Perhaps because my late husband was a pastor, some people thought they were helpful after Tom’s death to tell me, “God needed another angel in heaven.” (Wrong! I needed that angel beside me, not gone away.) Or they said, “I know exactly how you feel. My grandpa died this year.” (Definitely not the same.)
I wish they would have said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through now. Would you like to tell me about it? I’m a good listener.”
Clichés aren’t helpful or comforting to a widow without her husband, her partner, the love of her life. Here are several more phrases to avoid when talking with a new widow, along with suggested alternatives.
People often try consolations such as, “He’s in a better place now.” This phrase makes assumptions – about life, death, and the widow’s viewpoint. It might not fit the widow’s spiritual beliefs. Don’t cause additional distress. Just avoid this sentiment.
Instead, talk to the widow about her husband. Share memories of him, tell a story about a time you spent with him, or an important value he cherished – such as caring deeply for his family.
Keep his memory alive. Even though her husband is dead, she will continue to be in this new and changed relationship with him for a long time; maybe even forever.
Attributing death to God’s plan can be upsetting or offensive. First, you may make an incorrect assumption about a woman’s beliefs and religion. Additionally, a widow may even question her own faith after her spouse’s death.
Although your sentiment may be heartfelt, avoid these platitudes to sidestep an uncomfortable or hurtful situation for the widow.
Instead, say, “It’s hard to understand why death happens. None of us know the answers. But I want you to know I’m here to help make this difficult time easier for you if I can.”
Every person, marriage, and experience with death is unique. You cannot understand exactly what a widow is experiencing, and it isn’t productive or soothing to tell her you know her circumstances.
Instead, say, “It’s normal for you to feel confused, angry, or stressed.” By recognizing her feelings and reassuring your widowed friend or family member that her emotions are valid, expected, and normal, you may calm some part of her distress.
A widow’s flood of emotions can be overwhelming. Reassuring her that her state of mind is part of a larger grieving process can give her hope that she will pass beyond her current deep stage of grief.
The pain of losing a spouse is immeasurable, and the prospect of sharing that intimacy with a new person can be upsetting, frightening, or heartbreaking. Talking about future relationships is not a good approach, and although some may think it could cheer up a grieving widow, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.
Instead, focus on the important friendships the widow enjoys in her life. Her current network provides the solid, uncomplicated support she needs.
“You are fortunate to have many good friends. Their support will help you through this difficult time. Take them up on offers to help, get together for lunch or coffee, or go for a walk. They want to be there for you, like you would be for them.”
Early on, the widow is just getting by – hour to hour at first, gradually making it through an entire day. Whatever might be in the future is impossible for her to visualize soon after her husband’s death. The love, joy, and happiness are gone, and she doesn’t have a clue how she can be stronger in the future.
Instead, talk about how death isn’t fair when it comes. “It’s really so difficult now because you loved your husband dearly during his lifetime. Yes, your relationship is certainly quite different now that he has passed, and I know your love for him will always last.”
Although your intention is heartfelt and sounds caring, don’t put the burden on the widow to reach out to you. She already has much on her mind and may not be thinking clearly at first.
This statement is also very open and nonspecific. She’s probably in an emotional fog and may not even know what help she needs from you. She also might feel uncomfortable asking for assistance. It could be hard for her to pick up the phone to call.
Instead, say, “I’ll contact you on Thursday so we can schedule time to catch up over a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea soon.” Do the widow a favor by suggesting a date and time. When you make the call, be sensitive to her emotional state.
Make sure she’s comfortable with setting a time and place to talk. If you can, offer to help with activities that seem overwhelming. For example, you might offer to accompany a newly widowed friend on a trip to her estate attorney’s office if that’s helpful.
Regardless of what you say to a widow, it’s most important to say something. Acknowledge that her spouse is dead. Don’t avoid the topic. Talk about something you admired about her husband, or how you enjoyed sharing conversations or an activity together.
People often sidestep the topic of death altogether which can be hurtful to those who are grieving. Your words and expressions are critical to show that you care and are supportive in her grief. And use his name in your conversations. Widows don’t want the world to forget their late husband.
What statements have you heard conveyed to new widows? Which of them do you think have the opposite of the desired effect? Do you have any practical tips to share? Please do so in the comments below.