Right after Shawn died, a colleague of his contacted me. He wanted to express his condolences, but also let me know that his wife was available to talk to me, if I wanted. She had been widowed before they met, and though it had been years, she might be able to help me.
He was right. Though we only spoke once – maybe two weeks after Shawn died – she helped me see that people can recover from loss. She didn’t tell me how to grieve or how to heal, but she showed me a path forward, even though I don’t think she knew that she was doing that.
So what did she say?
I can’t really remember. But I’ve thought about it a lot because at least a few times a month, I get a call or a text or an email from someone who wants me to talk to their friend/cousin/coworker who just lost their spouse. What do you say to someone who has just become a widow?
To be honest, I have no idea.
You’d think I would know! I mean, I lost my mom at 19 and my husband at 38, and I’ve written over 500 blog posts about widowhood. I have a great widow group and I talk to new widows constantly. And yet, when it comes to the question of what to say to a new widow, I draw a blank.
The problem is that it’s so dependent on the individual. Some widows want to talk extensively about their late partner, the illness or tragic event, and their grief. Others would rather have quiet support. Some are geographically isolated, some are parenting a handful of young kids, some are unemployed, and some have a variety of other immediate issues that make dealing with their grief even more difficult. Knowing what to say to everyone can be very difficult.
So with that caveat, I’ll offer a few ideas for what to say to a new widow. They may not work for everyone. But here are a few things that have worked for me.
First, almost all new widows feel overwhelmed. I’ve met hundreds of widows at this point, and in the immediate weeks and months following their partner’s death all of them were overwhelmed by not just their grief, but also the logistics of being a widow. Everything – from changing the water bill to their name to figuring out how to parent alone to merely doing all the things daily life requires – can seem like too much. I think this is why people drop off food for grieving friends and family. That’s a great idea, but there is so much else you can do. Can you offer to help with laundry or childcare or taking the car to the shop? But maybe the best thing anyone did for me is what Becky and Michelle did: they formed a support team and took charge. They filtered my needs out to those who could help and made it possible for others to reach out to me in an appropriate way. And in those times when I needed a break from the world, I just had to text them and everyone would leave me alone that day.
But apart from what you can do, there’s also the question of what to say. “Of course you feel overwhelmed,” always felt kind and empathetic and I’ve used it with other people I know. Because it’s true! And then you can follow up that statement with, “your friends/family/coworkers and I are all going to figure out the best ways to communicate so we can help you out right now. We’ll have your sister/best friend make sure to let us know what your needs are.” Make the widow feel loved and hopefully a little less overwhelmed.
Second, almost all new widows feel judged by someone. To be fair, they probably are judged by some people! But often the biggest judgement comes from within. This means that widows can be extra sensitive to offhand comments about relationships, financial stability, marriage, parenting, etc. I remember one time a few months after Shawn died when I was with a group of friends. The only man there said something about wishing there were other husbands to hang out with. He was joking, and didn’t mean anything by it, but I took it as a slight. What was I supposed to do about it since my husband was dead?
Widows aren’t fragile like glass all the time, but I think it’s helpful to remember how judged a widow can feel. It might be real or imagined, but the emotional component is the same. I think reminding a new widow of the victories she’s having, however small, can be helpful. Here’s an example: “I know it seems small, but it’s pretty incredible that you took your kids to the pool by yourself this weekend. I think you have to give yourself more credit for that!” I also think it’s important to remind yourself to be a bit more careful with any questions you have or comments you might make. Widows want to feel like their friendships are still the same, but when situations change, we sometimes have to all be a little more sensitive. This may also mean checking in with a new widow if it seems like those around her are saying things that are a little tone-deaf.
Third, almost all new widows are unable to really imagine that they won’t feel this way forever. I mean, sometimes other widows actually said to me, “the pain never gets better”. Um….don’t say that. If you have firsthand experience, I think it can be helpful to say, “it was hard for me in the beginning, but the pain did ease over time” or something similar. But if you can’t exactly relate, you can still remind a widow that all she has to do is get through this day, and that things never stay the same. Change is something she can count on, even if you don’t know what kind of change.
Right after loss, it may seem impossible to feel any joy. In fact, I think it’s helpful to say that it’s okay to not feel any joy in the beginning. But, I think it’s also okay to say, “you will feel joy again, because I know you. And when you do, you can just be happy. You don’t have to explain it to me or anyone. I might not know exactly how this pain is for you, but I know you. And I know joy will come for you again, bit by bit.”
That’s not blind optimism. That’s real. Joy does come again, even for the hardest grieving widow. It might not be a promotion or a new love, but rather some early spring bulbs, poking up from the soil, that make you smile one morning.