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.)

Give Grieving Friends Breathing Room, but Stick Around

Be patient (but persistent) when grieving friends don’t answer, and give them room (and reminders) to breathe.

After my husband died, a maelstrom of emotions consumed my energy and focus. What little coherency I had went into consoling and caring for my daughters and poorly completing the most basic household tasks. (I seldom remembered — or bothered — to care for myself.) It probably seemed like I was ignoring friends’ efforts on my behalf, but social niceties were so far off my emotional radar they belonged to another plane of existence, another lifetime.

Many caring people reached out to offer support, to see how I was doing, and to let me know I was loved. I was aware of every phone call, handwritten note, text, and Facebook message, but as if from a great distance. I knew etiquette rules (and common sense) required I acknowledge them, but I lacked the ability, the energy, the will to respond.

When people said, “Call if you need anything,” I knew they meant it — but I also knew that I would not call. I couldn’t. Could not. Even if I’d been able to identify what I needed–and for a long time I had no idea — it was beyond my capability to pick up the phone and ask for help. A couple of times I almost called back, but my cell phone felt like an anvil whenever I tried pressing the call button. It was weighted down by the reality of my husband’s death.

Kindhearted folks offered, “Let’s go to lunch one day.” On a rational level, I knew it would be good — and good for me — to get out of the house with a friend when I was ready. Unfortunately, the rational part of my mind was overloaded by the irrationality of emotion. Picture standing in a shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Hear the roar of voices and competing store soundtracks and crying children? Now imagine a friend waving at you (from the other end of the mall) to listen to the tune of an antique music box she just wound. That music box tune across the mall was the rational part of my mind in the earliest weeks and months. The highest, hardest-to-hear notes were my social skills.

Some offers were too soon for me, but for another bereaved soul they might have been perfectly timed. Most were not repeated. I’d like to think that was out of misguided (though well-intended) respect for the privacy and space I’d needed earlier. A handful of folks asked again — a few days or weeks later — but I still wasn’t ready. I appreciated their invitations even when I didn’t accept them.

The friends whose invitations and contact offered the greatest support and strength were politely persistent:

  • They never asked why I hadn’t returned earlier messages. (The last thing mourners need is the added grief of blame or guilt.)
  • They didn’t give up. They waited a bit, then contacted me again, whether I’d responded or not.
  • If I asked them to call again next week (or whenever), they did. Promptly.
    If they offered to call me two days or three weeks later or a month later, they did. (And no, I didn’t mark their anticipated contacts on my calendar, but yes, I was fully aware when they demonstrated I could count on them. I also recognized when others failed to make their promised callback.)
  • Instead of asking, “How are you?” they asked concrete questions like
    • “What time can I drop off a [plant, dessert, card…]?”
    • “Can we get together __-day for [lunch, a movie, a workshop …]?”
    • “You asked me to wait a while before [calling, coming, inviting …]. Are you ready for that now?”
    • “Are you remembering to  [eat, sleep, drink water, breathe (yes — breathe)* …]?”

As weeks passed into months and I became more willing–and able–to interact, I learned about the importance of patient friendship through grief-clouded days. By the time I was ready to step out, so to speak, many of those who’d invited me to do so no longer reached out. I still wasn’t strong enough to call on them, but one by one I began answering those who still contacted me.

It took a long, long time for me to return phone calls. It took much longer for me be able to make them. (It’s been over three years, and sometimes it’s still hard to do.)

I will always remain grateful for the patient friends who kept reaching out to me when I couldn’t yet reach back.


*A note on breathing: A couple of weeks after my husband died, another widow asked, “Are you breathing?” At first I thought the question ridiculous. Of course I was breathing. Then she asked if I was emptying and filling my lungs completely. I took a deep, deliberate breath — and was shocked. After that one lungful, I understood what she’d meant. I’d been barely breathing, existing on shallow breaths ever since the shock of that night. The difference was invigorating, but it took months of conscious effort to learn to breathe normally again out of habit. Since then, I learned that in traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are recognized as the primary organ of grief.