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.


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.)

Grief Can’t Be Scheduled

Grief can’t be scheduled.

When it comes to timetables for how long a person will grieve in a particular way, there’s one rule that applies to everyone: there is no timetable.

Processing grief takes as long as it takes and can’t be rushed — so don’t try to speed it along.

When you want to comfort or support someone whose loved one has died, avoid making comments like:

“Are you feeling better yet?”
“I thought you’d be more like yourself by now.”
When are you going to get over it?”
“Why haven’t you already …  [anything!]?
“Are you still sad?”
“But you were doing better, so why are you having a hard time again?”

These and other “time trigger” words indicate disapproval to the bereaved. Hearing your expectations of what you think they “should” feel or accomplish does not motivate or inspire grieving survivors toward healing. Rather, it reinforces the enormity of change wrought in their lives. Consider, for a moment, what the bereaved have been doing with their time and energy.

Working through the emotional pain of grief is exhausting. In the earliest weeks and months after my husband’s death, getting out of bed in the morning or, more often, rolling off the couch (as most nights I couldn’t face our empty bed) took as much physical strength and concentration as I could muster. Not that I’d slept much or well in either place. Showering and putting on clean clothes was daunting. Remembering to fill my lungs and to empty my water glass on a regular basis required excruciating effort. On top of that, I took on the legal and financial tasks of closing his accounts and tending to all the “costs of death.” (If you haven’t done this, I’m glad for you. If you have, you’re wincing now, aren’t you?) Most importantly, I was a widowed parent — all the responsibilities of parenting were mine alone.

In summary, I didn’t sleep, seldom remembered to eat or drink, and shouldered sole responsibility for upkeep of finances, house, yard, and car — as well as my far more important daughter (and the dog). I was mourning the loss of my husband and all our future plans.  I was mourning the loss of my children’s father and all that they were mourning, too.

So on days when I managed to arise from a soft surface, wash my face and brush my hair, slip into appropriate attire, and venture into public, I felt pretty good about my accomplishments! Until I met someone who greeted me with their expectation of my “recovery” timetable.

Then I just wanted to crawl back to bed.

When you talk with your grieving friends, tell them you’re proud of them for whatever they have achieved — no matter how small it may seem to you. Let them know it’s okay they’re feeling whatever emotions are roiling at the moment. Reassure them they’ll get wherever they wish to go whenever the time is right for them.

You might just leave them with a smile that keeps them out of bed for the day.

(And if your distraught friend needs a day to climb back into pajamas, hand over your teddy bear.)