What To Say (Or Not Say) to a Young Widow
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.
24 thoughts on “What To Say (Or Not Say) to a Young Widow”
Thank you for the helpful guide… I think this is good advice for ANYONE who has suffered such a major loss, regardless of their age or the situation.
I was thinking the same thing. I always feel awkward in these situations, which I know is perfectly fine, but it’s still awkward! But, this was great and made me think more along the lines of, how would I want people to approach me in this situation.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Ditto here. Grief is such a personal thing. I’ve met people that didn’t want to have the loved one mentioned at all, which always makes it awkward when someone I know has lost a loved one. A person I admire very much, who is also young, had a miscarriage last year and she asked that no one bring it up. She lost her husband last month in a very similar way to how you lost Tim, and it has been difficult knowing what to say to show that I care.
Thank you for sharing this, Lauren.
Also, I startled when I saw the pics of El Morro and the Old San Juan cemetery, and then remembered that you and Tim had gone there. <3
Thanks for this. I have another young friend that lost her husband this year too. We weren’t overly close before and I’m struggling with how to help/support her now. I want to be there for her but don’t want to force my way in. Your advice is great. Excuse me… I’ve got a phone call to make. Hugs to you!
I am totally the kind of person who would google what to do/not to do about something like this – so thank you for taking the time to write it! I for one never have any idea of what to say to people going through rough times, so generally I just keep silent (I figure better to say nothing at all than to say something potentially upsetting) which I know isn’t the greatest. Definitely good insight here that I hopefully will never have to use again, but can keep it in the back of my mind!
Thank you for this. A good friend of mine lost her husband (to cancer) about 5 years ago. I wish I had this to read back then, I know it will help others.
Thanks for sharing Lauren. What a great insight to share and like others said- I bet this can transcend a cross ages.
As always, I admire you so!
Thank you, thank you, thank you for expressing this. I am awkward in all situations at best, so it is good to have some guidelines to help someone I really care about without hurting them even more. I know I am super sensitive, and sometimes I still cry about the loss of my grandpa, and people just don’t know what to say or do. And I don’t know what to tell them.
This is so very helpful. Thank you!
It’s a hard balance to try to stay socially active but also take care of all the things you need to do.
Thank you so much for this. You continue to be in my thoughts.
Was there anything particularly useful (or not) that folks have been able to do for you long-distance?
This is something I struggle with when friends are in bad spots. My instinct is to handle logistics (food! critter care! gas in the car! calm uninvolved party for all manner of irritating chores!) but I tend to find myself at a loss for making that kind of thing happen when not physically present.
That’s a really good question. I got a few packages that really made me smile, like dog treats & horse treats. It doesn’t have to be expensive to brighten someone’s day. Flowers were also really nice, especially not RIGHT at the time of death since the house got pretty full and they all died around the same time.
Non-monetary things that are helpful are offering to do research on something. There are a lot of logistics, so even something as grim as looking up positive yelp reviews for funeral homes or estate lawyers can be really helpful.
Lauren, you are just so articulate, and I think this advice will help even more people than you ever realize. Thank you.
This is an excellent post. Thank you for writing it.
I know I’ve said this before, but your honesty is so refreshing and genuine. This is topic that is so difficult to discuss and I know I will definitely be using these techniques in the future… although hopefully not to may young windows. Never-the-less, thank you for your honesty <3
Thank you for this post! When it comes to BIG, life changing events, you do find yourself in an often awkward position on either side. What do I say? or I can’t believe s/he said that! This goes for Marriage, Divorce, Birth, Death and just about everything in between….
You do truly find out who your friends are. Those who stick with you thru all of it and those who have backed into the shadows for whatever reasons. There are also those who really DON’T need to know all of the details, but ask anyways. And when faced with questions like this, you are certainly within your rights to reply, “I just don’t feel like talking about it right now.” I have had to say this to several different people on several different occasions. It works and you don’t ever have to give a reason for the way you feel.
great post! like others have said – our society is generally uncomfortable acknowledging death and loss in any form. and lots of people fumble purely bc they’re so worried about fumbling and saying the wrong thing — a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. but these are excellent points – and just a nice reminder to be kind
I thought this was a wonderfully written guide and was so, so true & is a good guideline for ANYONE suffering a major loss. For example, when I lost Bunny (obviously not the same level of tragedy as yours), I had no idea what to do, or say to people. You responding back as, “I’m fine, how are you?” is exactly the same as what I did. I had one friend though, that still sends me a note every once in awhile, among other conversations, gently reminding me that she remembers what i’m going through. It helps. Just that small few words to remind me, that i’m not alone in all of this. I think too, when people haven’t gone through something really tough, it’s hard. I remember when that same friend lost her father suddenly, I didn’t know how to be there or what to do – just desperately knew I wanted to be. It’s nice to hear someone lay it out on the line, so that in the future we can help, and be supportive, but in a way those that are grieving need and can appreciate at that moment.
So much of what you have written since Tim’s death has been poetic and beautiful and sad and emotional and deeply moving. But I think above all of them, this post may be the one that helps people who suffer through something like this the most. There is not a lot of helpful info on a situation like this (there’s no play book for any of us), and well-meaning people do and say the wrong things a lot, and we could all do better. A lot of the things on this list are good advice for being a friend in general, too. So proud that I can call you a friend, even if we haven’t ever met in real life.
So well written and great advice!
This is a very helpful post. Thank you for writing it.
I wanted to add something which applies to sibling loss. After some time has passed, do ask the living sibling how he or she is doing. People always asked how my parents were doing and almost never asked about me. It was very isolating, even is the askers were well intentioned.