“I’m sorry I never said anything when your husband died. I didn’t know what to say.“
I have lost count of the number of times that someone said this to me – sometimes it was a fellow teacher at school or sometimes it was a neighbor or another acquaintance. When I hear those words, I always say something back like, “you’re saying something now, and I appreciate that,” which is true.
It’s the worst kind of silence if those in your world don’t acknowledge the loss of your partner. That’s crushing. But the thing is, this isn’t the only kind of silence that a widow faces – it’s merely the first. There are so many other times when a widow thinks, “why isn’t anyone talking to me about X?” (why won’t anyone ask how you are doing at work or balancing your home life or whatever else?) Yes, being a widow often means facing more silence on a host of issues, maybe because others are trying to be polite or maybe because they just don’t know what to say. It’s just part of life as a widow, I guess, and sometimes it’s easy to brush off. But not always. Sometimes it’s really hard to brush off a deafening silence – particularly when that silence is about a more touchy subject.
What touchy subject might that be? Yes, it’s dating.
In fact, probably the worst silence I encountered was around dating. Because you know who’s going to ask you if you’ve thought about dating after your 40-year-old husband dies?
Well, maybe your sister. Maybe. But really, everyone else is going to avoid this topic forever unless you introduce it first, and frequently.
Listen, I’m not saying that you should tell a grieving widow at her husband’s funeral, “you’ll find someone else” because that’s beyond insensitive. (I know this seems insane but most young widows have a story like this!) But I am saying that as time goes on, it starts to seem strange if no one brings it up at all.
I know that it’s delicate territory. I wasn’t ready to date at all for the first six months after Shawn died and it took many months after that before I felt like I could really try again. If someone had tried to set me up in the early months, I might have had some choice words for them.
But, eventually, the silence starts to feel like judgement. You might be thinking about dating, but how can you bring it up if no one around you is dating or talking about dating? Do they think it’s disrespectful to your late husband? Do they think it’s crazy that a woman with young kids would date so soon after her husband’s death? What is “soon” anyway? Will there ever be a time when it’s socially acceptable? Is everyone watching you? (God, it feels that way.)
I get that most people are not trying to judge. Most people are trying to be thoughtful – and they think it means not bringing it up. And that’s correct to do for a while, and maybe for forever, depending on the relationship you have.
So how can someone know what to do with their newly widowed friend?
Honestly, when some time has passed (I don’t know how much! Use your best judgement of your friend and the situation!), I might say something like this:
I know you loved your late partner so much, so I want you to know I respect that first and foremost. But I also want you to know that if there comes a time – now or in the future – when you want to date again, you have my full support.
There were a few people who said things like this to me, and it was immensely helpful. Those who didn’t say anything thought they were being respectful, and I get that.
But ultimately, their silence said something else to me. It said, loud and clear, that they were not comfortable with this aspect of my life. That may or may not have been true, but that’s how it made me feel.
It’s not easy to do, and you have to read each person’s situation. But I’ll say this: silence isn’t neutral.
Silence speaks volumes.
This is a topic that most of my friends and family would not discuss with me. And like you said, the silence feels like they are silently judging us. People that have known us as a couple with our late spouse often do not even want to approach the topic of dating. My friends and family immediately change the topic whenever I bring up dating. I truly feel that this is also about sex. Widows are not ‘born again virgins’. I was told to concentrate on raising my children and not worry about dating and men. Are people perhaps uncomfortable with the thought that we need intimacy and love? It often seems that way. The desire to be touched and loved does not magically get erased when your spouse dies. Being widowed at a young age is really really difficult because you are trying to balance the love for your late spouse, their legacy as well as your own future and your desire to be loved again.
Ugh. I mean, what’s with the purity thing and widowhood? There’s such a STRANGE aspect of widowhood where some people see widows as people who’d never want sex/a partner again! It’s crazy.
Thanks so much for this, Marjorie. When the time is right down the road, this gives me an idea of what I might say to my best friend’s (very young) widower. I wonder if part of it is people feeling sad at what the person who has passed away is missing and not knowing how to really voice it all so they just (wrongly) stay quiet? I am SO sad knowing my friend will not get to see her child grow up, will not get to do all the things she wanted to do with her husband. Every time I think about it, every time her husband texts me a picture of their baby and I think of what she’s missing and will continue to miss, it breaks my heart. BUT that sadness is entirely separate from my feeling and hope that her husband SHOULD find someone to make him happy again, if that is what he wants too. My friend would want that for him too, I know she would.
Good for you! I think so much of what you say to a widow is dependent on your relationship, so if you are close, it’s even better coming from you – whenever it seems like the time is right. You may not know what that time is, but you will have some sort of sense, and you’ll have to take a risk. If he says “I’m not ready!” then you’ll know you need to wait a while to bring it up again 😉
Good luck. Thank you for being there for someone who you love and is hurting.
Dating, friends and kids…. so complicated after one loses their life long partner. It’s difficult enough to get over the fear of starting a new intimate relationship, but even harder to help others get there too. I know I am not the only one that lost Shaila, my wife of 34 years who I met in college, but I so wish my friends would fully support me and giving my relationship the support it needs to thrive. Perhaps it is COVID, but this obstacle is daunting for me!
I wish you felt full support from your family and friends! I do acknowledge that it’s hard for others to see how their small comments or lack of interest can really sting when you’re trying to date after loss. But still – I wish that you could get that support….I wish that everyone could! I do think that this covid time period makes everything harder. Hang in there!