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A Grief Come Too Soon : The Pain of a Spouse's Early Death Is Magnified by Sudden Single Parenthood


Six-year-old Alex Rios waves. He sits atop the park jungle gym and tosses his mother a look-at-me grin.

Just like his father, says his mother, Irma Rios, sitting on a nearby bench in the uptown Whittier park. Same playful mannerisms. Same physical gusto. Same affectionate smile. Like any mother, Rios marvels at the little genetic mirrors children can be.

But as a young widow, Rios, 39, finds a special gift in her son's face. "Amazing. Even though Joe's dead, there's still something around here to remind you of him," she says.

It's one of those bittersweet moments that come and go for many young widows and widowers as they try to make some sense of, or just survive, one of life's lousiest tricks: early death.

Grief is grief and no one can claim one loss is greater than another, say the experts. But young widows and widowers get theirs in a unique package. Along with the heartache comes suddenly single parenthood for those with children, an especially deep feeling of unfairness and what Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Beverly Hills, says is almost like a second death. The death of dreams. "Broken hopes, dreams and expectations. Young widows have got that one in spades," Friedman says.

"The 75-year-old widow is probably the most singularly devastated person on the planet. She's lived with this man for 50 years. That wrenching away is devastating," Friedman says. "But as a reasonable human being, she could say that they had lived out most of their reasonable life span and expectations. But the 28-year-old widow, whose dream was to get to the place where the other woman got to, with all the joys and all the pain, having children together and then becoming grandparents, gets short-circuited."

Rios knows how jarring the feeling is. Joe Rios collapsed and died of a heart attack three years ago, leaving her with two small children and, more recently, a growing sense of anger.

"I didn't get too angry at the beginning," says Rios, whose children are now 6 and 8. "I'm angry now. Not so much, 'Why me?' but 'Darn it!' You know? Darn it, my kids are not going to have a father there. Darn it, when my daughter gets married, who's going to give her away? Darn it, he was not there for Little League the first season."

Andria Pratt, 32, says she has moved through all the various stages of grief since her husband, Los Angeles Police Officer Daniel Pratt, was killed in a drive-by shooting in September of 1988. What keeps getting to her are the milestones in the lives of her three children.

"My daughter graduated from sixth grade in June. It was a big deal for her. I remember sitting there looking at her and thinking, 'She should have her dad here,' " Pratt says.

There have also been times when Pratt has said, "I should have my husband here."

She wanted him when she gave birth to their fourth child five months after his death. She wanted him when their younger son was hit and killed in 1991 on his way to kindergarten. She wants him now as their oldest son begins to behave with adolescent defiance.

"It's not like it ever goes away," she says. "It's like something keeps popping up."

"They're struggling to make this huge adjustment to single parenthood at the worst time," says Michael Haas, clinical director of Necessary Steps, a grief recovery program of the Visiting Nurse Assn. of Orange County. "You wake up one morning and you feel as if you've woken up in somebody else's life. It's like a bad episode of 'The Twilight Zone' or something."

Jean Gemayel, 49, of Villa Park, has been there. His wife, Patricia, died of cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1994.

Gemayel has six children, ages 5 to 18. Tears well up in his eyes as he recalls his wife's full-time passion for being a mother, gourmet cook and PTA parent.

"She did such a good job with the kids, the house," he says. "She had this wonderful patience and understanding in raising kids."

His Lebanese upbringing did not encourage men to cry or discuss a death, Gemayel says. "I was always of the opinion that grief was a waste of time. Crying was not encouraged in my background. My background was that if you mention death too much with the kids, it might put salt on the wound."

But one son's anger at the world led school officials to refer the family to the Necessary Steps program. The adult and various child support groups the family now attends there are helping, Gemayel says.

"I did not enjoy the first one or two sessions," he admits. "But by the third and fourth, I found out this is terrific."

Now he talks with the children about the memory letters they write to their mother. He acknowledges all their individual ways of grieving.


A loved one's death usually sparks some anger in one form or another, Haas says. When a young adult dies, surviving spouses feel like they've fallen off what our culture takes for granted as a normal timeline for a normal life.

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