OUR FRIENDS WANT TO HELP US. THEY DON’T KNOW HOW.
WE DON’T KNOW HOW EITHER. BECAUSE WE ARE RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF IT.
DEAR WIDOW, I WROTE THIS LETTER FOR YOU TO GIVE YOUR FRIENDS.
PART ONE: A LETTER TO THE WIDOW’S FRIENDS
Dear Friend of the Widow,
You already know this: ___________, the beloved life partner of your friend __________, has died.
You want to help your friend. You want to be supportive. But you’re bewildered. You don’t know how.
Please understand: she doesn’t know either. She’s never been through this before.
The death of a beloved life partner alters a person down to the bedrock. Everything is shaken: heart, mind, identity, security, basic understanding of existence. And she can’t explain this to you, because she is new to grief.
Most widows — over time, when they look back later — find that the experience of grief and bereavement which follows the death of a life-partner turned out not to be comparative to anything else, including other deaths, in their lives. Your friend herself is probably shocked by the powerful and contradictory feelings with which she is grappling; she’s also probably disoriented, and (especially if she was self-sufficient, competent, on-top-of-it before the death of her beloved), further disoriented by being disoriented. She’s forgetting things, letting things slide, finding even the simplest tasks daunting.
For most of us who’ve been through it (or are going through it) widowhood is so out of whatever our norm was. We frequently feel we are going crazy. Over and over, as I have had friends become part of “the club no one wants to join” (now, I am sorry to say, including your friend) I find myself saying, “It’s not insanity, it’s grief.”
I wish someone had been able to say it to me, and to the friends who were trying to help me.
Now — because I am a writer as well as a widow —it is part of my calling to say it to others.
I offer this as her friend (or his… the widow you are comforting may be male or female, though I use the feminine pronoun here).
I was widowed young, almost two decades ago. I was, like most widows, utterly unprepared (my husband’s death was also sudden, which heightened this, but even when it is expected, few widows find themselves prepared for the reality, and its aftermath).
Those of us in the state of widowhood have no choice; we must live through this.
But as the friend of someone widowed, you do have a choice. Two choices.
The first choice is, are you willing and able to accompany your friend at least part of the time as she goes through this? (Many widows discover some of our friends couldn’t handle our grief; they vanished from our lives — sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently).
And the second choice is, if you choose to maintain the friendship, in what way will you walk with your friend?
Something widows tend to talk about only with other widows is the pain sometimes inflicted by presumably well-intended friends. We know you want to help us. We know you don’t know how. But because we don’t know how either, sometimes your wish to help us becomes another burden.
And yet, we know you mean well. We know that were the shoe on the other foot, were you widowed and we not, we might well have made the same unintentional missteps.
This is leaving aside utterly clueless people, people who say things that are devastatingly, disastrously wrong-footed and insensitive. One of the widow-to-widow conversational tropes is “Can you believe someone told me that…” followed by the exact outrage. (Remember, we are skinless for awhile in widowhood. The back off which ordinary stupidities might once have rolled off is temporarily flayed open. So we remember every detail of so-called “thoughtless remarks” for a long time).
For instance, many widows are so shell-shocked they more or less stop eating. The pounds drop off, through no effort of our own. A shocking number of us have heard, “Well, at least you lost some weight.” (Don’t worry, if you were in this category of cluelessness, your friend would not be forwarding this note to you.)
Like your widowed friend, I had good friends who deeply wanted to help me and didn’t know how. I was in no state to tell them. It was tough for all of us.
Since your friend is in the thick of this terrifying, bewildering experience, she isn’t sure that everything I’m saying here is correct. And of course, every widowhood, like every marriage or long-term committed relationship, is different. Some details may not apply in her case.
But I hope this clarifies her general state of being to you, giving you some idea of how specifically, if you still want to, you might help. I’ll also point out some things it would be wiser not to say or do, and what to say or do instead.
Your widowed friend trusted you enough to believe you could handle it this note; that’s why she sent it. That means you are a good friend to her. She thanks you. She is grateful, though she may not be able to express it clearly yet.
And I am grateful too. May this help you, and help you help her.
And, though writer Joan Didion said, in her book The Year of Magical Thinking,“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” maybe, if and when your turn to join the Club comes, perhaps you will be a tiny bit more prepared.
PART TWO: EIGHT THINGS YOUR WIDOWED FRIEND WOULD LIKE YOU TO KNOW
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 her 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 she might not be able to handle being out in public much without getting anxious presently.
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.
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.
No one, on any side of this, knows how to do it 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 our feelings, and instead become compassionate, non-judging witnesses to what we are going through. They thus create a place where we can safely feel our overwhelming emotions, but they, our 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 you always feel when you get your hair done.” “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.”
Besides “fixing” statements, please also watch out for those 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.” 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 so hard, but it’s so natural. ”
“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 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, whatever you’re feeling is 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 that are this intense. No single friend can or should be expected to be “present” all the time. (And she 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, 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 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, away from the house (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 others 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 birdfeeder
- shovel the snow from the driveway
- put gas in the car
- 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 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.
- 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.
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 grave disservice by implying otherwise with her famous stages of grief (here’s why). Too, every marriage, death and grief 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 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. Three posts appear each month, one by a guest contributor… usually, though not always, on Wednesdays.
On the second week of each month, there is a group phone call called The Living Room. Expect kind, compassionate, intelligent discussion, a soft place to rest during the hardest phase of our lives. A refuge.
The format: Generally Crescent speaks briefly, then the call is opened up and we talk together. Some listen, some participate. Some also send in questions and comments online.
The next Living Room call, on April 11, 2018, at 7 pm Eastern, will explore the questions raised in this post: how other people what helped, or didn’t help, us get through grief and loss? What do we wish people knew? How can we as a culture do better at understanding and preparing for grief and loss? Living Room calls are always by optional donation only; you can attend gratis or contribute to this work. Please join us by clicking The Living Room for details and to register.