Whether it comes unexpectedly or after a long illness, losing a spouse is traumatic at best. At worst it can be debilitating. I know because, at age 35, I became a widow myself.
While many people want to help, it can be difficult to know how to approach someone consumed by such overwhelming grief. And unfortunately, the result is many people end up feeling paralyzed and offer no help at all.
If you’re struggling with how to help a newly widowed friend, here are 10 suggestions.
When tragedy hits, people tend to show up with casseroles, cookies and other edibles. That can be a perfect response. It is particularly good if your friend has kids or grandkids in the house to feed. However, good intentions can quickly overwhelm a grieving family if they receive multiple meals in a single day.
Try a website such as TakeThemAMeal or SignUpGenius to coordinate with other family and friends. Not only does this ensure your friend is getting one meal a day, but it helps avoid duplicates of the same meal within a week.
It’s not unusual for someone in mourning to struggle with even basic tasks. Help your friend by cleaning the house or weeding the garden. Alternatively, arrange for a handyman to come in and take care of all the items that formerly may have landed on her honey-do list. Again, sites like SignUpGenius and CareCalendar can help a group of friends coordinate on these tasks.
Here’s the catch. If you ask your friend whether she wants help, she could say no even if she really is floundering. “We’re doing ok but thanks” was my standard response when someone asked if they could do something for us. That was one-part pride talking, one-part denial.
Plus, people in the thick of grief often have no idea what they need. They are in shock and can barely get out of bed in the morning. They cannot articulate how someone can make their life better. To help them out, try not to say, “What can I do to help?” Instead try, “I’d like to come over on Saturday afternoon to weed your garden. Is that ok?”
This phrasing makes it easy for your friend to accept while still giving her the opportunity to decline if she really wants to be alone.
Death leaves us feeling helpless, and everything we say seems woefully inadequate. If you don’t know what to say on the phone or in person, send your friend a card. Every card I received after my husband’s death was a comfort. They reminded me other people cared and hadn’t forgotten about me.
Skip platitudes about it being God’s will or that he’s in a better place. Those things may be true, depending on your beliefs, but they are not comforting. Instead, say you’re sorry and then follow up with a sentence or two about your friend’s spouse. For example, say, “I’ll always remember when ________” or “I loved how he ________.” He was important to her, she wants to hear he was important to others too.
Along those same lines, don’t make your friend’s spouse a taboo subject. Too many people seem to want to bury all mention of the deceased. And I get that. People are concerned about upsetting a widow or aren’t sure what they would do if she started crying.
It’s awkward for us too. However, it’s even worse to think everyone has moved on with their lives and forgotten our husbands. Don’t be afraid to mention his name and point out things he’d love or happy memories you have of him. If your friend starts crying, say I’m sorry and that you miss him too. Don’t feel like you have to fill the space with any more than that.
At a certain point, everyone else’s life does go on. That’s to be expected, but don’t forget that your friend is still grieving. There is no expiration date on her pain.
Milestone dates like birthdays, anniversaries and the date of a spouse’s death can be especially difficult. Make a note of these dates in your calendar and when the day arrives, reach out to your friend with a card, call or text. Let her know you haven’t forgotten and that you’re thinking about her.
If your friend is caring for kids or grandkids, find an opportunity to take them out for the day. A couple of my friends did just that, and it gave my kids a welcome distraction while providing me with some much-needed time alone at the house.
To make it easy for your friend to accept your offer, don’t make it sound like you’re going out of your way to make the invitation. It’s not that she would be ungrateful, but widows can be reluctant to accept help if they feel like they’re being a burden on others.
It’s easier to say yes to something like “We’re planning to see a movie and wondered if the kids would like to come along” rather than “Let us take the kids off your hands for a day.”
Invite your friend to coffee, lunch or a movie. Or anything else you would have done together prior to her husband’s death. Becoming a widow can be an isolating experience. People don’t always know what to say so they say nothing at all. Don’t avoid your friend but continue to include her in activities as you did in the past.
Sometimes your friend really might want to be alone, or the thought of doing an activity that she used to do with her spouse may be overwhelming. Even if she declines a few times, keep asking, she will appreciate the thought that you haven’t forgotten about her and will say yes when she is ready.
This is a tough one because there is a fine line between compassion and pity. While I can’t speak for all widows, I must say that I hit a point where it seemed like everyone looked at me with sad eyes and gave the verbal equivalent of “oh, you poor thing.” It was tiring to feel like I had somehow become defined solely by my circumstances.
The first time you see a new widow, please by all means share your deep sorrow for her loss. But don’t dwell on it for each subsequent conversation. Hearing “I don’t know how you do it” over and over again is a good way for your friend to start wondering: how does she do it? Have normal conversations with her.
Everyone grieves differently. Some widows want to be surrounded by others; they want to talk about their husbands to anyone and everyone. Others prefer to stay home alone and process this loss on their own. How people deal with loss changes as time goes on.
So don’t take it personally when your friend declines your invitations or offers for help. And don’t badger her into accepting either. The compassionate thing to do is to reach out every couple of weeks to let her know you’re thinking about her. Tell her that you’d love to see her when she’s ready.
Are you a widow? What’s the best thing someone did for you after your spouse died? Please share your story.