The Sympathy Note

The Sympathy Note

Write it. Do it now. Don’t put it off, but even if you have put it off, go do it now. I promise that the widow still will be thrilled to know someone still cares. It doesn’t matter how far away from the death it is. It’s never too late. (more…)

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

Always go to the funeral. Spouse, parent, sibling, friend, dog—it doesn’t matter who died, it means a lot to the bereaved if you show up at the funeral. You don’t even have to say anything, you can just go in, sign the book and leave. They can’t really remember who’s there anyway, but it’s so comforting to see that someone cared enough to show up for a few hours.

But if you did know the dead guy or their nearest and dearest but can’t go to the funeral (and sometimes you can’t for a variety of good reasons) please do take the extra effort to do something else.

Allow me to throw in a side caveat here that there were several people at the funeral who hardly knew John. One man even earnestly explained to me back at the house while he had only met John once, he was now sorry for that because John seemed like such a great guy. Let’s just agree that’s one of the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow At The Funeral. You can say it later, but what the heck are you doing at the dang funeral if you didn’t even know the guy. Let me hasten to add that he didn’t know me any better. I was bewildered as to how to reply, “Well, yeah, he was a good guy. Thanks for coming. Do you need a name tag?”

Back to alternatives. Two dear friends lived on the East Coast, so due to the travel constraints just couldn’t make it out in time. In the overwhelming swirl of events, it would have been nearly overwhelming anyway. Being the widow also means being the hostess to a certain extent, your friends naturally want to spend time with you and be as helpful as they can. But you don’t always have the time or ability to spend time or extend the emotional energy when you’re under siege.

So my New York friend wrote me a lovely sympathy note and told me she would be planning a trip to visit me within the next month. And sure enough, three weeks after the funeral, she arrived Kleenex in hand and ready to make casseroles. We sat together talking about John, reading over the cards and letters that had come in. She helped me get the house reorganized and talked over work issues with me. She was just there for a few days, but it was a lovely, meaningful visit.

Three weeks after that, my DC friend arrived for the weekend. She went with me to John’s office to help me clean that out and to figure out what to do with it all when I got it all home. And she too sat with me, laughed, cried and talked over memories. She had recently lost her father and we shared our grief together, which served to reinforce the great love that had been left behind.

Seeing these friends at a quieter time, when the maelstrom had settled was quite a gift. Although I was still in a stupor, they granted me the time to talk over what I had just been through and they listened with love. They reminded me that distance didn’t matter. It took a lot to get them to give up precious vacation time, to leave their own lives and families just to come and show me they loved me. That’s quite a gift and I was grateful for it.

Closer to home, there were friends who also couldn’t make the funeral. One couple took a weekend day and came over to see what needed to be done around the house—we went through the house making lists for repairs or upkeep maintenance that needed doing. Although John was disabled, he couldn’t do the physical work but he always knew what was going on around the house, what needed fixing and how to do it. His last weekend at home, we installed a beautiful dining room light fixture he had given me for our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to install a light fixture and didn’t understand how the electric system worked, so John sat in a chair, drinking a beer and directed me step-by-step. The installation worked and the light looks terrific. It was a fun project. But now I didn’t have someone to tell me how to do things.

Since my friends knew home maintenance—at least the husband half did—we went over the basics of the house, where the water and gas mains were, how to turn on and off the furnace, how the water heater worked, and we re-labeled the electric circuit box. I couldn’t have done that alone, in fact, I would not have known where to start. It was an empowering day for me that was also a perfect way for my friends to show me they were still an essential part of my life.

One friend I knew only casually called to ask me out for coffee. She suggested the day, time and place—small but critical details, since I was in no condition to make decisions on my own. She showed up on time, came in to the house, took me out and we had a nice time talking about lots of things, John included.

Going to the funeral means you take the time out to share memories with your friend. Most importantly, it shows the widow there is a network of love and support out there, that she is not alone. So you should always go. But if you absolutely, positively can’t, make the same gesture another way. Take an afternoon, an evening, a weekend and show up. Be present and listen. Let the widow babble senselessly for a while, let her cry on your shoulder, let her do what she needs to do for a few hours. Time is a great kindness.

Allow me one last warning to help steer you through the waters of Doing The Wrong Thing: Try not to show up at the widow’s doorstep all at once just after the funeral, then leave her alone for months and months. That’s a classic dilemma and that’s another post.

Always go to the funeral

This applies to any friendship on any level. It’s something that is not that hard to do but has enormous impact. It means a lot to the widow. It’s enormously soothing to see a physical manifestation that someone’s life really mattered. It reinforces community. Most importantly, it tells the widow that she is not alone, there are people who genuinely care from immediate family to casual friendships. It says there is a web of support out there. It’s deeply humbling and enormously reassuring.

It matters. It’s maybe two hours out of your day. Do it.

You don’t have to say much. The smallest gesture can make a difference. One friend came by the family viewing with a handful of flowers he had chosen because they were the colors of John’s favorite baseball team, the Houston Astros.  A small detail but it was thoughtful, it had a big impact on me.

There’s plenty of reasons you might not be able to get to the services—not everyone’s situation permits it. (For alternative suggestions, check out this post) Do your honest best to get there. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but ceremony binds us together. Do not say something along the lines of “Funerals make me sad”. You think that the widow is thrilled to be having this particular party? Really? You think she  needs to hear that this terrible ordeal she’s going through is making you feel bad? They make everyone sad, for goodness sake. They’re awful for everyone. That’s why you’re there, to help each other get through it. Put some black clothes on and buck up.

On a funereal note, personally I’m not a fan of the Celebration of Life style of service. For me, John alive was his celebration of life. His family, his friends and our collective recollections of who he was and his influence on all of us continue to be a celebration of his life. His funeral was a sad occasion and I saw no reason to pretend otherwise. But that’s me.

Everyone needs different things at the funeral, so be flexible and go with the flow. Be present. Shake hands or give a hug, depending on your relationship. Sign the book. Then go remember your friend however you like.

“So-and-so lost their spouse years ago and they’re STILL not over it”

This is insanely depressing. Surprisingly, some widows say it to new widows. You’d think they’d know better.

Perhaps it is meant to pose the question, “What is with you widows and flogging this whole grief thing? Why on earth are you still talking about it?” I’m not sure. But if it’s said to a widow within a short time, let’s be conservative and say a year, it’s horrifying.

I met several other young widows after John’s death. Those who were most helpful acknowledged how badly I was hurting and instead of yet another aphorism about Time Healing All Wounds, acknowledged the seismic life change. Some sent me books that had helped them to get through, for which I was deeply grateful. Most just nodded and listened.

The ones that Did Not Help were those who outlined in detail the agony they were still going through. I think that would be easier for me to take now, a year out from the loss, but did these people completely forget what it was like to be newly widowed? Have they forgotten the intensity of feeling  you’ll never come up out of this crushing grief? That hope is lost?

I got “fixed up” with one widow a week or so after the funeral. She spent our hour together detailing every moment of her husband’s death. Once she had finished with that, she mournfully spoke about how empty and lonely her life continued to be without the husband. Even her daughters were of little comfort and nothing had changed for her since his death—and it was five years after his death. I could barely stand upright. By the time I escaped it took me days to even consider talking to someone else again.

So I offer up this little prayer:

Dear God-of-my-choice.

Please don’t let me do this to someone who is experiencing a new loss. Please help me to offer comfort. Please let new widows know that the bone-crushing grief will get easier to handle although it will not disappear. Help them bear the struggle one small step at a time. Please let me—and others in grief—learn to keep moving forward and embrace love in all its forms. And please let the Mariners have a winning season this year.


The Practical Widow