I came back to work a week and a half after Tim died. My boss was out of the office that day, but messaged me to check in and see how I was doing. He said, “People may act weird around you,” and I remember thinking tell me something I don’t know!
Our society doesn’t really know how to handle someone like me. It’s an unusual circumstance, and people struggle with what to do to comfort someone who has suddenly lost their spouse at a young age because we rarely encounter this problem. I wouldn’t have known what to do if this happened to one of my friends instead of me. Since I have been living it for a while, I’m starting to realize what is and what is not helpful from folks.
Now, before I start this post… know that even if I say something is in the “don’t” list it doesn’t mean I am upset at people for saying that. I realize that everyone wants to help me, and it’s human nature to not know what the “right” thing is. Lord knows I have said the wrong thing to people way too many times to be critical! I’m writing this to help other people in the future, because I know at least one friend googled how to deal with me because she wasn’t sure what to do. 🙂
Do – Reach out even if you haven’t spoken in a long time.
If you find out someone has suffered a terrible loss like this, sending them a note of love & support goes farther than you can imagine. Many messages that helped in the immediate weeks after his death were from people I hadn’t spoken to in years, but they let me know they were thinking of me. My favorite ones were people who remembered something from our past like when we first started dating, and told me that it was obvious how much we loved each other. Hand written cards in the mail were also great, but even a quick Facebook message can cheer someone up.
Don’t – Immediate ask how it happened/where person died/did you get autopsy results?
I was asked all these questions by different people. They are not fun to answer, and honestly shouldn’t be asked. As time progresses and I heal, I am more able to talk about the details surrounding his death. In those first few days though, I basically couldn’t express anything verbally without losing my shit. I’ve already had to give the nitty gritty details to the closest inner circle – please don’t make me repeat it again until I am ready. Quite frankly, most people don’t need to know the answers to those questions.
Do – Offer specific help.
Everyone wanted to help me (and I’m so thankful!) after Tim died, but my brain was not able to process anything properly. Plus, asking for help isn’t one of my strengths. When someone said “What can I do?” my mind would immediately jump to something dramatic like MAKE THIS NOT HAPPEN, MAKE THIS NIGHTMARE STOP, etc. However, you can’t really say that to innocent people trying to help! Whenever someone asked me what they could do, I basically said “nothing” or “I don’t know.” If you can think of something specific, it’s great to offer help that way. “Can I cook you dinner?” “Can I walk your dogs?” “Can I bring something to the memorial?” Those were absolutes where I could think, “No, I have a fridge full of food thank you,” or “Yes, can you watch my dogs while I move?”
Don’t – Ask me how I’m doing in the first few weeks.
Okay, that one sounds terrible I know but hear me out! Everyone wanted to check in, and that’s great. You can’t check in too much. Always check in – it makes me feel less alone. However, I do not really know how I’m doing. If I were to answer that question honestly, it would be a range of Terrible to Serviceably Okay. I’ve settled on “Okay” when people ask me that question, but my southern upbringing has trained me that you always tell someone, “I’m fine, how are you?” as an auto response. Now that more time has passed, this question is easier to answer.
Do – Acknowledge my husband and his life.
A lot of people have avoided this entire sad situation by pretending that Tim never existed. Sometimes I will reference him with a smile around my co-workers, and they get a really uncomfortable look on their face. The reality is that my husband was a huge part of my existence, and even though he is gone from the earth he is not gone from my life. He never will be. When I talk about him with family and friends, it lets me know that other people remember & love him too. Right now, there is nothing more important to me than keeping his memory alive. Avoiding the topic or tip toeing around his memory makes me feel like the world won’t remember him, and that hurts so much. Even if I get emotional sometimes, I need to talk about him with others and relive all those good moments.
Don’t – Compare widowhood to divorce or breaking up.
This has happened more than once. Yes, there are logistic similarities when it comes to separating two lives with shared housing/finances… but that’s pretty much where it ends. I believe someone who has gotten divorce will mourn that loss as well, but a divorce or breakup is a voluntary splitting by at least one party. My split was involuntary. My husband and I loved each other and wanted to stay together, but could not. Also, I will never be able to speak to him face to face again or touch him. Divorces can be awful, messy and hurtful to people but they are not the same as losing someone in this way.
Do – Talk with me about your life and your problems.
Just because I’ve suffered this horrible tragedy does not mean that I’m not interested in what is going on with my friends. After the initial flood of texts and calls, things got pretty radio silent for me minus a handful of people. I still very much want to hear about your annoying boss, your horse training issue, your home shopping or whatever else is happening. Yeah, I’m most likely going to be a bit distracted and spacey but maintaining some normalcy with my friends is a really great distraction from everything else.
Don’t – Be upset if I can’t make it to something you invited me to.
To combat the loneliness, I am trying to attend all the things that I get invited to. Even before this happened, my social life had been suffering from Tim’s depression for a long time… so going out is a welcome thing right now! Still, I am working full time, taking care of 3 dogs and a house on my own and grieving in a very major way. It takes about all my energy to keep my shit together all day long, and sometimes in the evenings I just crash and turn into a puddle. If I end up cancelling on you last minute, please understand. I still want to hang out, but just can’t get out of the house. Please keep inviting me to more things in the future, and as I adjust to my new life things should get better.
There’s no definitive answer on how to treat anyone after something tragic like this has happened, but these are some things that have helped me along the way. I will conclude by saying that even saying the wrong thing to a young widow is better than saying nothing at all.