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.)

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle

I cried over a carton of ice cream. Not while eating a carton — or even a scoop. I cried about a carton of ice cream.

Chocolate Trinity promised to be my grief comfort food (TealAshes.com).

(Yes, my dog eats more carrots than my daughter and I do.)

I cried because I couldn’t find it.  Standing in the middle of the frozen food aisle, my eyes welled up, my nose ran, and my throat got all cry-choke-y. Was it too much to ask the store to have a carton of Chocolate Trinity in stock? It was the only item I wanted for myself when I drove my daughter there.

I’m not usually one to complain, but Publix policy seems to prompt every cashier to ask, “Did you find everything?” I’d never before admitted shopping-list defeat, but as I dried my eyes and sulked my way to the front of the store, I decided this time I’d speak up. The moment someone asked, I’d let my red-rimmed eyes make my petition seem more pathetic: No, I did not find everything I wanted. The only thing I wanted was Chocolate Trinity. And there wasn’t any.

I’m not sure what good I expected it to do. After all, Mom always taught me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” — not that  she could explain why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place — and I’ve tried to follow that approach with people.

For the first time ever in my years of going “Where Shopping Is a Pleasure,” the cashier didn’t ask whether I found everything. Since she didn’t bring it up, I couldn’t. When she bid me a good night, I forced a plastic smile and polite nod, expressions I donned often in the early days after my husband died.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous even to me, but I cried a bit more in the parking lot.  I sniffled while driving home. While unloading the car. And yet again while not putting away the Chocolate Trinity I didn’t get to buy.

Looking back on my ice cream mini meltdown, I realize it wasn’t  the missing ice cream that hurled me into distress at the drop of a hat — er, drop of a flavor. It was the loss — the tiny, little loss — that amplified the grief behind the reason I wanted that Chocolate Trinity.

July is one of my grief minefield months, and I wanted ice cream — that ice cream — as a grief-trigger comfort food.*  When I searched every shelf of that frozen food aisle and looked behind every container but found nary a single carton of the one I wanted, it meant I found no comfort.

My husband died nearly seven years ago. I seldom cry over his death now — after years — but sometimes it still gets to me. Times like the approach of my wedding anniversary. Times when I’m briefly stirred back inside the newly bereaved, cry-without-warning emotions of the first year and a half (or more) of new widowhood.

When grief is raw, grocery shopping hurts. Everyday reminders of the loved one’s favorite foods make meal planning and cooking difficult. It’s hard enough when your body is mourning to remember you need to eat without seeing reminders that your deceased dear ones no longer eat anything.

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

When grief triggers a desire for comfort food, ice cream is ice cream — but vanilla isn’t Chocolate Trinity. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

In Grief and Groceries, Part 1, I shared why it’s so helpful to bring a family food before (and after) a funeral. For a list of specific, food-related ways to offer condolence and comfort to your friends after a death, please see Grief and Groceries, Part 2.

As for me, I’ll have to make do with vanilla. For now.

___

*After my mother’s death, my comfort food of choice was chicken-broccoli-rice casserole — her recipe for chicken-broccoli rice casserole. Is the ice cream I wanted a healthy coping device? Of course not, though I could make an argument that it’s less harmful than some.

 

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.

___

*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.

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Grief

 

I’ve put off writing about Mother’s Day this year, even though many folks now face this arguably difficult holiday for the first time while grieving loved ones. Within my own community, too many families carry on the best they can while bereaved over children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends who’ve died in the last year.  

If someone you care about — or even someone you know only as a casual acquaintance — has endured the death of a loved one, please let them know you’re thinking of them. Whether they respond to your outreach or not, they will know they were offered your kindness, which those who mourn sorely need.

Sometimes grieving hearts stand shriveled alongside bright, cheery ones. Please take some time to look around you and see whose sorrowing soul you can help. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I hope these posts I’ve already written about Mother’s Day topics will encourage you with ways you can show tangible support to grieving friends:

While commercials may tout bright, fancy ways to commemorate Mother’s Day, please remember that comfort in grief often comes in the simplest ways. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference, but please do something.

 

How to Help after a Death

The death of a loved one shocks those left behind. Whether the loss is anticipated after long illness or utterly unexpected, the bereaved are seldom emotionally prepared. Even those who knew death was coming (and already made final arrangements) have no idea of the overwhelming tasks to be done after a loved one’s passing. Many can’t be delegated, but friends, neighbors, and coworkers can — and should — offer help where possible.

Within minutes or hours, new mourners must answer overwhelming questions and make difficult decisions:

  • Will organs (or the body) be donated for transplants and/or study?
  • What were the circumstances of the death? The day(s) leading up to it? (If death wasn’t expected, police and/or the medical examiner’s office may demand ones far-reaching, deeply personal answers.)
  • Who will move the person’s remains — and to where?
  • Who should make such decisions? (Does anyone know if there’s a will and/or an appointed executor?)

The deceased might have expressed clear, final wishes before his or her death. Those left behind must deal with implementing — or ignoring — such requests.

Within hours or days, survivors must create or enact plans: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Will the loved one’s body be buried or cremated? Where? When?
  • Will there be a private or public memorial service before the body’s disposal? After?
  • If so, will there be an open-casket viewing?
  • Will survivors hold a formal service in a church, synagogue, or mortuary? Or will they gather informally inside a private home (whether that of the deceased or of survivors or friends)? Or will they meet at a park, restaurant, beach, roadside …?
  • Who will arrange — and pay for — all this?
  • Who needs to be notified for personal reasons? How can they be reached? Who will tell them, and how much (or how little) will be shared about the circumstances of the death?
  • Who needs to be notified for financial and/or legal reasons (partners, employers, employees, suppliers, customers …)?

Please note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or the timing or the manner of their choices, I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to say so. (The adage “least said, soonest mended” fits.)

Within hours or days, loved ones must also address legal matters: 

  • custody and care of surviving dependents (children, disabled adults, elderly relatives, pets)
  • payments of debts (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, medical bills yet to arrive …)
  • payment of and transferal of ongoing accounts including rent, utilities, health insurance for survivors …
  • notification of life insurance companies, if applicable
  • notification of banks or credit unions
  • notification of federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service)
  • notification of credit bureaus (to prevent scumbags from accessing the deceased person’s credit, etc.)

And who knows where such information is? If bills were paid electronically, does the family know how to access the accounts? Will linked accounts for auto-pay bills contain enough to meet immediate, ongoing needs?

Meanwhile, while the loved one’s life has ended, survivors’ lives must go on. But don’t say that. I repeat — DO NOT say “life goes on” to the survivors. Instead, help them. You can:

  • Pick up and drop off
    • meals and snacks
    • groceries
    • prescriptions
    • kids in carpool
    • relatives flying in and out
    • dry cleaning
    • paper goods (tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, disposable plates …)
    • gift cards and/or cash
    • notes of love and awareness
  • Pitch in
    • wash clothes* and bedding* (PLEASE see note at bottom!)
    • do dishes*
    • bathe pets
    • clean the car
    • take the trash out
    • clean and shine the family’s shoes*
    • rake, water, or weed the yard
    • sweep the front porch or wash the windows
    • read to, play with, and offer to babysit children
    • listen
    • house-sit during publicly advertised services
  • Make a list — a notebook with pockets and dividers might be helpful
    • local funeral homes, services, prices (It will be easier for you to make such calls and create a comparison list than for your friends while they’re newly grieving.)
    • contact information (phone, website, and physical addresses) for tending to
      • motor vehicle title(s)
      • house deed/rental agreement(s)
      • bank and credit card accounts
      • utilities (electricity, water, gas, phone, internet …)
      • subscriptions (newspaper, magazines, movie services …)
      • insurance companies (auto, health, life …)
      • credit bureaus (to prevent identity theft)

Please note: Only the closest, most trusted individuals — if any — should help in any way that involves actual account numbers. Keep an eye out for anyone who may take advantage of mourners’ vulnerable, distracted states of mind.

    • due dates and amounts of recurrent bills to be paid (monthly, quarterly, annually)
    • local grief support services and resources for now or for later (Check with area hospices and faith-based groups for starting points.)
    • names, contact information, and offers of people who say, “Let me know if I can help with …”

Please note: If you offer, follow up. Don’t wait for the grieving person to call you, because most can’t muster the energy no matter how badly they need to.

    • the kindnesses done by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers …
    • things remembered about the deceased — stories, anecdotes, personality quirks …
  • Return to the top of this list and repeat.

As much as grieving friends need your support in the hours, days, and weeks immediately after a death, mourners also need loving, practical support in the long, lonely months (and years) that follow.

*Before washing any items worn or used by the person who died, PLEASE ask to make sure that will be welcome. If in doubt, don’t. (Many survivors take comfort from holding and smelling items which remind them of their loved one.)