“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.