss? Behaviors and interactions with those who you would hope would be of some level of support to the widowers, can instead become hurtful, insensitive, and at times, clumsy.      

Herb KnollCase in point, on the first morning, I was back at my bank job in San Antonio, and while seated at my desk, one of our human resource officers entered my office. He appeared to be surprised to find me lost in thought with tears in my eyes. Not knowing what to say or do with a grown man crying, the officer immediately turned to exit my office, closing the door behind him. Perhaps if I was a widow instead of a widower, I might have been offered some tissue or maybe a glass of water and a kind word.

            A few days later, (just seventeen days after my wife died), a colleague offered to introduce me to her unmarried aunt. “What did you say?” I exclaimed. My wife’s memorial service was still six days away, and someone was trying to fix me up with their aunt. “That’s not going to happen,” I snapped and walked away. 

            In each case, my initial response may have been of disappointment in the lack of compassion and common decency presented by my colleagues. Looking back, I don’t see it that way, and I now regret not offering a more appreciative response to what clearly was their best effort to comfort me.

“People often make mistakes in trying to comfort the bereaved,” says Dr. Deborah Carr of Boston University. “They can’t envision what the widower is going through, and they become ham-fisted and misguided, offering well-intentioned reactions. Getting angry at those trying to help you isn’t going to lessen a widower’s pain.  But what it may do is alienate those who can be a source of support to the widower in the future.”

Dr. Justin Denney Ph.D., of Washington State University, believes people feel especially socially awkward to see older male figures let down their positions of power and authority, and then

embracing them, validating their loss like they might with a woman or a younger person. 

            “Death and illness make people uncomfortable.  People often don’t want to talk about death because they don’t want to risk upsetting the widower,” says Dr. Carr. Perhaps this is the reason so many “friends and family” barely show their face around a widower after the wife has died.

Grief is a moving target, for the bereaved as well as their family and friends who want to be of some comfort to them. As a result, many people who say they were there for you would later say, “Oh, I didn’t want to bother you, so I decided not to pick up the phone and call,” ultimately staying away at a time when widowers need them the most.  To those who share this view let me strongly suggest, next time, pick up the phone.

The need for well-wishers to proactively engage the bereaved was clearly pointed out to me when I was interviewing widower John Von Der Haar for my book, The Widower’s Journey (2017) for which Drs. Deborah Carr and Justin Denney contributed. I asked John, “What was the best thing that happened to you during your grief journey?” John replied, “When I told my family and friends ‘I’m Fine, leave me alone with my thoughts’ they ignored my instructions and forced their way into my life, and I am sure grateful they did.” 

Both the widowed as well as those who hope to comfort them have a role to play in what has become known as anyone’s grief journey.            

For the would-be supporters, Dr. Carr recommends that well-wishers who don’t know what to say to a widower simply “Ask them (widower) about the deceased, let them share a memory.” They know their wife is dead, it’s no great surprise if someone speaks about the deceased. Widowers should encourage others to talk about the deceased and not let their fear of death get in the way of having a meaningful conversation.” Dr. Carr went on to say how “Whenever people see or experience anything for the first time, they’re not sure what to do. They don’t have a roadmap. So the first time a young assistant sees his or her older boss cry, they simply may not know what to do. It’s hard to get things ‘right’ when we don’t have experience in dealing with such matters. Nerves can get the better of us.”

But alas, widowers have some ownership of the sought after solution too. As the founder of the Widowers Support Network (, I have consoled hundreds of widowed men from around the world.  In doing so, I have identified common traits that exist among them, including the need to resist being isolated. Residing in a now silent home, devoid of even the fragrant residue from their wife’s perfume is viewed by many as a form of a sentence. To combat this emptiness, widowers need to remove themselves from their sofa or recliner and find purpose in their lives. And while they’re at it, they should find themselves around people who are happy or those who can appreciate their kind gestures.  Good examples of these places include the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, or your local animal shelter. Widowers may prefer to drive a van that transports our veterans to a local VA hospital or clinic, while others enjoy serving on a committee at their house of worship.  When a family member or friend asks a widower if there anything they can do for them, the widower should say “Yes,” and then assign them even the most trivial of tasks. Doing so will not only enable the widower to cross a job off their to-do list, it will serve the supporter with some level of therapeutic relief from the loss they too are feeling.   

As for the misguided deeds of others, widowers should just let them go, and find the peace that awaits them. Widowers can take comfort in knowing that all of their would-be supporters did their very best to comfort them. Now its time for the widowers to do theirs!


About the Author

Herb Knoll lost his wife, Michelle, to pancreatic cancer on March 7, 2008. Knoll is a retired bank executive, marketer, and professional speaker turned widower advocate. He founded the Michelle’s Angels Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization with a mission to “provide love, hope, compassion, and comforting music to those who quietly suffer” (MichellesAngel. com). Knoll also founded the Widowers Support Network in 2014 (, so he could better serve, comfort, and assist widowers.

Knoll has previously served as a weekly columnist for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, a contributing writer for Sales & Marketing Management and Marketing Times magazines, and as an on-air talent for television commercials. As the former director of public and media relations for KeyBank (NY) and later as president of Marketplace Bank (FL), Knoll frequently appeared as his bank’s spokesperson on radio and television. PBS affiliate WNED produced and aired three-part series Today’s Executive, featuring Herb’s business insights, which were featured in his 1985 book, The Total Executive.

An inductee of the Buffalo/Niagara Sales & Marketing Executive’s Hall of Fame, Knoll went on to serve as the Executive Director of the 10,000+ member Sales & Marketing Executives International and was a charter member of the board of directors for Nap Ford Community School in Orlando. A former U.S. Army Reserve Drill Sergeant (E-7), Knoll is a proud member of the Knights of Columbus. Knoll lives in Lake Mary, Florida, with his wife, Maria.

As a bank executive, Herb Knoll was known as a man who could get the job done. But when Knoll lost his wife to cancer he found few resources that could help him recover. And the more he learned about the plight of widowers, from high suicide rates to physical and emotional problems, the more he became motivated to write a book with fellow widowers, for fellow widowers.

Knoll’s The Widower’s Journey tackles tough questions and provides advice on many topics, including:

how men can process grief keeping healthy during stressful times managing a career while coping with loss drawing strength from your faith reentering the dating world dealing with the issues that sex, dating, and marriage create parenting as a widower solving financial and legal problems preserving your late partner’s memory for yourself and for family and friends

Knoll breaks down barriers that block men in their journeys to recovery. He encourages men to seek out the fellowship of other widowers, and he provides resources that men need to move forward.

He also identifies how society fails widowers, and spells out how institutions need to change so widowers can receive the support they deserve.