How can you best navigate your widowers journey, not just one or two years in, but beyond as well?
In this podcast episode we interview Herb Knoll, author of the book Widower’s Journey. We discuss the common issues we see widowers face, the perils of getting remarried too soon, and so much more.
Herb 12:20 – Well, men have this thing called egos. And they get in the way of progress. So men always feel that they have to be strong. And when they’re always asked “How are you doing after being widowed?” And the general answer is, “I’m fine”. Well, no, they’re not fine. They’re not even close to being fine. They’re a wreck. They’re vulnerable. And they not only feel they need to shelter themselves from inquiring minds, but they don’t make new friends easily.
Tom 17:55 – And Herb when we’re in this kind of experience of grief, our brains are not functioning completely. The amygdala is overloaded. Our emotional brain is in charge, and in some ways is disconnected from our logical, thinking part of the brain, which is why the advice of professionals, and of you and your book is try not to make those big decisions right away. And if there are any big decisions to be made really slow them down dramatically compared to before.
Tom 22:14 – I think that the key here is you’re likely alerting on things that you don’t even understand, which are the things we’re being triggered by all the time. Your amygdala is alerting, your alarm system within your body is alerting on things that are causing the grief, and the emotions and the fight, flight, freeze or fawn is manifesting itself. And then you’re not alerting on some of the things that you probably should be alerting on. Because your mind is consumed with this other emotional overload from the loss. So you’re overlooking warning signs and people around you, situations around you, or things like that.
Herb 31:43 – One of the early lessons that I learned on my journey is that the human mind suppresses the painful memories, and sends them to the rear of the room. And up on the front stage, becomes the new cherished memories, the memories of love, and of happiness and of cheer, and goodwill. And you will think about the painful memories, less and less with every passing year. I rarely think about the rough days. And now I just have these weak memories left.
Herb 33:02 – One dominant belief that I have. That is people who are grieving. And we’ll talk about men, men who are grieving can’t fix grief by focusing on the grief. Everything in their life has to be in good working order, their finances, their relationships with their children, their relationships with their in laws, with their mutual friends, with their wife, their relationship with the almighty if they’re a church believer. Their employment has to be secure. The house payment has to have been made last month. I mean, everything has to be in good working order.
Herb 34:41 – The other thing I’d like to mention is that the men who are lonely: get off the couch. Just get off the couch. It’s off limits. And you need to get out and mix with people and I don’t care if you volunteer for the Red Cross. a little league baseball team, or your church, or the YMCA, or a food bank. But mix it up with people.
I’ve got a special guest today. He is the author of a book that is really important to us widowers, and that’s the Widower’s Journey, Herb Knoll.
He’s a popular podcaster. He’s a pioneering resource for where to where advice and healing. Prior to his purpose driven work.
He was also a successful banking executive, and he does hail from the town where I went to university and had great experiences and we’ll probably get into talking about chicken wings and beef on weck. And that’s Buffalo, New York, where we he grew up and where I spent a lot of time and we’re here to learn about Herb’s personal journey with loss, the common challenges that he sees a lot of us as widowers face on our widower journey, from sadness and loss to healing and growth. Welcome Herb Knoll.
Herb Knoll 1:20
Well, thank you, Tom. It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Herb first, I want to know a little bit, even though I know it was several years ago, but tell us about your personal widower’s journey?
Herb Knoll 1:34
It lasted for 39 months, initially before my wife passed. In December of 2004, the day before her birthday, and the day before Christmas, my wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She endured a brutal surgery at MD Anderson in Houston, some 150 chemo treatments, and radiation. And she fought a good fight for 39 months.
At the age of 52 we lost her. She was a beautiful Ukrainian woman. And her name was Michelle. And I’m always quick to add with two L’s. And she has a son who stayed with me and who I’m still in touch with, and, and he’s like my son.
And the widowers journey really caught me off guard at my young age. I was only 53 when she was diagnosed. And I didn’t expect it at that time. We had just moved to Texas when she went downhill on her health. And I had a big job with a bank, and lots of people working for me, but I frankly was AWOL. I figured, at this point in my life, I need to be with my wife. And I didn’t go to work at all for 10 to 12 weeks.
When we lost her, that was in San Antonio. We held the memorial service in Nashville, my previous city of assignment. And I noticed that I didn’t cry during her memorial service. And I was actually entertaining. The people who had assembled noticed me making light of things. And maybe it was a defensive act. But I have to admit, as I look back at it, I recognized I’d already cried all the tears I was about to cry. I cried for 39 months. Every morning when I woke up, I felt her presence next to me. Before I opened my eyes, I thought to myself, I have to give this woman another good day because she’s dying. And I watched her go from a size eight to a six to a four to a two to a 00 My goodness. And she just disappeared.
So I went into work after about four months. One of my staff members, a young lady, walked into my office. And she surprised me, and she gave me the wake up call that I desperately needed. She said the entire floor misses your laughter. And I thought, “They miss my laughter. Am I not myself? I must not be”. So then I went to seek help.
And I went to my church. I’m a Catholic. I went to visit the VA, because I’m a disabled vet. And I went to Barnes and Noble. I walked up to the clerk, and I asked the clerk, tell me what you have for a new widower. He looked on the search engine. He typed in whatever. He looked up at me, and he said, “Mr. I don’t have a thing for you”. Oh, my goodness. And I said that it can’t be. And he says let’s look at the bookcase. So we go to the bookcase. And there were 15 titles there. I counted them 15. Every one of them was written for widows. Not one book for widowers had been published in the past. And I said, “Well, somebody better write this damn book, and it might as well be me.” So before I left Barnes and Noble that day, I rededicated my life to widowers. Within a year, I resigned my 38 year career, walked away from it, to do it.
I researched the world of widowers for eight or nine years, and it was tedious. People used to say, are you ever going to publish this book, but I wanted to get not just the condition, or the world around a widower in year one and two, I wanted to know what happened to him in year five and six. What is the long term life expectancy of a widower? And what challenges will they face in later years that they didn’t face in your one or two? And that’s what I was able to uncover. And we published the book and many other things since then.
And Herb, I would agree with you, because when I did the search, your book was one of maybe two or three that came up. And there are more books, as you said, on widows, which you’d expect as there are definitely more widows – about four times as many as us men. But there are more books on how to date a widower than there are to help a widower.
There’s an International Widows Day, but nothing for the men. Now granted, there are about 260 million widows worldwide. But my estimates, and I could not find worldwide figures on the men, but using the US numbers and adjusting it slightly for world experience. You’re probably looking at widowers in the 50 million range worldwide.
And that’s a decent group that probably should have our own day since there’s a day for tacos and burritos day and certainly a margarita day. You know, things to celebrate. But there’s also things to care about. And you know, widowers are definitely, I think, a forgotten group.
I find it interesting, when I ask people,. “Can you name a widower?“ and there’s faces go blank. And t they can’t. And then five minutes later, they’ll come back to me. And they’ll say, wait a minute, the man down the street or the man at church or the man at work or whatever, but they’re not top of mind. And in America particularly, we are not sensitized to the needs of widowers. We don’t teach our children anything to help the widowers. It’s interesting that there are millions of widowers in America but nobody can name them.
There is one in America Herb that everyone should know and know his story pretty well. And that is our President Joe Biden is a widower, he lost his wife and two children in a tragic car accident.
Well, to add to that, there been 46 Presidents, and there have been 17 widowers among the US presidents. that beats all the odds. It’s actually one in five men will be widowed, but the ratio in Presidents is more like 1/3.
And maybe there’s something to the fact of being a widower.
I know you were a business person. For a long time I was an entrepreneur. I think there’s something that I learned that all of those years of business and running companies and leading teams never taught me. Through this process, the empathy, the transparency, the sharing the vulnerability that we do. If we embrace the process, it’s a painful one. But if we embrace it, if we grow through it, I do believe that our character as widowers and our renewed purpose can be very, very powerful.
Indeed, as you’ve illustrated with your renewed purpose in the book, and more importantly, in the widowers support network that you created. You talked a little bit about why that was an important element of what you sought to create and found your mission was not just to write about this, and do it about the complete journey, which I agree it wasn’t, it’s not about the first 365, which is important. And there’s an author that wrote a book on that. And about those first couple of years can be really traumatic. And there’s authors that have written and focused on that. You definitely encapsulated this whole journey. But one of the other big things that you did was you went and, and sought to create a support network and a support group. Why is it so important that we have fellow brothers to lean on through this process?
Well, men have this thing called egos. And they get in the way of progress. So men always feel that they have to be strong. And when they’re always asked “How are you doing after being widowed?” And the general answer is, “I’m fine”. Well, no, they’re not fine. They’re not even close to being fine. They’re a wreck. They’re vulnerable. And they not only feel they need to shelter themselves from inquiring minds, but they don’t make new friends easily.
Men, very few men, have childhood buddies as they age. They have their contacts, or their co- workers, their customers, their wife, may be a neighbor, generally speaking. I encourage them to not turn away from the help that is offered, when people who are sympathetic, who are grieving. The same whilst you’re grieving, but it’s a different relationship, and they want to help and in the name of the lost lady. They want to lend their hands and sweat and maybe some money. But the men say no, no, I’m fine. That’s all right.
Well, then later on, they complain about being lonely. That’s the number one complaint I hear from my men. I have 2000 men that I support and the number one complaint, the stillness in the house, the quietness. Some men solve it by putting their wife’s perfume on the pillow next to them. Some of them cook their wife’s favorite dish, if you can remember it. But if they’re lonely, why did you chase all those people away?
So you need to be a little vulnerable, a little vulnerable, and invite those people into your life and let them do anything that they feel that they can contribute. If I had a wish come true, it would be that the men would slow down on their eagerness to repair their lives. Because men are fixers.
Let me share a short story that my brother experienced. He was on a plane, and his wife was seated next to him. And she leaned over to him and said, the little boy behind me is kicking the back of my seat. Well, my brother’s a fixer, like, amen. So he looked over the top of his seat, looked at the little boy and said, knock it off. The wife leans over next to my brother and says, What do you do that for? So when you told me he was kicking your seat, it and she said, Well, yes, he was kicking my seat, I didn’t want you to do anything. I just wanted to tell you about it. Yeah. That’s a true story.
Men are fixers, and when they’re widowed, they see themselves as being broken. So what’s missing? My Cook, my lover, my dance partner, my travel partner, maybe all of the above? I gotta find a woman. Then the men rush out. and a high percentage of them marry the first or second woman they find. What’s wrong with playing the field? You know, that used to be a common phrase, when we were kids, I had a new girlfriend every month when I was a teenager. But these men, they’re impulsive. And they’ve got to admit that replacement.
So they propose and I tell them when your wife died. There was no financial impact other than maybe some lost wages. But if this doesn’t work out, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more. You don’t know what you don’t know about this lady. She could have a brother getting ready to be released by a federal penitentiary and needs a place to stay. And he’s gonna want to stay with you. She may like traveling to Tahoe for vacation and you like going to New York City, and there’s a conflict. She may have a drug dependency. She may have been bankrupt. And by the way, you need to disclose what your hangups are, too. Because when you’re 19, you don’t have much baggage. But when you’re 40,50 or 60, you have a lifetime of baggage, and baggage that can cause serious problems down the road. And that’s why half of the men who re-married get divorced.
Yeah. Yeah. And Herb when we’re in this kind of experience of grief, our brains are not functioning completely. The amygdala is overloaded. Our emotional brain is in charge, and in some ways is disconnected from our logical, thinking part of the brain, which is why the advice of professionals, and of you and your book is try not to make those big decisions right away. And if there are any big decisions to be made really slow them down dramatically compared to before.
If she truly loves you, she’ll wait. In my book. I profiled 40 men who were widowed. Of these, I have a gentleman who is a stockbroker. So he knows money. And when he became widowed, he married within a year and a half to what turned out to be a predator. And I met him at one of my speaking engagements. He walked up to me afterwards and handed me a phone number on a piece of paper, and he said call me. I called him a few days later. And he said, I want to share my story with your readers so they don’t get hurt the way I did. His new wife spent $1.2 million in two years. Wow. He never saw it coming.
Absolutely, a smart guy who works with different people all the time. And yet didn’t see it coming because we can be blinded by those emotions of loss. And that hole in our hearts when we do lose our loved one and we didn’t choose to be alone. So we tend to want to fill up that hole, right, which is the difference from when we were 19, where we didn’t know that we love that partnership,
Many of us love the partnership that we have and loved our late wives. We do want to fill that hole, but you do have to be very cautious. And I would say that you have no idea who you are, what your new identity is, what your new purpose is, and or what you even need or want in a woman at this stage, post the loss and heading into your new life. You got to figure that out before you select that partner, ultimately, and do it with purpose and caution.
There’s a new book out this year, called the Grieving Brain. I was struck by how the anatomy and the flow of blood enables the brain to function properly. And some of our best characteristics may be shut down for the lack of blood flow.
There’s scientific reasons why some people grieve longer, and some react in certain ways. So the best thing that they could do is surround themselves with what I refer to as an advisory board. And pick ou ,three or four or five people that you truly trust, that you can be tempered with, and have them coach you, and watch over you. With them you can share your story and share your weekly journal with them, or whatever you’re logging. And they can give you the alerts that you maybe are not able to come up with on your own. But you have to believe in the science. And I do.
Yeah, I do as well. I think that the key here is you’re likely alerting on things that you don’t even understand, which are the things we’re being triggered by all the time. Your amygdala is alerting, your alarm system within your body is alerting on things that are causing the grief, and the emotions and the fight, flight, freeze or fawn is manifesting itself.
And then you’re not alerting on some of the things that you probably should be alerting on. Because your mind is consumed with this other emotional overload from the loss. So you’re overlooking warning signs and people around you, situations around you, or things like that.
It’s just not a time to make big decisions, whether that be a job change, , which you did, but it worked out amazing for you. Selling a home is something I’ve seen a couple of widowers do and some have been successful in that. And it’s been really helpful. Others, they wind up later regretting it. Or the relationship issue, which is another one. Talk about big decisions. And your advice there. Does it could all come back to the advisory board?
No, not all, but there’s always some decisions that present a deeper challenge. I’m 72 years old. I still take advice from my mentors. I have three mentors who are still alive. And they are my sounding board. “I’m thinking about this. What do you think?”. And I don’t pretend that I know everything. I don’t know nearly what I wish I knew. And that’s why I have friends, smart friends who can counsel me.
Yeah, I think the key there is and we’ve seen this and you talked about this Herb where as men, we tend to want to brush it off. We want to be tough and strong. We don’t want to have that weakness. And sometimes, because of this attitude, we don’t seek the help or the advice that we should and it can create this issue where then you’re relying on your own brain but your own brain is compromised at this point.
Yeah, I I had a man who became engaged to a woman after a couple of weeks and then she smartened up and called it off. And then he was engaged to another woman within one week. Wow.
You know, I was actually so concerned about him that I called and I said, “Are you thinking clearly, you realize what you’re doing?”. And he says, “oh, yeah, yeah, I’m fine”. Well, they married, it blew up. And he actually came on my Facebook page and admitted it. He was harmed, but he wanted to pass the lesson on that, even when you think you’re in good shape, and your decision thinking is clear. It may not be. So if it involves money, if it involves relationships. If it involves your children, if it involves the in-laws, or the friends, the mutual friends that you shared with your wife, and you want to be accepted with your new lady, you, you have to take care. It’s not just about you. And it hurts maybe in a certain way for you. But there are other people hurting too, as your wife was probably loved by many.
And there’s work that you have to do. I know, Herb when I lost my wife, it had been 25, maybe 28 years, since the last date I had. Herb, I’m sure was a long time for you, and the world has changed. There’s new rules, including online and other things like that, where again, predators rein. So there’s extra caution to be involved.
There’s homework that you need to do as well. There’s a book called Getting to Commitment, that’s a good book that I recommend. There’s a book on Boundaries, and this whole series of books on boundaries and setting boundaries, you really have to do your homework to be ready to go and date effectively.
And that includes inward work to understand who you are now. And what you need in that partner, including, what I did was, I created a whole new Value Statement for myself. And then a companion value statement for what I was seeking in a significant other or partner. I can tell you I didn’t do that right away, though. And there were a couple of questionable relationships as a result of that.
Well, hat’s good. That means you’re getting the bumps out.
And you’re right about that Herb, you said, kind of get out there. And I think as long as you’re cautious, you do have to go out and not be afraid to make some mistakes at times. And to give yourself Grace about that.
I had one man telling me that he had a date that same day. He had already met the woman previously. And he was quite excited about his date that was coming up. But then he said to me, but she’s not like my wife. And I said, Good. Yeah, good.
You don’t want the same. You want the memories of your wife to be captured solely for her. The new woman is going to feel different in your arms. When you kiss her. Her lips will taste differently. She’ll have different likes and food and different music, decorations, travel destinations. I mean, you want that difference. Yeah. And you want to experience life and not keep on coming back to what was. If you want the same, how would you like her to compare you to her previous husband?
You wouldn’t. Too many triy to recreate that relationship they had, and they try to find an exact replacement. And I actually think it’s better to go much, much different.
You know, if you were married to someone who was Bohemian, crunchy granola, go to someone who’s more buttoned down, or vice versa. If you were married to someone who was more into the mall, then go to someone who’s more into yoga, seeking the opposite. You’ve got this opportunity now to explore a little bit and like you said, keep that memory pure of your wife by looking for something perhaps different rather than the same.
In my book, I tell the tale of a beautiful couple. And their last name is sweet, SW E E T. And the two of them met at a reunion of survivors of those lost in combat. So the lady lost her husband in Iraq. The gentleman lost his wife in Afghanistan. And they were so remarkable when I interviewed them, that she is the only woman interviewed in my entire book. And I said, Do you have some kind of advanced degrees and PhD psychology that you were able to pull this off, and she’s not even a college grad. But they took great care, to protect the identities of their fallen spouses, they celebrate their birthdays, they celebrate the day that they pass. If one one of them was married on the first of the month, the other one was married on the third of the month, they got married on the second, right in between the two. They take care to be in touch with the inlaws of the fallen person, and include them in everything that they do. They’re just a beautiful couple. It’s because they did their due diligence, and they know what they have. And then they don’t try to pretend that they don’t know who the fallen people were. They actually talk about it, and talk about it with the children. “Your daddy was a great soldier and he was a brave soldier” and “Your mother was a great soldier”. and, and it’s just, it’s just gorgeous, gorgeous bird. And no
And there is no threat from it, no issues with honoring the fallen. That’s good, because then the heart can expand in the new relationship without worrying about the pressure to erase the memory of the past which in the widower, or widows mind, that doesn’t occur anyway.
One of the early lessons that I learned on my journey is that the human mind suppresses the painful memories, and sends them to the rear of the room. And up on the front stage, becomes the new cherished memories, the memories of love, and of happiness and of cheer, and goodwill. And you will think about the painful memories, less and less with every passing year. I rarely think about the rough days. And now I just have these weak memories left.
Yeah, me too. And that’s good for those who are suffering from recent loss to understand that it does get better and you will too. A lot of the painful memories, the thoughts of those last few days like the visions as to the wasting away that occurred with your wife, those memories dissipate. And the beautiful memories of those special days and special occasions, or even the little things that you enjoyed about them. Those are the ones that come to mind. So I love that. Absolutely love it.
One dominant belief that I have. That is people who are grieving. And we’ll talk about men, men who are grieving can’t fix grief by focusing on the grief. Everything in their life has to be in good working order, their finances, their relationships with their children, their relationships with their in laws, with their mutual friends, with their wife, their relationship with the almighty if they’re a church believer. Their employment has to be secure. The house payment has to have been made last month. I mean, everything has to be in good working order.
Otherwise, you’re going to be continually pulled back into “woe is me”. “Why did she leave so soon? I’m mad at God, he took her too soon”. I mean, all these negatives, because you’re crippling along, then you’re not getting anywhere. So you have to pay attention to everything. And in that regard, I came up with some 15 steps that people need to take and if you want to email me, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of it. Herb@widowerssupportnetwork.com.
The other thing I’d like to mention is that the men who are lonely: get off the couch. Just get off the couch. It’s off limits. And you need to get out and mix with people and I don’t care if you volunteer for the Red Cross. a little league baseball team, or your church, or the YMCA, or a food bank. But mix it up with people.
Don’t volunteer with something that’s alone, like transporting pets dumped in your car. No, that doesn’t get you where you want to go. And you will discover accidentally, when you least expect it, that you have made progress. And when you look back, particularly if you’re journaling, and you look back at your journal, several months back, you’re gonna say, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I’ve traveled so far on my journey. And I am making progress. And I like those memories, the good ones have come forward”. But so many men just stay on the sofa. And when they complain, well, you have nothing to complain about, because you’re your own worst enemy.
And even if you have social anxiety, or you are more of an introvert, there are still ways to get out and meet and mingle and overcome that.
Absolutely. One of the things that we have, and I’ll, I’ll tell your audience about it, is my group of 2000 widowers, You can bring any question to them, and not be judged. And they will offer you free of charge their best practices to fix your problem. And it’s a pretty defined list of questions that frequently come up, Every once in a while we get something strange, but like, they’ll ask, like, what do you do with a wedding ring? Do you have your wife’s pictures up in the house? Well, yes. I mean, it’s pretty standard. Death is not new, and it happens all the time. It’s part of living. And the men in the group can help one another tremendously. Because they’ve been there. And they understand the men’s psyche, and how he wants to protect his image of being strong.
It’s a private group, which I think is important. And I’ve seen very specific questions and situations get posed to the men in the group and great advice, frank advice being delivered. No, no holds barred in some instances, but and but very sensitive as well. And people sharing their own mistakes and their own issues openly, which I think is great.
What’s interesting is when the men have a question, and others comment, they never reveal their age. So you could be a 32 year old widower advising a 72 year old widower, and they accept it. They accepted the advice because you qualify. In our club, you are a widower, that’s the only price of admission. And it’s interesting that in many walks of life, you wouldn’t take critical advice from someone so much younger, who’s inexperienced, but in this leg of the journey, it works just fine.
They might be two years ahead f in the journey, or three years ahead, have stumbled themselves and are providing just that advice that you need. And I’ve seen that in the message exchange.
Herb, thank you for creating that resource. Thank you for creating the book, The Widowers Journey. We have it in our recommended book list. And here’s my copy as well (We’re both holding it up). I highly recommend it,
Please join the Widower Support Network. I participate in it. I’ll post videos and other things. There are other pundits like us who’ve been through it, who are sharing our experiences, there are just other men who’ve been through it, who have an opinion about what questions you’ve got. And it’s a great way to get some of these key questions and key issues out there. If you don’t have that trusted adviser or that advisory board or even if you do, post the question to the network, see what you get back, post the question to your friends, compare notes and it’s a great way to maybe improve some of our decision making and certainly improve the Journey and make it a little less bumpy.
I should mention the 2000 widowers come from 38 countries. So you have different cultures on also. So that makes it interesting. Soon we’re going to have you contributing as a member of our editorial team.
The information in this podcast is for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical, mental health or spiritual advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health counselor, spiritual advisor or other qualified health-care , mental health or spiritual provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, mental or spiritual challenges or treatment. Before making any changes to your health-care, diet, exercise or other aspects of your life, please seek professional advice, and never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or heard on this podcast or through other Growth through Grief resources.
About The Host
Growth Evangelist / Growth through Grief Founder
Tom Pisello is a widower and the father of two daughters. Tom lost his wife Judy in 2017 after her ten year battle with cancer.
Tom founded the Growth through Grief site, resources and ministry to help share his personal experiences to grow through the grieving process, and to share with others to help in his own and other’s healing process. Through this process, Tom gained his sobriety, lost 60 pounds, gained a growth mindset and rekindled lost faith, now sharing these hard-earned lessons and the lessons of other widowers and experts with you.
Prior to creating Growth through Grief, Tom was a successful serial-entrepreneur, analyst, speaker, and author of the business books Evolved Selling and The Frugalnomics Survival Guide. He was well known as “The ROI Guy”, founder of Alinean and Interpose, a Managing VP of analyst firm Gartner, Chief Evangelist for Mediafly and founder of the Evolved Selling Institute and host to the popular sales and marketing podcast – Evolved Selling
Growth Through Grief is a personal story of healing, a community of fellow widowers, and a resource site to help you on your own personal journey through grief, to become better in mind, body and spirit.
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