Speak my name and I shall live forever
This is the one thing in the Top Ten outlining what TO say. Now I am making the sweeping assumption you are concerned about what to say to the grieving or you would not be reading this blog. If that is not the case, here’s a link to some dancing hamsters, which is probably more along the lines of what you’re surfing the Internet for. But if you’re here because you want to know what to do, this is the number one thing that you must do:
Always acknowledge the death when you see the widow for the first time.
No matter when it happened. No matter how much time has gone by. It doesn’t take more than “I’m sorry”. Practice in the mirror if you have to. But say it. Do not hesitate. Do not avoid it. Do not think that the widow—or the sibling, or the child, or the parent, or the friend—has forgotten for a minute that they’ve lost their loved one. Here it is again. Let’s say together now, shall we?
“I’m sorry for your loss”
It’s all you have to say. In fact, really. It’s all you need to say. Think surgical strike: acknowledge and move on. You can go back to telling the joke about the horse walking into the bar. Or whatever. It does help to have a follow up: “How ’bout them Mariners”. Just go on with whatever you were doing. Or, if you do have something more to say and she seems up to it, tell them a favorite memory. Say why you miss your friend. Share something funny or sweet. But please, my friends, do not avoid mentioning the death. You’re aware of it. They’re aware of it. We’re all aware of it. I promise you that she’s well aware of it and you are not, by any means, bringing up something that isn’t already ringing in her head like church bells. It’s a very big elephant in a very small room.
If you’re hearing about the death for the first time, just say you’re sorry and move on. You don’t need to go on about it. You don’t need to suddenly drop into solemn hushed tones with a mournful face. You can continue the conversation. A few weeks back, I met someone at a party who asked if I was married. No, I answered, I’m a widow. The entire tone of the conversation shifted, you could feel him frantically casting about for what to say after saying “I’m sorry to hear that.” On it went to “What did he die of?” I’m having fun at a party, I certainly don’t need to go into detail about how he died with someone I’ve only just met. Asked and answered. Just say you’re sorry and move on.
Alternatively, I promise you didn’t make her cry. And don’t assume she’s one of those people who “doesn’t like to talk about it”. That might indeed be the case, but if so, it means you don’t need to go into depth of detail about how he died, how much money is left or any of the other things that just dig you further into a proverbial grave (you should forgive the metaphor). Please don’t say you don’t like talking about such things. I think we’re all with you on that one, but come on. I’m not asking you to write a thesis on the subject. I’m asking you to reach out to your friend.
One friend, who was suffering from terminal cancer herself, blurted out “Son of a bitch” when she first saw me after John’s death. It was a heartfelt and genuine response. It actually was quite powerful. She was really pissed that he had died and that was her immediate reaction. For friends like her who acknowledged John’s passing, however they did it was an enormous weight lifted. We could then go on, having both given a nod to this awful detour on life’s path. For those who did not, I never knew whether they were even aware he had died (should I bring it up? Talk about awkward!) or it put up a distance between us that has never been bridged.
I can’t emphasize enough my gratitude for friends and acquaintances who say, even now, I’m sorry for John’s loss. I miss him. The world is a smaller place without him. Good God he was a piece of work. Whatever it was, each person who says it brings John back to life for a moment and brings me closer to seeing that the love we shared lives on, even if he does not. That’s why it is important to say it. I wish I had understood this better for my friends who had lost loved ones before. I would have been kinder to them. I might even have said, “Son of a bitch”.
Time makes no difference, it still matters. Acknowledge it, say you’re sorry for the loss and move on. You’ll all be glad you did.
It’s a legitimate question. Admit it, you’re curious too. What did John die of? It’s okay. I’d want to know if I were you. It’s usually the first thing people ask. Generally, if people didn’t know his background, I simply say “sepsis after a short procedure” or “pneumonia”. Both of which are true. And honestly I think that’s all people really want to know.
However, it unfortunately tends to opens up in me the need to qualify that simple answer. And for someone to die under the age of 90 from pneumonia, it always makes people want to know more. With his extensive medical history, it seems like his death would have been obvious and not such a surprise, but I just didn’t think he couldn’t also beat this one. It did not occur to me—or to John—until the bitter end, that he had won those earlier battles but we were about to lose the war. I’m fairly certain my audience doesn’t want that much detail. But I’ve caught myself going off far too long answering the question.
What’s difficult about this question is that it’s such a natural question for us to ask one another. Why would any young person die? It’s not in the natural scheme of things. So we want to know. We’re concerned and we’re curious. Totally understandable. We want to know what happened. There’s nothing wrong with that.
About a month or so after John’s death, I was in the bank, transferring some certificates to my name. The bank manager came unglued when he learned that John was my husband. He thought it was my father. To my surprise, he asked question after question, “What happened? Why did he get sick? When did it happen? How old was he?” He seemed genuinely shocked that anyone young could die. I’m not sure which age was his cut-off point for not being horrified. 60? 70? 80? Would it have mattered if it was my father? My brother? I could have thrown him that one as well, but my brother and I did not hold securities jointly. So he didn’t get to be surprised by how young my brother was.
I don’t mind answering the question, even though it’s complex. My brother’s big heart simply gave out one morning, so that was an an easier answer to give when I was asked about his passing. Many young people die of cancer, ALS or other common diseases. Those are also easier to answer.
But I can see that some widows might have a very hard time with the question. What if it was an accident? The natural follow up question to that: What kind of accident? It could be hard to answer, especially for a new widow or if it was a complicated accident. What if it was something even more difficult? Homicide? Suicide? Those then beget even more painful questions and both the widow and questioner get backed into a bad conversation.
I’d think the best way to find out the answer (again, I totally understand wanting to know) is to first say something neutral, like “Oh, I’m so sorry. He was such a young man.” and see what her reaction is. If she’s up to talking about the cause of death, then you’ll probably be able to tell or even just listen. If she’s not, well, either you’re going to remain in the dark or you’ll need to go ask someone else.
Do be gentle with the question, especially at first. Be ready for whatever door you might open up‚ the example being me telling you more than you want to know. Be careful of what you ask for.
And to my fellow widows: know that your friends are not being morbid or trying to make you talk about something you don’t want to. They are genuinely trying to express their concern. If you don’t want to talk about it, make up something neutral and non-committal. Have a convincing easy answer in the bank. “It was a sudden illness.” Then change the subject. “How ’bout them Mariners?” If you’re willing to talk about it, then go right ahead. It’s your call. Do thank them for their concern either way.
Okay, if you’re still curious I’ll give you, Dear Blogreader, the full answer to “What did he die of?” question below. If you don’t want to know, then here’s a link to the New York Times, which is a lot more interesting anyway.
Get comfortable, it’s long.
When you met John, you’d notice he was quite thin. But other than that, even after he needed full crutches and could barely walk, unless you were a medical professional you didn’t really see him as being sick. Or a medical marvel, which he was. He lived his life with a ferocious intensity that overshadowed any physical frailties. He worked a full ten hours the day before he went into the hospital. He was still expecting to get out of the hospital “next week” four days before he died, sending e-mails to colleagues to that effect. He fought until the end and he always wanted to live.
Here’s what was on the death certificate.
a) Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and Sepsis and Acute Renal Failure
b) Sepsis secondary to Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure
Other significant conditions:
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and Pulmonary Fibrosis and Radiation-induced Fibrosis
Manner of death: Natural
I didn’t have an autopsy done. Why bother? As my brother pointed out, he’d bamboozled the medical community since 1970. Why give up his secrets now?
Here’s more. It doesn’t even mention his most debilitating issue, the degenerative disability based in his spinal cord—radiation-induced lumbosacral plexopathy—that was increasingly painful and destroying his ability to walk. He was in a great deal of pain in the last year or so.
He had the CHF because a severe pneumonia six years earlier put too much strain on his already strained lungs. He needed the ERCP procedure because his liver was heading into certain failure since the main duct was blocked. Turned out it had been blocked twenty five years earlier, during emergency surgery to save his life when he was bleeding out due to a ruptured duodenal-aortic fistula. In that surgery, parts of his stomach, lots of his intestine, his duodenum, and assorted endocrine parts were removed. And as it turned out, they sewed up his primary liver duct into the resectioned gut, which is why his liver went into failure years later which required the ERCP to try to open the duct that set off the sepsis that killed him. The 1983 surgery also caused chronic rapid gastric emptying and severe hypoglycemia that caused diabetic-like symptoms.
Oh, and all this started because he had widely-metastasized testicular cancer in 1970. Back when young men did not have much of a chance of survival. He had mixed tumors, including carcinoma, seminoma, choriocarcinoma and embryonal carcinomas. John was lucky enough to be in Houston, where M.D. Anderson doctors undertook a (then) radical approach to treatment involving multiple chemotherapies—including vinblastine, bleomycin, platinum, cisplatin, fluorouracil, and others I can’t recall. Those chemo treatments in varying forms lasted six years. The heavy cobalt radiation treatments lasted a year. The surgeries included unilateral orchiectomy and nephrectomy, RPLND (retroperitoneal lymph node dissection), including removal of many more lymph nodes reaching up into his neck. All that radiation, all those toxic chemicals, all that surgery. They saved his life but they ultimately killed him… thirty-seven years later.
Got all that? Good lord! No wonder he’s dead.
Did you really want to know all that? Probably not. So now you see my dilemma with the question. It either doesn’t say what happened or it’s far Too Much Information. Next time someone asks, I’ll still say, “Pneumonia”. That’s close enough.
[side note: John’s cancer treatments, in much less intense dosages due to the damaging side-effects, eventually became standard protocol for testicular cancer. John’s survival meant they were on the right track to helping others with this cancer to beat it. In 1970, the chance for survival, let alone complete remission, was next to nothing. Now, it’s considered a treatable cancer if caught in the early stages. Hardly short of miraculous.]
John Lyle Sanford
The night after his death, a group of us sat around the dining room table, trying to compose John’s obituary. My brother came up with the pithy observation that one of my more cynical comments was “putting the bitch in obituary”. Now I strongly suggest you don’t fill that particular bill, but there’s lots of tasks that need doing for memorials—if you’re able to help out through writing or artwork, it can be very much appreciated.
RJF wrote the final obituary and published it in the (late) Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I was so grateful for her handling this critical task, not to mention she did an amazing job of summing up John’s life. An old friend in Austin had it published in the Austin American-Statesman for our Texas friends and family.
John’s talented staff at work designed and produced a website in his memory—it was wonderful. It captured his design work and spirit perfectly and held a guest book for friends to sign and contribute photos. I loved reading it and going through it. The staff also prepared a slideshow at the funeral from photos they worked all week gathering and mounted photographs of his life on foam-core for putting up around the house during the week of the funeral. They also designed, produced and printed up the programs for the service. John would have been so pleased with all of them for their great work… not to mention their tremendous design sense. They did him proud.
If you’re skilled at doing any of these tasks, it’s a great kindness and such a wonderful thing to do. I knew this all needed doing, but just didn’t have the capability for doing it at the time. All these friends did the hard work, then would bring things by for me to proofread or to be sure it was what I was looking for—and of course it was. They made a difficult week so much easier. And I’m still grateful to have the fruits of their labors as lovely tangible memories. Even if you can’t get something done that week, a memorial book or website is much appreciated.
I’d still recommend keeping the bitch out of obituary, however.
The website done by his talented staff is at: www.johnlylesanford.com. The original obit that RJF wrote is there too. It’s a good read.
Yes, this gets said to new widows. I’m always temped to answer, “Are you offering some more?”
But that doesn’t get either of us anywhere. Remember, the most likely subtext is, “I know this is a huge change in your life and suddenly your income has dropped by half. I hope that it does not adversely affect you. I hope you’re still secure enough and you don’t have that additional worry hanging over you during this difficult time.” That or they are just nosyparkers scouring for idle gossip.
Good intentions aside, it’s simply not a question to ask. Unless you had that kind of relationship with the couple before one of them died and you would sit around together talking about your respective incomes and savings investment plans. Even then, it’s still not a question you should be asking. My estate lawyer told me hair-raising stories of other widows who discovered their spouses had secret credit cards and accounts maxed out to tens of thousands of dollars. Fascinating, but still none of my business.
I also had more than one neighbor come by the house after John died. (Neighbors, no less. Not even strangers!) I thought to offer condolences. Silly me. After a short while, they pulled out their business cards—they were Realtors! And wanted my listing. It’s like a call went out, “We Have Widow! She’ll be selling soon!” Sadly for them, I had no intention of moving. It’s the equivalent of ambulance chasing—it’s hearse chasing.
In many forms, the question does get asked. Instead of the clever quips I would later come up with (at 3:00 a.m. after the opportunity had long past) I generally answered, “Thank you, I’m doing okay.” I figured that was generic enough and they just wanted to know that I was alright.
It’s not like they’re going to do anything about it. Why give them the satisfaction of gossip. Let them make up their own.
Yes, it’s hard to go through a divorce. Yes, it hurts. But it’s not the same.
This gets said surprisingly often to new widows. The fundamental difference, even if the divorce happened out of the blue and without your approval—you’ve got a live person to be angry at, to rail against, to work out the final details with. While I’m generalizing here and everyone’s situation is different, I expected my marriage to go on. Then, it was over. And I could not even pretend I had options. It. Was. Over.
Let me assure you that John and I did not sail in undisturbed marital seas. We had a rough time of it for several years. John had affairs because like the crow with the shiny thing, he just couldn’t pass up foolish attention and I simply got fed up with it. In fact, I did everything I could to get him to leave. I made him move out of the house and we separated for nearly a year. (While we had deeply painful struggles through this time, we nonetheless spoke every day either on the phone or in person. Always about some trivial thing. We truly loved one another, despite this, well, rather fundamental problem of him having these ridiculous affairs. But that’s another posting.) Ultimately, we chose not to divorce. Or rather, since I’m the survivor here and history belongs to the living, I chose not to divorce him. He clearly wasn’t leaving.
Anyway. We reconciled. We worked hard at it. We loved each other even more for having fought it out and won. And I know not every couple does. Still, even at the worst of times he was there. Now he’s not. It’s not the same at all.
What can you do instead for the widow if you’re the divorcée? Take her out to dinner. Drop by for coffee. Bring her to a party. Get concert tickets and go together. Go for a walk. Invite her into your book group. Set an exercise goal and work together toward it. You know how it feels to be newly single and how hard it can be. Go show her how it isn’t so hard. One single friend of mine came over for dinner and we had a great time learning about making easy dinners for one. Teach her some of your hard-won lessons. Teach her how to be single again.
Just don’t compare how you got there.
Oh, I could go on about this one for pages and pages. I could write involved masters dissertations and multiple doctoral theses on the subject.
You’ve said it. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it. It’s pretty much the standard Thing To Say. So I’m putting it in the “Don’t” category, right? Well, yes and I’m also putting it in the “Do” category. You want desperately to do something for your friend, to help them through this difficult time, to help yourself with your own sorrow. And you want to do something that is genuinely needed, that matters and that really does help. You don’t want to make things worse.
Easier said than done? That’s why so many people say this phrase. It’s easy to say! It’s harder to come up with alternatives. Or we say the wrong thing and she gets upset. Or we make offers and get rebuffed by the grieving widow. Why should we keep trying when nothing we do is right?
If we were all in a cartoon, here is an illustration of the thought balloon I imagine going above everyone’s head:
FRIEND: If there’s anything you need, let me know.
FRIEND THOUGHT BALLOON: I know you’re hurting and I genuinely want to help
WIDOW: Thank you, I don’t need anything right now.
WIDOW THOUGHT BALLOON: I can barely think of my own name, I can’t think of an assignment for you. You’re just making it harder.
F: Why don’t I do [your helpful suggestion here]?
FTB: Maybe if I just tell her what she needs, I can be useful and not just stand here helplessly watching her cry.
W: I just want to be alone. [alternatively: I just want some company.]
WTB: Please don’t leave me alone. [alternatively: Go away.]
FTB: I want to help but I can’t bring her husband back. She’s crazy.
WTB: I need your help but you can’t bring my husband back. I’m going crazy.
Therein lies the rub. She wants your help. She wants to be left alone. She wants you to do things. She doesn’t want you to touch anything. She wants you to say the right thing. She only hears the wrong thing. Because the only thing she wants is to make the grief go away and no living person can do that. A grim reality no one, especially the widow, wants to face.
It’s saying it over and over again but never doing anything about it where the problem comes in. Trust me on this one: She’s heard it over and over and over since the death. Over and over. Seriously. It gets a little overwhelming and as the widow you eventually want to scream, “I don’t KNOW!”
Here’s how you can make it something worthwhile: If you don’t genuinely mean it and have something in mind—and if you can’t follow it up—say something else.
What might help, then? Let’s get some suggestions out there:
Surrounding the death
Between the death and the funeral/service
After the fun is out of the funeral
The first half year