Ask a Widow
Every few weeks, I get a panicked email or call from a friend or acquaintance or stranger from the internet. “I don’t know what to do,” the person tells me, “my friend/sister/neighbor/colleague just lost her partner, and now she’s a widow. How can I help her?”
I always ask more questions before I answer. Because, really, it depends. If this is your best friend, there are lots of things you can do. You can offer to help her deal with the funeral arrangements or stay overnight with her so she doesn’t have to be alone. But if she’s not a close friend, you may need to figure out another way to be helpful. Call her up when it’s been a month or two, and offer to bring groceries, or tell her you’ll take her kid to soccer with your kid, as you’re going anyway.
There are a million ways to help, so when I get a question like this, I try and figure out what the best answer is given the situation. Do you know whose emotions I always consider first? The widow.
Yes, it’s important to think about the kids and other family members. But what I know is the perspective of the widow. I know what it’s like to be her, at least a little bit, even if our lives are very different. I know what things can often change between the funeral and the six month anniversary. I know what it’s like to live through your first wedding anniversary without your spouse. I remember what emotions can fill your body when you wake from a dream and reach for the person on the other side of the bed, and he’s not there.
No, I don’t know everyone’s experience. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your house (though I do know what it’s like to have absolutely no idea how to manage your finances) and I don’t know what it’s like to find love again (though I do know what it’s like to try.) I am not an all-knowing widow.
But I am a widow who has survived almost two years of this new life, and somehow, I can (imperfectly) answer questions about grief and loss and love, both for widows and non-widows.
And I have a platform.
So today, friends, I am going to try something new out. I’m going to start answering your questions. If you are a widow who is struggling with something, write me. If you are a friend of a widow who doesn’t know how to help, ask me. If you are a therapist who has a unique perspective, please let me know. If you are not a widow, but someone who has lost someone, I’d love to hear from you too.
I guess what I’m trying to do is to make a “Dear Abby” column for those of us who are grieving, and particularly those of us grieving the loss of a spouse. I am not a therapist, and I really can’t solve many of the problems widows face. But what I can offer is the perspective of someone who has lived life as a young widow and listened to countless stories from other people. I’ve already answered many, many emails and sat through many, many discussions about grief and loss. Now, I am opening up that discussion for my readers.
So, if you’d like to write me, you can do so via my blog (publicly in the comments section) or you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact me via private message on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/dcwidowblog/ Or, if you know me in person, you can pull me aside at the elementary school picnic and ask. Hey, I’m open to whatever form this takes.
I’ll keep the questions anonymous and your identity confidential.
What do you want to know about how to help your grieving friend? What sorts of things are you facing as a young widow, and how are you trying to navigate those issues? What unique issues do you face as a parent and a widow? How are you negotiating a new living situation, a new workplace, or a new city while you are also grieving?
I’m sure there will be many questions I don’t know how to answer. But for those I can, I’ll do my best.
The last time someone called me to ask for advice about how to help a close friend who was a newly bereaved widow, I said many things but ended with this: “Your job right now is to follow the lead of the widow. If she wants to do paperwork and organize the house and stay busy, then bring your computer and your disinfectant. If she wants to lay in bed, then figure out how to download movies on your iPad and spend a few days doing just that. I don’t know what she needs, exactly, but you can take your cues from her. In fact, she may not know exactly what she wants. But hopefully you’ll be able to feel the pace at which she wants to move through the world, and you can follow suit.”
It’s not perfect advice, but the caller thanked me. It was enough to help her begin to support her widowed friend.
I’ll run this new “column” a few times a month. I’m going to call it, “Ask a Widow.” It’s my effort to try and reach outside myself and connect with others’ experiences. It’s also my effort to raise awareness about the difficult things that many widows (and other grievers) experience.
But more than anything, it’s my newest effort to make meaning of my experience.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.
One action fits virtually all circumstances; First thing, give the widow a long hug.
That’s sweet! And usually true, though I do know people who don’t want a long hug too. But everyone wants others to reach out, that’s for sure!
I think it depends on how long you’ve known the person who’s doing the hugging. Personally, I would welcome it from someone I’ve known for some time or who knew my husband well. However, I’ve been pulled into a hug by someone I just met and found it a little awkward and didn’t quite know how to respond. Personal space can be tricky to navigate even in the best of situations.
That is so sweet and so kind. Truly a wonderful way to share your experience, and at the same time help others who desperately need it. I know several women who are widows and I know from time to time, I may have questions. Thank you so much for offering your help.
I hope it will be helpful! I’m working on the first post now, and will probably put it out Friday. Here goes!
I have one question for the “ask a widow” section.
Namely, how you deal with becoming an advocate for this unfortunate topic of widowhood? Do you feel like this is the thing that you are supposed to do in this world or is it just something you stumbled upon? Have you ever wondered if this is your calling and your fight?
Do you compare yourself to these people… you know, those who have this one problem, and they seem to live only to raise awareness of this one thing? Their facebook feeds, blogs and activities seem to revolve around this, offering endless explanations and pictures and fundraisers (and passive-aggressive memes), whether it is diabetes or rape or narcissists or… well, being a widow.
I am asking because I’m a widow and I have been asked if I want to write about my experience and how I think people should communicate to widows. And I’ve said “no” because I don’t want to become that person. And meantime I absolutely hate how widows are treated and how people do not know how to talk to them and you know, all the annoying and hurtful things. But I feel it is not my fight.
Do you ever think about these things? How did you decide?
Sure – I think this is a great question! I may try and figure out how to answer it in a post, but the short answer is this: I want to have a voice. I don’t think I really have any answers, but I also want to be someone who talks about the realities of young widowhood. Sure, I think there can be an overreach that anyone can do, but luckily I have a lot of other things to focus on when I’m not writing (like my students and my children) so I don’t find it a burden to talk about widowhood. I feel lucky that really anyone will listen!
If you could give one piece of advice and maybe one sentiment of hope to a recent widow, what would it be? My husband died in a accident 2 months ago. We have a 9 and 7 year old. We were like you very happily married and just living life. My children and I were completely shattered overnight. We do have a lot of support but I am so desperately sad and scared of the future. I just can’t imagine how to move forward. We are all seeing a therapist but I want to know is there something you wish you could go back and tell yourself in those early months? Your blog has meant a lot to me these last weeks. It helps me feel less alone.
I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s death. It’s awful. My heart goes out to you.
Gosh, it’s hard to pinpoint one piece of advice (though I am currently working on a piece about what I might say to my earlier widow self) but what I can say is this: IT GETS EASIER. It’s not linear, and some days will be worse even when things are seemingly getting better, but the overall trajectory does get better. And since you have kids, I’ll say this – kids are resilient. It’s obviously hard for them but they also have the ability to (usually) keep living their lives with some degree of happiness.
Therapy is useful, but it’s not a cure-all, as I’m sure you already know. The only thing that helped me was just focusing on getting through each day. If I tried to think beyond the day or week, it felt too overwhelming. But one day? I could do one day. And then another day. And then the days added up to weeks and months and eventually years. And over that time, I felt better.
YOU CAN DO THIS. It is hard and can feel impossible, but you don’t have to figure out how to move forward right now. You just have to make it through today, and then tomorrow.
I am dating a widow for the last 2 years.
She has told me that she has never dealt with her husbands death, and she doesn’t know
who she is anymore. And she wants distance from me until she finds this out.
Can someone please give me advice on how to handle this situation.
*Editor’s note: this comment has been edited to take out personal information