Gay Widowers: A Social Role that Lacks Attention

The loss of a loved one, especially a spouse or a partner, is a unique experience that leads individuals into social roles that they are not prepared for; they have had no specific directions on how to become widows and widowers.

51fs6RfThuL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Being gay and a widower is a determinant indicator of disenfranchised grief which is also grief that is not usually recognized by the social world. Let me elaborate on this with an example. Just a year ago I started a project to examine how gay men become widowers; how does that experience deliver for their lives and what the meanings and social supports are.

During this journey, of listening to grieving individuals, someone told me that he cannot fill out the social services’ forms anymore. It is unbearable. Why? Because he is a widower, but he was told that as long as there is no legal proof for that, he is just unmarried.

Experiencing a disenfranchised grief indicates three main things. One is lack of recognition of the relationship that existed, so two gay men being together and being married. Secondly, lack of recognition of the loss that is experienced. and finally, lack of recognition of the new social roles that the loss has brought. It is self-explanatory how these three core determinants interconnect and overlap; one becomes the extension of the other.

Gay men are experiencing grief and loss differently than their heterosexual counterparts. Gay grief may lack recognition based on the given society, and when it does the individual moves towards a complicated process of grieving which may lead social work practitioners in clinical practice (as well as other professionals) to interpret certain behaviors as “abnormal” (for lack of a better word) or pathological.

Gay men are struggling with issues of survival after the death of their spouse or partner. Was the marriage recognized? Is the loss recognized? Is there a social support system for the person left behind? How important becomes the social recognition of the grief and the loss per se, in order for the individual to follow through with a healthy process of bereavement as opposed to dwelling on the lack of opportunities that he faces in his community/society?

Social workers work with gay people in any setting, and they can make a difference, starting from understanding the concepts and the meanings of those concepts, that their client-systems deal with. Awareness of possible scenarios may raise skills and knowledge which are crucial in social work practice.

Bereavement should be a free matter, not a socially constructed fashion! One should be able to grieve and mourn for thy loved one, and not hide it behind the social norms that cannot be fair at the time. I will close this post with something that a very close friend of mine in the US told me recently, as he is a gay widower himself.

“Losing my husband was one unbearable thing. But realizing how unwanted I am in my city, made this experience just the worse” – Gay Widower

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Panagiotis Pentaris

Dr. Panagiotis Pentaris is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Integrated Care. He is a Social Worker with particular specialty in Thanatology. LGBTQ issues, due to his personal sexual orientation as well, have become a critical focus for him since more than seven years ago. Follow: View all posts by Panagiotis Pentaris

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