A Haunting Silence: 6 Percent of Americans Are Widowers or Widows, and All Have Walked Through the Door of Devastation

None of us is immune. Each of us is forced to recreate our lives and, in many ways, a new self.

Jonathan Brady - WPA pool/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II during the funeral of Prince Philip at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, April 17, 2021. Jonathan Brady - WPA pool/Getty Images

There are 3.7 million widowers in America today and three times as many — 11.5 million — widows. Altogether, that’s more than 6 percent of the entire population, and those numbers will increase dramatically as the Baby Boomers take their leave. Although everyone deals with this loss in different ways, there is one common experience that is shared by all. It comes after the funeral, after all the family and friends have left, after the surviving spouse comes home and, for the first time, opens the door by himself.

In the book I’ve written about surviving the death of my wife, I call this the worst moment in a Super Bowl of bad moments. I had just returned from taking our daughter back to college, and I naively thought: “Well, the big stuff is over. Illness — over. Funeral — over. Burial — over. Shiva — over. Daughter back at school. Now I can continue to … What? … Where?” There is nowhere to continue to anymore. Unlike all the people who came for this event and have now returned to their regular lives, I can’t go back to my regular life. 

My regular life no longer exists. 

It is all the more confusing because I was back in the most familiar place that was recently so full of life, that echoed with endless conversations and laughter and caring and crying and rushed breakfasts getting a child to school, skinned knees, board games, getting dressed for fancy events, nightly dinners going over the day’s events with a glass of wine, birthday parties, holidays, arguments and intimacy and great joy and love and now — nothing.

Absolutely nothing. 

It is a shattering silence and solitary loneliness, the likes of which I never encountered in my life. At first, it was impossible to even comprehend that this shared space — this shared, noisy, busy life — is no longer shared with someone who had as great a stake in it as you. For a while, it is absolutely normal to expect the deceased to walk through the front door like she did thousands of times before.

The author’s late wife, Dr. Lisa Krenzel. Warren Kozak

Slowly, slowly you begin to accept that they’re not coming back. It’s a realization that whatever this new life is, it has now begun, and you are going to have to figure out how to live in it by yourself. Here’s another change that is hard to fathom: This home was now going to be completely my responsibility. Couples divide chores. It’s normal. One of them is better at or more interested in a household job and divisions are created in a very natural and almost unnoticed way.

So, it’s a shock when everything suddenly falls on the shoulders of the survivor, especially the things they ignored up until then. When one partner is a professional, the loss hits you harder. Up until my wife’s illness, I paid zero attention to any medical issues because she was a doctor and took care of everything. One giant reminder came that first summer when my daughter did something to her foot and it became badly infected.

I was at a complete loss — not because it was an impossible problem to fix, but because it was another huge reminder of her absence. My daughter later confirmed that her mother’s not being there hurt more than her foot. We survive. We figure out ways to do things once handled by the departed. Yet to this day, every time a medical problem arises, there is a small stab in my heart.

We are also perceived differently by everyone around us — like we are somehow afflicted or contagious.  C.S. Lewis, in his book about his lost wife, “A Grief Observed,” writes: “To some, I’m worse than a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair, I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must someday be as he is now.’”

I think the universality of widowhood was captured for me in a single photo taken two years ago at Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, at the funeral of Prince Philip. Because of Covid, Queen Elizabeth sat in her pew all by herself. Here was, perhaps, the most public human being on the planet, someone who lived in a castle with hundreds of servants and coachmen and you-name-it … and I realized that even the queen would ultimately go to her quarters alone that night.

None of us is immune. All of us are forced to recreate our lives and, in many ways, a new self. Work helps along with a focus on children and others. Amazingly, and I never thought I could say this, especially in that first year, one can even experience joy and happiness again. The other big lesson I have learned: We human beings are, indeed, resilient.


Correction: 6 percent is the portion of Americans who are widows or widowers. The number was given incorrectly in the headline in the bulldog edition.

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From Mr. Kozak’s new book, ‘Waving Goodbye, Life After Loss,’ which will be brought out on April 9 by Post Hill Press.

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