What to Say to a Widow or Widower

When you learn a friend or co-worker is newly widowed, what do you say? What can you do?

Think first. 

Listen to widowed friends. TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

When you learn a friend or co-worker is widowed, reach out — and listen. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Are you rushing to say the first (clichéd) thing that pops into your mind?
    • Most trite sayings sting rather than soothe, but sincerity reaches hearts.
    • Avoid phrases like “in a better place” and “better off” in your attempts at consolation.
  • How will your words sound to the person grieving their life partner?
    • Are you offering validation of their pain and showing you recognize the unique nature of their loss? Great. Proceed.
    • Or are you rushing to minimize the loss in the misplaced hope of making the mourner feel better? Think again.
    • Avoid saying “at least” about anything related to the death or what preceded it.
  • Are you adding to or draining from the strength of the bereaved?
    • Avoid asking, “How are you?” — because when acutely grieving, they’re not doing well enough to know how to answer — unless you’re tying the question to a solution for your friend (“How are you getting your family from the airport? May I pick them up for you?”).
    • Avoid asking, “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?” Most mourners are too overwhelmed by grief to know.
  • Neither blame nor shame the bereaved or the deceased.
    • This isn’t the time to lecture suicide survivors about mental health issues.
    • This is not the time to say the person who died should have known better than to smoke or to drink and drive or to cross the street or to neglect regular checkups or to eat as they did …
    • This is not the time to blame the now dead firefighter, policeman, or military service person for choosing that profession.
  • Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about reaching out in support of your friend, co-worker, or relative who’s mourning.
    • It’s helpful to remember your own losses and how they made you feel, but never compare your loss to the bereaved unless you’re doing so in a way that validates theirs.
      • I found it comforting when older widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it would be like to still be raising children as a widow. It was hard enough with mine already grown. Bless you.”
      • And it felt validating when younger widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be widowed after 24 years. It was hard enough for me after our 12 years together. I’m so sorry.”

Speak up next.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.” (Follow this up by being there.)
  • “I want to help, but I don’t know how, so may I come sit with you in the meantime?”
  • “May I do this [specific task] for you?”
  • “I will miss him [or her] too, though I know you’re hurting much more.”
  • “I wish you had more time with [speak the name of the deceased].”
  • “I’d love to hear more about [speak the name of the deceased] when you feel like talking.”
  • “I’m sorry.” (Yes, I repeated this, and it’s okay for you to repeat it too.)

And act.

  • Do (or send) practical help: pull weeds, shovel snow, bring food, pick up dry cleaning, tend children, make phone calls, wash dishes or laundry (BUT do NOT touch items belonging to or last used by the deceased without first getting explicit permission from the mourning, widowed partner) …
  • Follow up. If you promised to check in next week, do it. If you offered to have lunch together, set it up and don’t back out. If you mentioned a book you found helpful when you were grieving a similar loss, and if your mourning, widowed friend seemed interested, bring a copy to him or her.
  • Set reminders. Offer support throughout the weeks and months following the death. Note significant dates in your calendar (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, diagnosis dates, etc.), and let your friends know you’re thinking of them as those dates approach.
  • Don’t take it personally if grieving friends don’t return messages or phone calls. Sometimes grief is too overwhelming for such seemingly simple tasks.

Repeat.

When friends are grieving, they get to decide what is helpful or what is offensive. Again, it’s not about you. If they say you’ve done something hurtful, own it. Apologize rather than defending yourself, and do better in the future. (And be proud of yourself for reaching out despite the discomfort of acknowledging death and loss. Thanks for reaching out to your friends.)

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

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*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

What to Say to Grieving Parents after a Child Dies

Parents mourn their lost babes of every age. Whether children died in utero or during infancy, whether they perished as toddlers or tweens or teens,  or whether death took them by surprise accident in young adulthood or inch-at-a-time illness in middle age, they died out of order. As humans, we’re wired to expect that children won’t die before parents, so when it happens, it’s unthinkably cruel, indescribably painful.

If you’ve wondered how to console friends who’ve lost a son or daughter, bless you. Too often, bereaved parents lament over deepened, inflicted pain from ill-thought comments. Or, when grieving parents most need support, they feel the added ache of uncomfortable, abandoned absence from those who avoid them.

I’ve not suffered the death of a child, although I’ve witnessed friends in such agony. I’ve listened to them and sat with them in their losses. But seeing and hearing and sitting isn’t knowing. Empathy extends only so far.*

Here’s what my friends have taught me as they’ve grieved their dear children’s deaths: 

weeping photo, cemetery, Babyland, grief, TealAshes.com

“Weeping Angel in Cemetery’s Babyland” (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You can’t fix grieving parents’ pain, but you can avoid worsening it.

  • Don’t tell bereaved parents “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand.” You don’t.
    • Losing your loved one may have introduced you to the pain of grief — and it’s good for you to remember that pain to help you attempt to empathize — but your loss didn’t teach you the intimate rending of self that happened to your grieving friends when their child died.
    • Few bereaved parents tell other grieving parents they know how the others feel — even if their losses seem similar. (Some might remember how they felt when they lost their own child while acknowledging the deep, unique, rawness of the newly mourning parents’ pain.)
  • Stop saying “at least” in any context. There’s nothing “least” about the loss of a child.
    • “At least” minimizes the significance of the loss, which grieving friends need validated and acknowledged, not diminished.
    • This includes not saying “at least your child lived x long …” or “at least your child won’t have to …” or “at least you have faith in the hereafter …” or “at least” anything.
  • Allow grieving parents the right to express (or not express) their faith in their own terms. Friends who believe in hereafter reunions with their beloved children nevertheless agonize over their here-and-now separation until then. (Those who preach or sermonize at them often counteract the comfort they intend to convey.)
  • Never suggest how “lucky” the parents are they won’t have to endure the hard parts of parenting their deceased child. They would gladly endure sleepless nights, endless diapering, terrible twos tantrums, teen angst, college costs, and every other parenting so-called hardship with their beloved child.
  • Never speak of replacing the deceased son or daughter. Loved ones aren’t replaceable.
  • Avoid telling mourning parents they “should” anything.
    • Not how they should …
    • Not what they should …
    • Not when they should …
    • Not why they should …
    • Their loss requires their timing and readiness and processing and coping and surviving.
    • Only they will know when they are capable of accomplishing more than breathing — which will be hard enough for months.
  • Avoid asking “How are you?”
    • It’s impossible to answer. Grief hurts too much. It’s in every cell. It overwhelms and overrides.
    • “Hello” works as a greeting. “How’re you doing?” does not.
    • If you catch yourself uttering the habitual “How are — ” turn it into “How glad I am to see you.”

You can offer increased support to your grieving friends by saying:

  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’m here.”
  • “Would you like to tell me about [speak the name of the deceased child]?”
  • “When you feel up to it, I’d love to share some of my favorite memories (or photos) of [name the child who died] with you.”
  • “It’s okay to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong.”
    • Telling bereaved parents they have to be strong (for each other, for other children, etc.) only reinforces how weakened and fractured they feel. Let them know you and others are there to pick up the pieces they can’t lift.
  • Acknowledge that mourning hurts without claiming you know how your friends feel. Acknowledging grief’s powerful, painful paralysis validates your friends’ pain.
  • “I know grieving hurts and saps your strength. Please let me ___ for you.”
    • Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help with anything,” be precise. Fill in the blank with specific tasks or services you can render for your friend.
    • Say: Please let me …
      • … bring you a drink of water, an aspirin, a soda …
      • … take your other kids to the park, out for ice cream, to buy funeral outfits, to school …
      • … walk your dog, clean cages or litter boxes, gather eggs, groom horses …
      • … breathe alongside you, take a walk with you, drive you to …
      • … call funeral homes, come to the cemetery, house- or pet-sit during the funeral …
      • … make phone calls to friends, family, employers, creditors  …
      • … mow the lawn, weed and water the garden, shovel the sidewalk, sweep the porch …
      • … fill the gas tank, check the tires, drive to the airport to pick up or take back family …
      • … bring a meal or a snack [where culture and tradition permits] …
      • … take you to lunch or bring you to my house for dinner …
      • … cover your mirrors [for those who sit shiva] …
      • … wash dishes, make beds, vacuum floors, wash windows, clean bathrooms, do laundry …
        • However, please DO NOT TOUCH anything belonging to the deceased child without explicit permission to do so. Parents (and siblings) might need to see the bed left a mess or smell their child’s scent on a dirty shirt or keep a tower of blocks in chaotic disarray where they last fell.

You can also offer comfort to grieving families through these actions:

  • Follow through on the activities you offered to do in the list above.
  • Listen to your bereaved friends — parents, grandparents, siblings, and other kin to the child who died. All are hurting. All need the safety of being able to vent without being judged or disciplined for expressing their emotions.
  • Mark the child’s birth and death dates in your calendar, and then …
    • A month before, a week before, and the day of, let your friends know you’re aware of their child’s upcoming birthday.
    • During the first year (and beyond), be aware that most bereaved parents dread the death date’s day of the month every month as it ticks off another milestone of their child’s absence.
    • Let your friends know you are thinking of, praying for, and hurting for them — and remembering their absent child — around these dates, especially near the sixth-month and annual death dates. The death anniversary will be difficult. Reach out.
    • Feelings will also be tender near the start and end of the school year when your friends will continue to be aware of what grade level their child would have entered or graduated from. Reach out in acknowledging support.
    • Repeat every year — unless your friends ask you not to bring it up anymore. Respect their wishes while continuing to reach out in nonspecific, loving support.
  • Listen again.
  • Listen later.
  • Listen longer.
  • Listen in silence.
  • Listen over the phone.
  • Listen in person.

Cut mourning parents some slack if they ignore phone calls, bail on social engagements, or don’t seem like themselves. They aren’t themselves anymore. Part of their self-identity (as Son‘s Mom or Daughter‘s Dad) was shattered.

  • They are still parents to their deceased child — and always will be — but will never again have the opportunity to physically parent that beloved child. That’s not something anyone “gets over.” Ever.
  • In time — much, much time — and with understanding support, your friends will eventually learn how to live onward again despite their grief.**

If you have children the same age as your friends’ deceased child, be aware that bereaved parents might seek more interaction with you and your family — or less. Continue reaching out either way.

And listen.

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*Please forgive me, my dear friends who’ve mourned children, if I’ve tread on tender feelings or gotten this wrong. You’ve taught me more about endurance and living with loss than I’ve learned on my own, and my intention is to honor the grief you’ve borne for the children you’ve lost and continue to love.

**The title of my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them, came to mind as I wrote of living “onward again.” I’d planned to type “move forward,” but her better word landed at my fingertips instead.

 

Anniversary after Death

Death anniversaries and widowed wedding anniversaries have a lot in common. One of the best ways to help grieving friends through both is by letting them know you’re aware of their pain.

What to Say When Someone Dies

Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.

My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)

Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:

  1. It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
  2. It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.

The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).

If you’re wondering whether…

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Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.