It has taken me a while to address this topic, but at almost eight years after the death of my husband, I am ready to share some of the wisdom gleaned from losing a spouse at a young age. Many folks call me for advice when someone they love loses his/her spouse. They affectionately ask, “What should I say to him?” or “What can I do to help her?”. I really wish I were not the “go-to expert in this area”, but I am. These are intimate insights from my personal journey through grief. My hope is that it will help others facing similar loss.
Avoid using clichés. When speaking with your newly widowed love one; attempt, at all cost, to avoid inserting unbearable clichés into your conversation. Let’s be honest, even with the best of intentions many of us will, at some point, say something unintentionally absurd to our widowed friend – things like “Everything happens for a reason” or “She is in a better place” or my favorite “God only takes the good ones”. Even a well intentioned “How are you doing?” is not a great choice. This question will never illicit a truthful answer, and quite frankly unless you have the super power of bringing someone back to life, you probably don’t want to know the answer anyway. When this happens (and it will), simply apologize with something similar to, “I am so sorry, that was a really stupid thing to say.” Even if it is days or months later, your friend will appreciate the acknowledgement.
Know your loved one when it comes to assistance. Take into account who your loved one is, and act accordingly. If your friend likes to cook, she might not mind throwing a donated “Casserole of Hope” into the oven for dinner, but if your loved one hates to cook it is highly likely that those casseroles will never get eaten. Two years later, laden with guilt, she will eventually throw them out. Gift cards to a local eatery or restaurant might be a better choice. If your loved one is laundry challenged-then that’s the best way you can help. Throw in a load or two of laundry, but don’t forget to fold and put them away.
I was in such a state after Don’s death that the thought of wading through my finances terrified me. It was at this point that my brother offered the best gift of all. He went through all of my finances, organized them, and took them over until I was ready to take them back. I know this wasn’t always easy for him or for his family, but it is a gift I treasure to this day.
INSIDER TIP: BUY LIGHTBULBS: When I was a more active member of YWBB in the Chicago area, at times we visited the home of a member of our group. Light bulbs in tow, we would enter the home of our widowed friend and begin to replace light bulbs around the house. I didn’t understand the gesture at first, but now I get it. Light bulbs are the last thing a newly widowed person thinks about. I don’t think we ever replaced less than six bulbs during a visit.
Ignore the compulsion say; “Call me if you need anything”. Now, if what you really mean is, “I don’t know what to say, I know you’ll never call me, but by saying this it will make me feel better” – then go ahead and say it. But if you really will be available to your loved one, actually call her and say, “I have an hour/a couple of hours, how about I _______(fill in the blank with something specific).
Read about grief (see book recommendations below). Only read with the aspiration of gaining a better understanding of what your widowed friend is experiencing. Following the death of a spouse, as you are muddling through the myriad of feelings, it is difficult to express to others how you feel. By reading trusted authors on the topic, you can gain a better understanding of what your loved one might be experiencing. WARNING-CAUTIONARY ADVICE: Subsequent to reading about grief and it’s effects, you will have to be extremely restrained and NEVER, I mean NEVER, begin a sentence with, “Well according to __________, you should….” or “You ought to read _____ they say you are________.” Grief is hard work. It is not a linear journey and it really does look different on each individual person. Trust me, unless your loved one specifically asks you, they will not find unsolicited advice beneficial.
Don’t compare your grief. Whatever you do— suppress your need to compare your loved one’s grief to something you have been through. Your grief of losing a pet, a great-great-great-grandmother, or maneuvering a divorce is not equivalent to losing a spouse. You will never understand completely how she feels and that’s ok-you don’t have to. (Did I hear a great sigh of relief?) Again, honesty is the best way to go–simply let your loved one know there is no way you can comprehend what she is going through, but that you will always be there to support her and to listen when she needs to talk.
Beware of widowbrain. Widowbrain is an insider term used by some widows to describe what happens to our brain immediately after the loss and tends to endure–well…for a really long time. Expect your loved one to forget–forget where she last put the car keys, forget that you had a lunch date, forget that it’s your birthday, forget to close the garage door, forget to…just about everything. Best you can do for this one is to recognize what is happening as normal, and send sticky notes.
Remember that people will forget. Widows get an abundance of attention early on, when everything is new. It is in the months following the death, when everyone else gets goes back to their “normal” lives, that your loved one especially needs a friend. Set a date one week after the loss, one month after the loss, six months after the loss, 18 months after the loss to make sure you remain connected to your loved one.
Everything I read about grief and loss warned that I would not have the same friendships a year later. This was disconcerting for me to consider. I had just lost my spouse and now these experts on grief were preparing me for yet another loss? Unfortunately, for many widows this is all too true. I, however; was blessed that my inner circle of friends did not change. I am thrilled that my close friendships remain a vital part of my life. I firmly believe that this is the case because they made a conscious effort to stick it out. It is not an easy road to travel with your loved one, but worth it. If you truly love your widowed friend—be there.
Talk about the spouse who is gone. This may seem awkward at first, but the more you mention the one who is passed the more comfortable it will become. Your widowed loved one must feel at ease when talking about her late spouse. In our home, Don is a frequent topic of discussion, as when we are with friends. His legacy lives on through our shared memories.
Allow grief to be personal. Finally, the most important thing to do, and perhaps the most difficult is to love your widowed friend enough to let her grieve in her own way, in her own terms, and for as long or short as appears to be right for her. There is no rulebook on how to grieve. As Americans we don’t even have cultural traditions that help us out in this area. Know that your widowed love one will most likely do something you think is “too soon” or things you believe to be “not soon enough”. She will make decisions you may find impulsive or “unlike her”, but she is entitled to grieve in her own way. Similarly, you may have a friend that seems to be grieving for too long–same thing–she is grieving on her own terms and will work through it at her leisure. Another cautionary note; this does not include behavior that is overtly self-destructive to herself or the lives of her loved ones.
Grief is all encompassing and tends to be quite self-absorbing. It is difficult for a newly widowed person to be inclusive or even thoughtful when life, as she has known it, totally changes in an instant. I don’t care how much preparation; time, or forewarning one is given, nothing prepares a person for that moment when a loved one is gone forever.
Books About Grief
Turn My Mourning into Dancing
I’m Grieving As Fast As I Can: How Young Widows and Widowers Can Cope and Heal
Linda Sones Feinberg
Learning to Breathe Again : Choosing Life and Finding Hope After a Shattering Loss
35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child (Guidebook Series)
Dougy Center for Grieving Children
Courage to Grieve
Let Me Grieve, But Not Forever
A Grief Observed
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