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

Try not to one-up each other in grief.

Especially shortly after the death. Later, please let’s give it six months at least, a year if you can stand it. Please don’t think you’re making me feel better because I’m not the only one in mourning. Please hold your tongue, even if just for a little while.

Death happens all around us and depending on our age and situation, it happens more or less often. You very well might have experienced a recent loss. A great one perhaps. But don’t let that be the first thing that pops out of your mouth. It does indeed help to share experiences of loss and to let the bereaved know that others have walked this path and there’s light up ahead. I don’t mean to overshadow that. However, be sure to let your expressions of sympathy for the bereaved go before your eagerness to talk about your own losses. It’s a matter of timing.

Often the newly bereaved just don’t have the psychic energy to take on sympathy for others. It’s simply outside their ability at the time. At first, when the newly bereaved are still in shock trying to understand what has happened, sometimes it can be worse to realize there’s so much death and sorrow out there. A friend does not have to be Little Mary Sunshine, but you also don’t need to be the Messenger Of Doom.

Concerning John’s death, it took me a long time to have it sink in that John’s friends were also mourning his death along with me. It just seemed oppressive to have so much grief myself to even consider the depth of others grief. That they were grieving as well may seem obvious now, but at the time it felt the whole world was sad. The darkness was everywhere. I could see that others were affected by his death, but I didn’t empathize with them right away. It took some time.

That all said, even if you are the newly bereaved, letting someone else talk about their loss can help you out. It keeps you from having to publicly expose your pain yet again. It gives you a chance to be the person who offers comfort for a change. And, since you are keenly aware of what that comfort can mean, it lets you pay it forward just a little bit. You’d be surprised at how much it will help you to feel better. It takes it off of your shoulders and lets someone else carry it for a while. It’s part of rejoining life.

The most important thing to remember for everyone concerned: During the week or so around the death, every raw emotion is splayed out on the surface waiting for everyone else to violate. Traps are freshly baited and ready to snap at every turn. It doesn’t take much to turn a thoughtless comment into an inferno. It’s what makes this so hard for all of us.

So let’s all take a breath and try to be kinder to one another, shall we? My Death Is Better Than Your Death is not a game any of us need to play.

You didn’t make her cry.

The death makes her cry. The loss and the loneliness and the fog that’s blocking the future: that’s just some of what makes her cry. You didn’t do it.

Ok, well, maybe you did. You might have kicked it off. You might have blurted out something that was terribly wrong, no matter how well meaning you were. I’m hoping to help you out in the Not Starting The Waterworks  department through this blog. Believe me, she’s trying hard to hold it together. She doesn’t want to cry publicly anymore than you want to stand there and watch it.

For heaven’s sake. Just don’t hit on the new widow.

Do I really need to outline this one? Do I have to say it out loud?

Apparently, yes. Because it happens. So here it is. Do Not: consider this the perfect time, now the pesky husband is dead and out of the way, to make your move and declare your everlasting love. Or bring that crush you’ve been hiding out of the closet. Or your hope for a torrid affair. Whatever’s going through your head—either one of them—keep it to yourself.

There’s several reasons why: (simple decency being one of them, to me the most obvious but let’s explore some more). Yes, she’s lonely and yes, she’s vulnerable and yes, she’s longing for intimacy and affection. But she wants it from the dead guy. Not you. You’re being a jackass. And not jut a little pathetic.

Love can certainly strike at anytime. I won’t deny that it might be the right thing for someone somewhere. Let’s say it’s right for (and I want to be generous here) perhaps 0.05% of the recently widowed population. You think your odds are that good? Seriously? Okay. But go slowly, give it some time—at least a year—and be aware that what you perceive as signals encouraging your advances might just be your misinterpretation of your friend’s profound grief. In that case, you are doing much, much more harm than good. See above: You’re a jackass.

“You were prepared for his death, but I was shocked!”

I was supposed to warn you?

Honestly, someone said this to me at a party. For a minute or two, I was speechless. Did they seriously think that I was “prepared”? And that I wasn’t shocked by his death?

This is a personal pet peeve: the idea that you could be “prepared” for death. I heard a radio show on hospice care a few weeks ago, and a social worker said, “There is no dying. There is living. And there is dead.” That very much resonated with me. During a prolonged terminal illness, it’s undeniably miserable and the outcome is sometimes obvious. But in the moment whatever it is, there is life. Perhaps a life that is difficult and struggling, but nonetheless it is life and you’re in it. Death? Well, that’s crossing a line from which there is no return. You are here. Then you are not.

My brother died suddenly—completely out of the blue. Alive one minute and dead the next. That was shocking. John died more slowly, tilting at the windmills of bad health from the time he was sixteen, and battling hard for ten days at the end. That was shocking.

They were both shocking losses. Just in different ways.

So if you must say something along these lines, think about how you’re phrasing it. Saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss, what a terrible shock.” is significantly better than telling the widow how she feels vs. how you feel. Just a matter of shifting around a few words. But it makes a world of difference.