In recent conversations with about 50 women who were widowed suddenly, I asked, “What do you wish you had known?” One of the most common answers was, “That the people who said they would be there for me would, in fact, not be there for me.”
At the time of the loss, good intentions abound, and in trying to come up with the “right” words, empty promises are often made.
When I suddenly lost my husband, I realized that the truly grief-savvy people in my life did not search for words at all, because they knew that words fail. Lucky for me, I had a supportive village around me; people who said they would be there and were (and still are, seven years later).
My small-town country neighbors have helped me bury a canine companion, fix sprinklers, learn to weld and doctor my horses, to name a few. Other times, a silent hug was what I needed most.
One friend, who I would see at church on Sundays, would regularly scoop me up in a bear hug and whisper in my ear, “Don’t you quit. You just keep going.” It was an order delivered at the exact time that I was wondering if I could do this life without my husband, and if so, whether I wanted to.
When a person is widowed, there are likely a number of tasks the deceased spouse carried out that the widow may not know how to do. The learning curve for any new task is steep when one is in the darkness of grief – it will likely be many months before new tasks can be mastered.
At the very moment a widow loses half of her world, she gains double the responsibility. Finances, solo-parenting for younger widows, childcare, maintenance, decision making – all need immediate attention from the person who is grieving the most.
The following are ways in which we can actively support widows who are figuring out their life after loss.
Keep the meal train going at a frequency that makes sense for the widow’s way of life. Cooking for one less person is a learning curve of its own and the alternative is to not bother and therefore not eat at all or eat unhealthy foods.
Widows often experience incredibly low energy levels, and the simple act of chewing requires more energy than they have in store. Consider preparing soups or other soft foods. Or find out what she likes the most and prepare that. Offer to bring take-out or accompany her to a favorite restaurant.
Maintenance and repairs might be stacking up. A friend’s church family includes a group of men who volunteer as handymen for various household repairs. They serve widows and others in need. My friend was a grateful beneficiary of their services. If you’re handy, ask for a list of what needs to be done.
The yard can be a big task. An anonymous neighbor of mine twice cleaned up the weeds on my property and hauled them away. My prime suspect denied it, but I still don’t believe him. If you feel comfortable, drive by and note what needs to be done and then simply show up and do it.
Firewood also appeared in my barn – another random and anonymous act of kindness. These neighbors saw what wasn’t being done and simply showed up and did it.
If a widow has young children, offer to watch the kids occasionally or better yet, on a regular basis. This will give her time to cry alone, go to grief counseling, or do whatever is most needed. Consider arranging a group of people who are willing to help with childcare on a rotating schedule.
Special days such as birthdays and anniversaries are tough days for widows. Make a note of the widow’s birthday, that of her spouse, their wedding anniversary, the anniversary of his passing, and any other significant dates.
Send a text message or give the widow a call on those days so she’s aware that she’s not alone in remembering.
The standard list of holidays also carry their own heaviness for someone who is grieving because each holiday holds memories of their loved one and cherished traditions. Again, let the person know you’re thinking of them.
Another beneficial time to check in is the date of the passing each month, as this can be difficult for many. For example, if the husband passed on the 9th, check in each month on the 9th.
If you wonder what to say, don’t. A text or email can be nothing more than “I’m thinking of you and (insert spouse’s name) today.” “I’m remembering your special day.” “He/she is not forgotten.”
Someone dear to me said simply, “I want to call you, but I don’t know what to say.” In conversation, the very best gift you can give is to simply listen. Start with “Tell me how you’re feeling these days,” and just listen from there.
Be a friend who just listens, a friend who doesn’t attempt to coax the widow into what you perceive to be the next phase of healing. That is well-intentioned but nearly always misinformed.
Even when your widowed friend is struggling, call anyway and just listen. Be willing to sit by their side in exactly the place they are in and simply keep them company in that place. Those types of friends are the most rare and the most treasured in a widow’s world.
Don’t let well-intentioned words become empty promises. Use your calendar to prompt you to check in, follow up, and do what needs to be done to help your widowed friend feel less alone in the world.
In what ways have friends supported you during difficult times? How have you supported grieving friends? Have you had a village of supporters in your life? What kind of support do you think helps most while grieving? Please share in the comments below.