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.)

The Seven-Year Glitch: When Grieving Gets Easier

It — That Day — snuck up on me this year. Granted, I’ve had a lot on my mind the last month:

Teresa TL Bruce, newborn, baby hat, teal glasses, TealAshes.com, teal blanket with flowers

My New Granddaughter and Her Teal-Wearing Grandma (family photo, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Waiting for the birth of my first grandchild in another state
  • Helping my daughter recover from the birth of her daughter
  • Rushing home to prepare my house for Hurricane Irma’s attack on my state
  • Cleaning up after Irma smacked Florida up one side, across the middle, and up the other side as well
  • Juggling the usual stuff — editing, writing, paying bills, tending to family needs …

    Free Irma Souvenirs sign, branches, hurricane Irma, TealAshes.com

    Some residents displayed humor in the aftermath of massive cleanup following Hurricane Irma. In worse-hit areas, there’s not much to laugh about as residents try to reassemble their lives. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So it makes sense that I felt distracted while attempting to work last week. I missed my precious baby granddaughter (and her parents) while I dealt with Irma issues. Even so, I’m usually better able to tune out distractions while polishing prose — whether my clients’ or my own.

As that long, long week drew to an end, realization hit me. All at once, I understood what kept my attention blowing aside, why my mind felt muddled, where the eye of my inner storm hit a wall:

In a handful of days I would complete my seventh year as a widow. I once again faced the anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death.

Odd and disrespectful as it sounds to admit this, I laughed when I recognized how few days remained before this year’s deathiversary. (Yes, I know that sounds awful!)

But I couldn’t help it. In fact, I felt almost giddy. (That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?)

That the date snuck up on me felt like a victory of sorts. This year, I’d finally functioned (reasonably well) through the early days of September. Mild distraction — easily attributed to gratitude and gladness over becoming a grandmother as well as the harried hurry of hurricane hassles — proved a gazillion times better than the overarching, insurmountable, emotional maelstroms of previous Septembers.

I remember the acute pain of new, raw grief: Loss hollowed my gut and battered my brain. Sleep channeled nightmares instead of rest, and waking meant the worst nightmare was real. Simple, familiar tasks required impossible concentration and dexterity. Memory melted. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think. Didn’t want to exist.

People tried to rush me through the grief. “Don’t worry. You’ll feel better in time.” But in that new grief I didn’t need to be told my life-changing loss didn’t matter. The best consolation came from those whose honesty acknowledged my life would never be the same. I needed to hear that the devastation I felt made sense.

But I also heard hope — hope I couldn’t yet believe but needed anyway — from other widows (and widowers) who’d lost their spouses longer ago than I had. I felt validated when they said things like, “It’s okay that you’re falling apart” — and I really had fallen apart at the time — “because this is the worst thing that could have happened.”

Or they’d caution me by saying, “Sometimes it might feel even worse than it does right now, but it won’t always feel this bad.”

Then I asked the naive question only someone desperate not to feel so awful will plead: How long? How long will this grief tear me up? How long until I feel like myself again?

Their experienced, widowed answers varied, but they ran along similar, appalling, prophetic lines: Three years. Five years. Seven years.

It seemed impossible to survive with grief’s ache for three hours at at time, much less three years. But their frankness assured me it was okay that I didn’t “bounce back” right away (despite other folks’ well-meaning, ill-informed attempts to urge me to “get over” my mourning).

Time and experience certified their counsel as reliable. Starting over takes time — emotionally, physically, financially, socially — and learning to live onward after the death of a loved one requires starting over. At my husband’s three- and five-year angelversaries, I knew I still had a long way to go, but I could see how much progress I’d also made.

Now, heading into the completion of year seven and the beginning of year eight, I more than see that progress — I feel it.

No doubt there will be setbacks. Life and love and grief are built that way.

And I might yet want need to dive into a carton of Publix Chocolate Trinity on the day before and the day of his death, if any of the local stores have started receiving ice cream in their post-Irma shipments again, that is. (See Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle for more about this yummy flavor.)

But today … today I’m feeling fine. And that’s a good sign.

I laughed again while I typed the lines just above. In the background, I heard this song by The Piano Guys with Sir Cliff Richard. A  few years ago, maybe even last year, I wouldn’t have believed the words these great artists sang. Back then, I couldn’t, but now, I do believe “It’s Gonna Be Okay.” 

 

 

 

Grief, Guilt, and Hurricanes

Almost a year ago, I posted about getting ready for Hurricane Matthew in Grief Before and After the Storm. Now Hurricane Irma’s bullying her way toward swallowing my state.

empty battery shelf, TealAshes.com

Batteries were in short supply before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

With Irma following so closely on the horrible heels of Harvey, people in Central Florida took this storm’s approach seriously.  Usually, by the time most folks start preparing — a day or two before a hurricane — supplies become scarce. I went to the store Wednesday to freshen my supplies (read: to buy chocolate-covered cookies and Cheetos) and stopped by a few aisles just to see how they looked in advance of Sunday afternoon’s anticipated rough weather. As you can see by my photos, options were already limited.

It’s awful to admit I smiled when I saw the emptied shelves — not that I felt happy the supplies were gone. Far from it. Many people still needed essential items, and I hadn’t a clue whether they’d be able to find them elsewhere. A part of me even felt guilty that I’d tucked them away months ago when hurricane season began. (I used to teach emergency preparation seminars at public and private events around our area; I generally keep necessary emergency kit items current.)

empty flashlight shelves, empty lantern aisle, prehurricane, tealashes.com

Anyone who waited until four days before Irma’s arrival to purchase flashlights at this store might be spending many hours in the dark (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

I sighed with relief that so many of my fellow residents weren’t waiting until the last minute this time.

Once-upon-a-lifetime ago — my husband’s lifetime, to be precise — I was active in my neighborhood CERT program*. I even got licensed to operate ham radio so I could check in with others in the event of phone failures.

But the first time I tried to reconnect with my CERT peers after my husband died, the triage refresher course cut too deeply. I shook as the instructor stressed the potential for “life over limb” decisions that offered “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

I couldn’t handle the reminder that sometimes you can’t save people no matter how hard you try. That I couldn’t save my husband no matter how hard I’d tried. That despite my training and efforts, he died.

It took years to forgive myself for failing him. My inability to save him left me as empty as the bottled water aisle before Irma.

Hindsight (and seven years) tells me it wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could.

empty water aisle, pre-Irma, pre-hurricane

The bottled water aisle emptied quickly before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Now, as all of Florida holds it breath in the hours and days to come, I’m again telling myself I’ve done everything I could to make ready for this storm. Whatever Irma brings, it’s no one’s fault.

(Yet that didn’t stop me from grumbling at my late husband while sandbagging and hauling things into place. Was my anger logical? Of course not. But neither is grief.)

___

*CERT — Community Emergency Response Team — a great program in which private citizens receive training to help their neighbors in emergencies

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.