“He has really let himself go since his wife died.”
It’s a perfectly ordinary sentiment. Everyone knows immediately what it means. He has stopped taking the care necessary to appear properly and behave properly to his companions. He used to make sure that he was clean and neat; that his clothes were not stained or rumpled; that he did not smell bad. He used to be careful in all those ways, but he does not anymore. He appears distraught or even disconsolate. Efforts to engage him again in the society of his peers have failed. That’s what it means.
There is another question, though: what does it say?
It says that there was a time, before his wife died, when he recognized and met the ordinary demands of social life and it is that control of himself that has been lost.
This will require a brief detour through reflexive pronouns. Very brief. When I say, “I saw myself in the mirror,” everyone knows that I mean that I saw my image in the mirror. But the words themselves, apart from the clear meaning, divide “me” into two parts: I did the seeing and I was the one who was seen. Heroines in Jane Austen novels are always “allowing themselves to be pleased.” The mirror metaphor stops working here. I am giving permission and I am accepting the permission and being pleased. That brings us to the distraught old man.
He once controlled his appearance. “He” wanted to look unshaven and unwashed, but he did not allow himself to do what he wanted. That means, obviously, that there are two entities to whom we refer as “he:” one desires and one allows. He wouldn’t have allowed himself to do this a month ago.
When you try to get really precise about just who these selves are, it gets confusing, but society works because we have a common template and everybody uses the same one and the concurrence we arrive it is, on most days, proclaimed to be “good enough.”
So why did the old man “let himself go” and what can be done about it? For the why question, I’ll give you three answers: soft, medium, and hard. In the first, he is inattentive; in the second, he is advertising; in the third, he is punishing. Obviously, the question of what is to be done is going to have to be answered differently in those cases.
Grieving. The man in the first case is genuinely distraught. If “mere” still meant “pure,” I would say he is merely distraught. The clear straight edges of the life he has lived have all gone wobbly on him. He considers shaving this morning, but then he “remembers” that he has already shaved. It was three days ago, in fact, but days don’t mean that much to him. He sits down in a group of friends who were important to him and to his wife and the friends put on their friendly faces because he is going to tell, again, how he came into the apartment and found his wife on the floor in front of the open refrigerator. He might tell, yet again, the sad joke about always telling her to keep the refrigerator door shut when the air conditioner was on. He has sat down with these friends day after day and told the same story, forgetting, in this scenario, that he has told it many times before. It is the certainty that he is going to do that that accounts for the “putting on friendly faces” on the part of his friends.
What is to be done? Whatever works. Some will suggest antidepressants. Some will emphasize a grief therapy of one kind or another. Some will say that he will “get over it” in time. Some will say that he will get over it faster if he can be persuaded to invest himself in something he is good at. Should it become necessary, it might need to be crucially important to one of his friends that he do this.
(Incidentally, judging by the pictures available to me, men do not comfort men in any direct way. Women comfort men and women comfort women. That’s the world according to the pictures I see. I put a sample “comforting” picture at the end of this essay.)
It is the “himself” part of this understanding that needs to be changed, as always. The smells, the unkempt appearance, the repetitive storytelling. It is the “he” part that will have to do the work. “He” will have to remember to put on a fresh shirt and to take a shower and to remember how many times he has already told the refrigerator story. This man needs more ability than he has at the moment. The passage of time will help him. The need to do something important which only he can do will help him as well.
Advertising. I have called the second scenario “advertising” because the old man in this one is not merely disoriented by the loss of his wife. He also feels that the depth of his grief is really not being grasped by his friends. This man is trying to deal with two problems. The first is that he has lost his wife and is grieving the loss. He is not at the top of his game. The second is that his friends have not recognized, to his satisfaction, how deep and how long-lasting—when you are in it, it feels like it will last forever—this affliction is.
These two sets of behavior are in conflict with each other. The grief, which is genuine, is disorienting. It simply expresses itself. The advertising campaign, which is also genuine, requires assessment, planning, and execution. It is possible for the friends to catch this quickly and to amp up their response to their friend’s grief. Those would be very competent and very generous friends. It is also possible that some of them will sit him down, eventually, to say that enough is enough and to give him carrot and stick alternatives. That will work for the advertising griever. It is not as good as the more generous response because he will always know that he was threatened with “the stick” when he was down. He will eventually “realize” that it was a necessary action, but he might always harbor a soul bruise from it.
Punishment. It is hard for me to say that this man is really “grieving.” People more generous than I am will say that he is “expressing” his grief through his angry behavior. I am more likely to say that the anger has been caused by the death of his wife—and possibly also by the inadequate response of his friends—and he is lashing out against whoever is there. A new acquaintance, sitting with his old friends, will receive the full blast of his anger (grief expressed as anger, the nicer people say) because he is within reach. The angry widower feels, at some level, that he is in pain and that someone is going to have to pay for it. If he thinks God will be harmed when he stops attending his church, he will stop. If he thinks his daughter will be harmed by his cancelling his long-promised visit, he will cancel it. If he thinks his friends will be pained by his arrogant and insulting behavior, he will produce that behavior.
There is not much the friends can do. If there are professionals who can help—police, if it comes to that—they will be called in. A society that maintains many professional “carers” will deploy its resources. Friends who are willing to tolerate this behavior, but not that, will be enormously helpful.
Some say that angers burn out eventually. Others say that one angry act incites other angry acts. But this man is a chooser. He is not hapless, like the first man or divided like the second. He is dealing out punishment to whatever aspects of his world come within his reach. He will have to stop. He will have to be stopped. Eventually, he will need to decide that his present options are “anger” and “living a life” and he will need to choose to live that life.
Having, in other words, “let himself go,” he will have to “regain control of himself” and reclaim the space he needs. When he becomes an alumnus of this severe school, he will find other alumni and will communicate with them by means of words and expressions that only they know. And there will be new men, just now matriculating in this awful school, who will benefit from seeing him and knowing that it does, after all, end.
And here is the picture I promised.
 Very likely, you would assume that there are many more possible reasons than these and that I am selecting three for the purposes of illustration. Your assumption is correct.
 I am a great fan of a prayer passed on to me by my brother, Mark. It runs like this: “Lord, thank you for work to do that is so important that it doesn’t matter all that much that I don’t want to do it.” All the good pieces of this solution are in there along with a few others.