Valentine’s Schmalentines — Snarky Widowed Humor

Grief trigger warning for the newly widowed: I’m sorry for the renewed pain this occasion brings you; you’ll find more comfort reading this account of my sweet grandparents — Valentine Loss — A Love Story — than the post below.

If you’re looking for specific words and actions to help a bereaved friend, Valentine Greetings for the Grieving offers a checklist of dos and don’ts.

If you’re still here, bless you!

Back when I shopped with three young daughters, I dreaded Pepto-pink Barbie aisles (for too many reasons to explain here). These days, with my daughters and son-in-law all twenty-somethings, similar aversion rises like bile when I scurry past pink and red aisles of Valentine’s Day LOVE! proclaimed as a shopping to-do list, and my response is much the same toward lovey-dovey declarations flooding Facebook.

Now, please understand. I’m not cynical about celebrating romantic love. It’s a beautiful, wonderful bond that places rose-colored lenses on starry-eyed dreams.

But my 45-year-young husband lost his mind and then, at 47, his life. As a widow, Valentine’s Day annoys (shouldn’t you proclaim your love to your sweetheart 365 days a year?) and hurts (because I still — yes, still, after six-plus years — miss my own sweetheart).

It’s easier this year, but easier doesn’t mean easy. In past Februarys, seeing friends’ “I love my sweetheart so much” posts punched the breath out of me. (Grief hits below the gut, you know.)*

This year, I’m meeting the current Facebook plague — er, trend — head-on with (admittedly warped, slightly irreverent) widowed humor. (I’ve copied the anonymously authored Facebook heading and questions below in bold, italicized font and provided my responses below.)

In honor of Valentine’s Day, all married, engaged, or dating couples: Make this your status and answer honestly.
Who’s oldest? He was but stopped aging, so I am now. (Couldn’t figure out my own age for two years after he died.)
Who was interested first? He called me. Stopped calling several years ago, though.
Better sense of humor? I loved his sense of humor, but he won’t laugh at my jokes anymore.
Most sensitive? I’m not ashamed to cry in public over a touching advertisement, a lovely sunset, or a couple holding hands. My husband, on the other hand,  never shows his feelings these days.
Worst temper? Mine, especially while driving or taking out the trash during the first year after he died. My husband seldom raised his voice when alive. Now he gives me the silent treatment.
• More social? That would be me, the introverted writer, unless I’m in the middle of reading a great book series. Or when when grief reboots my antisocial hibernation hormones. Then my husband might be better company. After all, he does hang out with a large group of people all day, every day — at the cemetery.
Hardest worker? I don’t see him helping me pay the bills or tackle household chores.
Most stubborn? Clearly, I now win all disagreements, set the thermostat where I want it, and have the last word about everything in our marriage.
• More sarcastic? My husband hasn’t made a smart-aleck comment in over six years. I, on the other hand …
Who makes the most mess? I blame him for the clutter in my closet. (His bins of things I can’t quite throw out yet take up a third of the occupied space.)
Wakes up first? Hard to say, unless by “wakes up first” the question means “sleeps less.” Then it’s me. Definitely me.
• Most flexible? (Can’t claim an original reply here. Too many widowed friends posted answers referring to rigor mortis and other morbid conditions we who survive our loved ones sometimes think, talk, and joke about more than we should.)
• Who cooks the most? Hubby cooked better than I when we were newlyweds, but over years as a stay-at-home mom (aka seldom-home-while-chauffeuring-kids-and-volunteering mom), I held my own with Betty Crocker, Better Homes and Gardens, and Joy of Cooking. After he died … hmm … I wonder … What did I feed my daughter while trying to remember how to cook again?
Better singer? (Sigh.) He had an amazing voice. We sang together in choirs and (cliché though it may sound) we made beautiful music together. (Sigh.)
• Hogs the covers? The covers stay where I want them now — what a great perk of widowhood! Hooray!
• Who smells better?  If I don’t smell better than he does, something’s dreadfully wrong.
• How long have you been together? Three decades — married 24 years, widowed 6 — if I count the years he’s slept at the cemetery as “together.”

*Still feeling brave? Here’s a prickly, pre – Valentine’s Day encounter I wrote a few years into widowhood: The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love.

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 


She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.


(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)

Laughter and Tears–Where Grief Meets Humor

This morning I wrote such a long comment on another blog I realized I’d written a post-length response. Heather O., author of “There are two possibilities” on, wrote,

“Humor. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how you can best use it, or when you should use it, but I still think it’s important. Somehow it fits into the comfort paradigm. Or at least, I think it does. What do you think?”*

Here’s how I answered:

My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: “Tell me the joke about potassium.”
Second scientist: “K.”

Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I’ve known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.

So glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day.

I’m so glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day. (Picture didn’t appear in my Segullah comment.)

My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can’t be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn’t linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there’s a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband’s kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)

On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I’m forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter’s birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She’d even written down “Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room.”
When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, “You’re kidding!” or “You’re joking!” to the news of my 47-year-old husband’s death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.

On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who’d experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there’s no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you’ll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn’t walked in widowhood’s path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging “you’ll get through this — I did” pats on the back.

(In one widows and widowers group, one of the longest-running, most commented on threads was about leg shaving. If that isn’t funny, I don’t know what is!)

Be very, very careful about using humor while interacting with the newly bereaved. Laughter that has nothing to do with the death can be cathartic. Offer to watch a great comedy with them — if they are up to it — because humor can promote belly laughs that bring sorely-needed oxygen to mourners’ lungs. (See Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance.) Sometimes those who grieve need participation in activities unrelated to their loss, but without an invitation they may not think to on their own.

However, unless you’ve walked a very similar path of loss, tread oh so lightly when bringing humor into conversations about the loss. Laughter over funny memories of the deceased is usually welcome. Laughter over the loss itself is not.


* I recommend you read Heather O.’s full post. It made me think.