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.)

Thanksgiving and Thanks-Grieving — Serving Mashed Gratitude with a Side of Grief

In previous years I wrote about grief and gratitude intermingling during Thanksgiving.* Whether someone died recently or long ago, the holiday season is forever altered for surviving family and friends.

For families who have lost loved ones within a few days, weeks, or even months, the shock of new grief might mask the sharpest pain of the first holiday season — or not.

The pain can be overwhelming. Getting through my first widowed Thanksgiving (only a couple of months after my husband’s unexpected death) was like waking up in a surgical recovery room. I was groggy with grief, unable to focus on anything but the faces of my family, too aware of the open wound where half my heart had been removed without my consent.

Our post-death holiday menu abstained from all things traditional. Instead of cooking favorite dishes, we went out to eat. Instead of verbalizing what we were grateful for as a family, I privately listed my many blessings in a notebook. Instead of putting up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving for the 25th year in a row, I forgot. (I even forgot we’d bought an artificial tree two years before he died.)  I forgot Christmas was coming.

Seasoning my every acknowledgement of personal gratitude was the GAPING HOLE of his absence. My husband — my children’s father — WAS NOT THERE … and would NEVER return.

Sometimes the pain of loss can be motivating; not every loss means all tradition must be avoided. Mom died two months before Thanksgiving a decade and a half earlier. (Yes, my husband’s death was the same time of year as my mother’s.) Our family did everything we could that first Thanksgiving and Christmas to serve up “sameness” — as much as was possible without her presence. (Though we did have her presents, sort of. She left behind — or more accurately purchased ahead — ornaments for her grandchildren.) Thanksgiving and Christmas were bittersweet commemorations (not exactly celebrations) that year; her sweet reminders and attitude of gratitude surrounded us, tempered by our distress and longing for her, softened and lightened by everyone’s anticipation of her third grandchild’s birth between the two holidays.

These examples from my household illustrate one of the most important things to remember if you want to support a bereaved friend or if you are yourself grieving: There is no “right” way to grieve, and (short of recklessly dangerous behaviors) there’s no “wrong” way to grieve, either.

Every loss is unique. Everyone’s journey of adjustment after a death takes its own time. Like people attending an all-day Thanksgiving buffet, no two plates of grief will hold identical quantities, and few will eat all their items in the same order or at the same time.

Let your friends know you’re aware of their losses. If you haven’t said it lately, say it again. (Grief is ongoing; your concern should be, too.) Invite them to share your table. Reassure them they’re going about it the best they can.


*Here are links to my other posts on this topic:

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.


*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 5, Legal Status

When someone dies, what should you say to surviving loved ones about their legal status?

[While you wait for the answer, listen for sounds of shy, exhausted crickets …]

[… and wait …]

[… and wait …]

Is the silent treatment getting a bit uncomfortable? Only slightly? Then let’s wait a bit more …

[twiddling thumbs]

[looking around the room, avoiding eye contact]

[clearing throat to break the awkward silence]

… and … you’re still waiting, aren’t you?

Get used to it, because I can’t think of a single thing it’s appropriate to say about the legal status of deceased loved ones — or their survivors. Broaching the subject will cause far more discomfort than a pregnant pause.

What seems like a gazillion grief years ago, I started a mini-series of posts on taboo topics* with these assertions:

All grief is personal, but please don’t impose personal comments on the newly bereaved.

Unless the mourner asks you, or it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up the bereaved person’s politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality reminded me I hadn’t yet posted about why legal status is a taboo topic if you want to console the bereaved. When your relative, friend, or colleague has lost a loved one, the only legal certification that should matter to you is the word deceased

Whether you’re a fundamentalist Christian preacher or the chief organizer of a pride parade or a number-crunching hospital administrator, whether the departed and their surviving loved ones are old or young, gay or straight, zealots or atheists, when you learn that someone died, your only concern should be to offer nonjudgmental consolation and comfort in any way you can.

  • Do estranged surviving spouses suffer more distress than long-term partners who stood by loved ones in unwavering fidelity? Should one group have a say in making funeral and other arrangements while the other has no say?
  • Does it matter to a mourning mother whether her child’s birth (and death) was connected to her by biology or by adoption? Does a father who truly fathered a stepchild (by day-to-day manning up to meet his kids’ emotional and physical needs — whether he legally adopted them as his own or not) grieve less fervently than one whose birth certificate – documented “fathering” was over and done with long before that child died?
  • Do bereaved best friends (who talked twelve times a day) deserve less consolation and consideration than surviving siblings (who exchanged little more than annual Christmas and birthday cards)?
  • Do legal residents mourn departed kin more than people without papers do?
  • Do felons (or their families) deserve less respect and support when someone they love dies?

Of course not.

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grief is an outcropping of love. When death severs us from those we love, grief pours from the wound. Like love, it cannot be legislated into neat little boxes on government-issued forms. What can be, and should be, and now has been legislated, is greater ability for people to decide who will deal with the business and legal sides of their final goodbyes.

Whatever the mourner’s legal status, whatever the legal definitions of relationships between people, it’s not up to anyone else to concern themselves with the details. For the rest of us, our job is to simply say “I’m sorry” and to show up without comment, bringing with us only our kindness — whether that’s demonstrated by casseroles, consolation, or (if appropriate) even cash.


*To see the first post in the taboo topics series, visit
Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics

Another Father’s Day–DANG IT!

Father’s Day, like so many special events, is “still” nearly as hard to face this fifth year as it was in the first years after my husband died. His absence (especially on days like these) still hurts me, but it cuts doubly for my children’s pain as they miss him, too.

I’m a person who draws great strength from my faith, but I’ve learned that on Father’s Day Sunday my worship is more focused from within the privacy of my home. (As much as I love the camaraderie of fellow worshipers, I cannot abide hearing the little kids’ adorable annual rendition of “I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home” and other sweet songs my children used to sing to their dad.)

What to Say When Someone Dies

Father’s Day. For three weeks I’ve written, revised, and discarded post after post, trying to decide what to say. It’s the night before, and I still don’t know …

I’m blessed and grateful that my dad is still here. He lives nearby and continues to be a rock of solid reliability. I can’t remember him ever directing an unkind gesture or a loud word my way (though when he spoke my full name in a certain tone I knew I’d crossed the line).

When I was a young, naive newlywed I remember my mother once telling me she hoped I appreciated how lucky we both were to have such good, kind men in our lives. I thought at the time that I did fully appreciate it.

Looking back now, I see how clueless I was, how little I understood. Since then I’ve seen glimpses, peeks at the hardships inflicted on many women and children because…

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