WHAT NOT TO SAY AND WHAT TO SAY TO A WIDOW OR WIDOWER AND WHY
Christine J Baxter
There is a learning curve that comes along with being a widow, and widowhood isn’t a course anyone willingly enrolls in. As a widow or a widower you quickly learn the phrases that hurt the most and the ones that help the most. Unfortunately, well-meaning friends and family members are often the ones who say these things. They just haven’t learned what not to say and what is best to say. Hopefully this list will shed some light on the topic.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
“At least you . . .” Whether the widow was married for six months or sixty years, it is never long enough. So saying something like “At least you had your dream wedding” or “At least you had a long marriage” doesn’t help. If the spouse died suddenly and someone says, “At least they didn’t suffer,” they are diminishing the suffering the widow is experiencing by not being able to say good-bye. If the widow lost a spouse after a long illness, people may say, “At least you got to say good-bye”—this phrase deals a double blow because it diminishes the suffering the widow/widower went through as the caregiver, and the bottom line is no matter how long the illness is ,no spouse is ever ready to say good-bye to the one they love.
“I understand.” No, you don’t. You are not me and you do not know my pain, my doubts, my fears, and my sorrow. You may know pain of your own, and your pain may be deep and wide, but it doesn’t give you the understanding of my own or anyone else’s pain. If you have lost someone near and dear to you, then you have a deep understanding of your own pain. If you have lost a spouse, then you have a much closer understanding of my pain, but unless you are me, walking in my shoes, living my life, you do not understand my pain.
“When my spouse left me” or “When I went through my divorce …” My husband/wife didn’t leave me, and we didn’t break up. He/she died, suddenly, unexpectedly and tragically, or painfully, slowly, and heartbreakingly. If you have an ex (boyfriend, husband, girlfriend, wife), that person is still alive. Recovery from a breakup is hard work; I have been divorced, and I know that it took me a long time to feel myself again and to want to date and have a social life. But this is death—finality: there are no second chances. If a couple has children, the widow/widower needs to deal with the grief of their children. Regardless of the age of the child, no parent wants to see their child suffer that kind of loss. If you are divorced, no matter how ugly the circumstance, the child still has a living parent. Even if it isn’t possible for the child to see the parent until the child becomes an adult, the parent still exists.
“Give it time.” This saying hurts even more, because the person who says it is usually someone who thinks they know how you feel and thinks they have been where you are right now and thinks that time will heal you. Time doesn’t heal wounds; time gives scars a chance to grow. A widow/widower’s heart will never be the same again; they will never be the same person again. In my conversations with widows and widowers, I have discovered they never stop loving and they never stop mourning their spouse. Yes, grief changes, but it never ends. In my experience as a widow, I have yet to have another widow or widower tell me to “give it time.”
“He/she is in a better place.” This amazingly hurtful comment frequently comes from a person of faith, somehow implying that where the deceased was here on earth wasn’t the most wonderful place imaginable. Every widow/widower believes that the best place for their spouse to be is happy and healthy here with them. I want to be perfectly clear that my pushback against this statement has nothing to do with a lack of faith. I fully believe that my spouse is completely surrounded by the most amazing love of God that could ever be conceived. In fact, I believe that love to be so great that it is actually inconceivable to me as a human. I think that the phrase “he/she is in a better place” is only the widow/widower’s phrase to utter, and no one else has the right to say it.
“Have you tried grief counseling?” I believe that grief counseling is a positive and healthy experience for widows and widowers to work through. Having said that, I do not believe it is healthy or kind for friends and family of the widow to suggest that they get counseling at the first sign of emotion or any tears. Your friend or family member has just experienced one of the most difficult losses they will ever live through. No matter how prepared or unprepared they might have been for the loss. their world will never be the same. Give them some time and space to heal.
“You have been on my mind.” This comment usually comes from someone the widow/widower runs into at the grocery store or some other place of business. If you are thinking of saying this to a widow or widower, please think carefully before making the statement. Have you called, e-mailed, stopped by, or sent a card? If not, then clearly you have not acted as if they were on your mind, and for you to say so just because you have now run into them in public is awkward at best and really very hurtful because it just makes the person realize that you haven’t contacted them in any way.
WHAT IS HELPFUL TO SAY?
“I love you.” Yes, it really is that simple. If you want someone to know that you love them, then just say so. It will mean the world to them to hear those three little words that they no longer get to hear from the person they have lost.
“How is your day going?” Yes, just ask this question and then really listen to their response. Simply asking “How are you?” is usually guaranteed to elicit a simple, one-word response and end the conversation, but if you really care enough to ask them how their day or week has been going or something even more specific, then they will know you really care enough to listen to the answer.
“What are the kids up to?” If the widow/widower is a parent, they are now a single parent. You may be giving them an opportunity to discuss new challenges in their life, or they may simply relish the opportunity to pull out the iPhone and show off the latest pictures. Children are usually a source of joy for the widow or widower to talk about—a bright spot in their life and something they will readily share. If you are uncomfortable talking about the deceased, then asking about the living members of the person’s family at least shows you care about their loved ones.
“Would you like to have dinner?” Yes, dinner, preferable to lunch or brunch—and maybe even with your family. See, that is the thing about being a widow/widower: friends invite us to lunch, and that really does mean the world to us, but when dinnertime rolls around, then it is family time or couple time, and since we are no longer part of a couple we don’t get invited to dinner. The same principle applies to weekend activities. Most widows and widowers are used to being part of a couple and a family, and they may not have single friends to do things with on the weekends. Suddenly they find themselves left off the invitation list for backyard barbeques, dinner parties, and traditional couple activities, leaving them feeling rejected and even lonelier.
“Can I come over?” Most people say, “Call me if you need anything,” and they actually mean it—but in reality the new widow/widower rarely knows what they really need, and what they need most is love. Call them and schedule a time that you can go to their house. Bring something they can freeze or put away to eat later, and offer to throw a load of laundry in or take out the trash. After the initial call, you might call on the way over and ask what they need from the grocery store. Do not wait for them to call and tell you what they need; they are too numb to know.
WHAT’S THE NUMBER ONE THING YOU CAN DO FOR A GRIEVING PERSON?
Say “Tell me about him” or “Tell me about her.” Ask how my spouse and I met or how we fell in love, what his favorite color was or what was her favorite food, what we did together for fun. Ask about our vacations or our day-to-day life—just ask. Ask to look at pictures or home movies. Share your own memories of the deceased with the widow. Yes, they might cry when telling a story or two, but it will be a good cry and not a cry from loneliness or pain. It will be the simple tears of a good memory that they have the honor of sharing with you.