HERE ARE SOME THINGS YOUR WIDOWED FRIEND WOULD LIKE YOU TO KNOW.
SHE’D TELL YOU IF SHE COULD.
BUT SHE CAN’T.
THAT’S PART OF THE PROBLEM.
1. Please understand that right now your widowed friend is not herself.
Literally not herself.
Most of the constructs of self she had have vanished, some temporarily, some permanently. Everything — her role in life, the way she spent her days, how the bills were paid, her position in the world, her assumptions about how her life would be, her appetite — all are buried under the rubble of her beloved’s death.
Her old self is gone, though it may not look that way. She may act in recognizable ways — out of old habit, politeness, and shock — but underneath she is not herself. Her life is not recognizable to her.
Her old self ended with the death of the partner she loved. Her new self has not yet arrived. Depending on how long and happily she was partnered, whether the death was sudden or expected, and in how many different ways she was entwined with her beloved, it may take some time before that new self begins to emerge. (See Does It Get Easier?).
If you are willing and able to hang out with that, even just now and then, you are a good friend. (Here is the story of one such friend, whose kindness to me was beyond measure).
2. Please understand that because your widowed friend is not herself, she may not have her old habits and preferences.
Maybe there was a certain brownie from a particular bakery you would always bring your friend when she needed cheering up. But she might not be eating much now.
Maybe there was a cafe where you used to have brunch together a couple of times a year. But at present, she might not be able to handle being out in public much without getting anxious.
Maybe you’ve always given her a gift certificate for a massage on her birthday. But she may not be able to bear being touched yet, or be too restless to stay still.
Maybe she was always up for a party. But she may prefer, or need, solitude, or one-on-one time, for awhile. Holidays may be especially hard.
You’ll have to keep your antenna out, gently, for what might be the right thing to do in her case. Take your cues from her, but not necessarily from what she says. And don’t ask her — she doesn’t know what she needs.
3. Please understand that there are a few clear-cut ways to get it right, a whole lot of ways to get it wrong, and several “maybes” in between. Forgive yourself, and her, right up front. This is hard stuff.
No one, on any side of this, knows how to do this right. There is no foolproof way to comfort a widow perfectly (that would mean being able to bring the deceased back to life, returning the widow to her old existence as a partner; not, of course, possible).
But if you are able to simply stay present with her as she is in any given moment, accepting whatever manifestation of grief is going on with her at that second (grief continually changes form) — that is the closest thing to foolproof consolation that there is.
4. Please understand that “being present” with her requires calming your own sorrow, anxiety, and distress first.
The people who are widows’ truest companions through the chaos of grief have to do something almost superhuman: they must lay aside their own feelings, and their own reactions to the widow’s feelings, and instead become compassionate, non-judging witnesses to what the widow is going through. They thus create a place where the widow can safely feel her overwhelming emotions, but they, her friends, do not become overwhelmed themselves.
This is a tall order.
5. Please understand that “being present” with her pain does not mean “fixing” her.
You may want desperately to lessen your friend’s pain, which is kind. But that may lead you to trying to “fix” it, which is not.
“Fixing” says that there is something wrong with her and/or what she is feeling. There isn’t. Grieving is a hard, painful process, but it is not wrong, bad or “negative.” Grieving is hell, yet it is also right, good, and “positive.” It is the way we incorporate the loss of someone we loved into our life-journey. If you love someone and they die, grief and mourning are necessary and unavoidable.
“Fixing” also implies that the situation can be fixed, which it cannot, not in the way she longs for. That the beloved partner is dead is the non-negotiable, absolutely unfixable central fact. It overshadows everything else.
- Things that are fixing statements: “He wouldn’t want you to be this sad.” “You need to come with me to church/meditation/ yoga class/ Paris / the Christmas party, to get your mind off this.” “You’re spending too much time alone, I’m worried about you.” “You have to get your hair done, you know how much better that always makes you feel.” “Have you tried journaling about this?” “Just breathe.” “Be good to yourself.” “It’s been six months!” “You have to be strong for the children.” “When are you going to start dating?”
Besides “fixing” statements, please also watch out for things said out of your need and fear, not hers:
- Things that are said, unconsciously, to calm your own existential anxieties: “It must have been his time.” “You were lucky to have him.” “God has a plan. We may not understand it, but He does.” “Heaven needed another angel.” “His work was done.” “He’s always with you.” “You’ll always have beautiful memories.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “It was his time.” Be especially carefully to keep theology out of it, unless you are positive that you share the same theology. Even then, be careful.
- Things that are really tone-deaf comparatives: “I haven’t been through what you’re going through, but when I lost Fluffball, my 16-year-old Siamese, I … ” “I’ve been divorced, and that was like a little death.”
So what do you say, if you wish to console?
- Things that are “being present” statements:
“Is it okay if I just sit here with you for awhile?”
“Of course you feel that way.”
“It’s natural. It’s hard, it’s awful, but it’s
“Of course you’re angry!”
“I’m so sorry. I so wish this hadn’t happened.”
“Would you drink some tea if I brought it to you?”
“Of course you feel numb at times.”
“It doesn’t sound crazy to me. It sounds like someone grieving the death of the love of her life.”
“You don’t have to decide now.”
“I don’t know why it happened either.”
“You’re so right; it isn’t fair.”
“Don’t apologize, I appreciate your letting me be with you.”
“Honey, I think that whatever you’re feeling is probably exactly what you need to feel.”
5. Please understand that this will not be easy for you, either.
It’s hard to hang out with feelings this intense. No single friend can or should be expected to be “present” all the time. (And the widow doesn’t expect you to). Get some breathing space. Go on a walk. Trade off with other friends of hers.
That said: It’s hard for you, but you have a choice. She doesn’t. Remember that, at least in the early phases, she is with these feelings all the time.
Now. If you were also very close to her beloved (if her late husband was your best friend; if her late husband was your son, or brother), you may not be the best person to assist her. You have your own grief, pain, shock and disorientation to work through. Hug her (if you have that kind of relationship), cry together, write her a letter. But in many cases (not all) it’s best to let someone else less affected by the death do the hands-on being present work, at least in the early phases.
6. Please understand that doing or offering something specific is much more helpful than “Is there anything I can do?”
“Is there anything I can do?” is great when a friend is in ordinary difficulties.
But widowhood is not ordinary.
Especially in the early stages, your friend is coming in and out of shock and disbelief; she goes from being numb to shaking with sobs, is overwhelmed by the smallest tasks, may be wildly disoriented. She may not have slept, eaten, brushed her teeth in days. She can’t think straight. To task her with assignments for you to do for her well-being shows, alas, how little you understand her state.
When you say, with all the enormous kindness of your own distressed heart, “What can I do?”, you unintentionally create another responsibility for the widow, at a time she already has too many. She can’t explain to you what she needs, let alone direct you. She really can’t. And if she is like most widows, with some piece of herself, she’s perplexed that she should have to; that you would, however innocently, ask this of her.
So. Be specific. There are some things you can just do. But, in some cases, you have to be careful not to impose, so ask first.
Here are examples of specific ways you might help her:
- in the immediate aftermath, stay at her house and answer her phone, both landline and cell, keeping a record of who called
- if she has young children and you are at all close to them, offer to spend time with them, perhaps away from the house (sometimes good for both the children and her)
- make sure she has all the basics and resupply the house if needed: not so much food (which many tend to bring) but stuff like toilet paper, dish detergent, dog food, bird seed, kitty litter, laundry soap, paper towels
- walk her dog (invite her to come along but be willing to solo); clean the cat box; refill the bird-feeder
- shovel the snow from the driveway
- put gas in the car; check the oil
- vacuum or do the laundry
- “I’m going to the supermarket; you want to come along?” Chauffeur her anywhere — to the grocery store, to her bereavement support group, to the attorney’s office or pharmacy, to, God knows, the crematorium or morgue — driving her is essential. She probably really shouldn’t drive for a few weeks after the death.
- Fend off anyone you know she doesn’t want to see, particularly the self-dramatizing (who want to make their pain bigger than hers) or the know-it-alls.
- Be willing to take people who say stupid things aside and correct them (if her partner hung himself, anyone who tells the widow “Hang in there” needs to be spoken to).
- Call Social Security for her; go to the bank with her; find out which credit cards are in her name, which are in her late partner’s only, and which in both names.
- Offer to help her make sure bills are paid on time.
- Water her plants or weed her garden
- If something breaks (the washing machine, say) call the repairman
- Go with her to the doctor’s if she has medical issues or is thinking about antidepressants or can’t sleep; take notes, ask questions, advocate. She likely will not remember fully what is being said.
- In some cases, set up a care circle so she doesn’t have to stay alone the first few weeks; a different friend comes by each night, perhaps bringing dinner.
- When and if she is ready to clean out his office or side of the closet or storage unit or workshop, offer to help her.
- Be responsible for some aspect of the funeral arrangements
- Quietly put food, tea, a glass of water in front of her, but don’t fuss at her if she can’t or doesn’t eat, or takes only a bite or two.
- Throw out the dead flowers.
7. Please tell her exactly how and when you can be with her, and assure her that you mean it. And follow through.
I have been widowed twice. Both times, many people said to me, “Call me anytime, if you need anything at all.”
But the first time, after my husband died, one friend said to me, “Listen, CD, I go to sleep easily and I wake up easily, so you can call me at 2 in the morning and it’s no big deal. I mean it.” That is the friend I called in the middle of the night, more than once.
And the second time, on the night of my partner’s death, a different friend texted me, “I am going to sleep with the phone by my pillow. I expect you to call me when you wake up in the middle of the night. ” She didn’t say “if,” please note, she said “when.” I did wake. This is the friend I called.
8. Please understand that grief has no time-table or predictable phases.
Grief is chaotic and unpredictable. Elizabeth Kubler Ross may have done us a deep disservice by implying otherwise with her famous stages of grief (here’s why). Too, like every marriage, the death and grief which follow the end of that marriage is different. Yet some counselors still hand out sheets listing what to expect at various points. In my view, they are wrong.
Right after a death, a widow is often surrounded by helpers and those who want to comfort her. And this is very necessary, because she is not really functional.
However, she is also, at least part of the time, numb with shock.
Contrary to what one might expect, many widows find that the most difficult phase is about a year and a half to two and a half years or three after the beloved’s death. The shock has worn off, everyone has long since gone back to their normal lives, she has made the full cycle of anniversaries and holidays (his birthday, their anniversary, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas or Chanukah, the day he died) and yet… he is still gone and nothing feels normal to her. Many people don’t even mention him to her any more! There is a pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, to move on already.
Ned, my husband, died in 2000. The same friend who told me “I go to sleep easily and I wake up easily, so you can call me at 2 in the morning,” never fails to call me, or email me, or send me a text, on two days of the year: the day Ned was born and the day of his death. Sometimes he just says, “Thinking of you.” Sometimes he says, “I was remembering that night Ned and I were banging away on top of the roof, and…”
In this, he lets me know he has not forgotten Ned. And that means that I am not the only one who still misses him.
And that, strangely, means everything.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series. These posts appear irregularly, but when CD started them, she did one each Wednesday. Her recently produced play, Until Just Moistened: a Not Quite One-Woman Show, with Crumbs, explores grief, friendship, resilience… and cornbread.
In addition to writing and performing, Crescent mentors and does public speaking, leads workshops, and does readings.