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.
“I don’t know. How long are you going to drag out that ‘we’re married’ thing?”
There’s variations on this theme, ranging from the blunt “Get over it” to the head-shaking “Why is she still talking about the dead guy”? I suppose these sort of comments come from nervousness on the part of the speaker. They don’t know what to say. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they blurt out this really wrong one. Or they’re trying to mold their world how they need it to be. Or they think if only you’d start dating again, things would be fine. Whatever the cause, it’s going to cause hurt feelings on both sides.
I think others just don’t quite get why it’s still hurting after all this time has gone by. I certainly didn’t understand this before being widowed. Unlike any other loss, this one has been such a profound sea change. It’s not just the grief of losing someone you love—it’s the grief of losing the definition of self you’ve worked so hard to create. You were a wife, a partner, and you looked at the future through that lens. You were entwined in a thousand ways—in bed, financially, sharing a house, chores, meals, vacations… the list goes on. And now all of those are on your shoulders, you’ve got to figure out which to keep, which to carry on, which to drop. On top of grieving.
I feel like a little sea creature that has been through a terrible hurricane, beaten up and tossed up on the land and left in a strange new world. Eventually, the little sea creature figures out the ocean is still there and starts the struggle back to it. That’s where I am.
Another widow pointed out the thought to bear in mind is the storm is now over. Now repairs must be made to all the things that were damaged, broken and destroyed. Now I have to find new things to replace the old things, like the dreams, hopes, and visions for the future and my heart.
The irony is the struggle is not just getting back to the ocean. There’s still storms going on out there—there always has been—and possibly another storm of the same magnitude. Just like the real ocean when I’ll get back into the water and what it will be like when I get back in is completely out of my control. And sometimes, just when I think I’ve made it, the waves toss me way back on to those dunes.
But the ocean is beautiful and necessary and life-affirming. So off I go back again across the sand. It’s been eighteen months since John died. The ocean is a lot closer than it used to be.
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
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:
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