*at least not for me
People say all sorts of crazy things to new widows. Some of it is platitudes (I’m thinking of you in this terrible time”), some of it is comforting (“remember that hilarious story your husband used to tell?”), and some of it is tough-love truth (“yes, your husband is gone, so let’s make sure your health insurance covers the kids”). I think it’s really hard to know what to say – I know I have screwed up when talking to new widows, even though I am a widow myself! So I try not to judge when people say things that are mildly insensitive or off-key. For the most part, everyone is just trying to say something that might be comforting or useful.
But today’s post is not about what people say that is uncomfortable or useless. It’s about what people say that isn’t actually true.
What might those things be? Well, there are many. But here are three things that people said to me that just weren’t true, at least not for me! Here they are, in no particular order:
- “Don’t make any big decisions in the first year, as you’re still so vulnerable.” UGH. First of all, I hate this one because – as with all of these statements – there’s a kernel of truth in there. Of course you’re vulnerable! But damn, that doesn’t mean you can’t think. While I would counsel against certain life changes for certain situations (ones that could make you homeless or harm your family in some way) I know a lot of widows who made good major life decisions in the first year. Many of my closest widow friends moved that first year, and all (yes, all!) have been happy with that decision. They needed a clean start, a new place to make memories, a space that wasn’t so filled with death. Some of my widow friends fell in love, and are happy to this day. Other widow friends decided to take new jobs, and found that they could do something they had previously thought was out-of-reach. I mean, I don’t know what’s right for every widow, but it’s not always a bad decision to take risks that first year of widowhood. If that means you find yourself away from your accounting job in Iowa, and instead teaching English in a tiny town in Vietnam, well, maybe that’s a good thing!
- “Of course you’re bereft. You lost your soulmate!” Okay, this one always rubbed me the wrong way. First, I don’t believe in soulmates (and I wrote a whole blog post on this) but that’s beside the point. What this statement says to a young widow is “you’re never going to find love again.” Soulmate, by definition, implies a once-in-this-lifetime love. So, let’s say your husband dies when you’re 38….what does that mean for your next 50 years? That you’ll be alone? That you’ll never find happiness again? That your next love will be second place? Let me say this: your second love might be out there – one that is different but just as wonderful as your first love. Telling a new widow that she “lost her soulmate” even if she believes her late partner was her soulmate still communicates that you believe she’ll never, ever find happiness again. And I just don’t think that’s true for most people.
- “It’s been four years since my husband died, and the pain is still the same.” Why do people say things like this? This was something other widows commonly said to me in the early days of loss. I think they meant to validate my pain, but – wow – this is basically the least comforting thing you can say! The pain never gets better? How is that even possible? Here’s the thing: that’s just not how grief normally works. Are there people who hurt the same 4 years after loss as they did 4 days after loss? Sure. But is that common? No! Not at all. And not only is it not common, it’s also likely not true for the people who said this to me. Were they collapsing on their bathroom shower floor every night four years after losing their spouse? No. Were they unable to do normal tasks like eat breakfast and feed the dog? No. Were they crying at every single moment – in the grocery store, waiting at the pharmacy, in the sandbox at the playground? No. The thing is, the grief may remain after many years, but it changes to something much more manageable for all but a tiny group of people. It does get better.
So what would I say instead, now with the beauty of hindsight? Here’s what’s better than saying each of the statements above, in my humble opinion:
- “I am here for you as you make a lot of hard decisions. I know you’re going to do the best you can for you and your family, and I will support you.”
- “Of course you’re bereft! Losing a partner is a pain that is deep and horrible. I’m sure you’ll feel many different emotions, and all of them are valid. Please know that you can always talk or vent to me.”
- “It’s been four years since my husband died, and though the grief is never absent, it does change. It will get easier. For now, be gentle with yourself.”
It’s never easy to know what to say to a new widow, but at the very least, I think we should stick to what is true. Things are already hard enough when you’re staring into the rest of your life without your partner by your side. More than anything, it can feel really lonely.
So maybe one more thing we need to tell new widows is this: “you’re not alone.”