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Whether it comes unexpectedly or after a long illness, losing a spouse is traumatic at best and debilitating at worst. I know because, at age 35, I became a widow myself three years ago.
While many people want to help, it can be difficult to know how to approach someone consumed by such overwhelming grief. And unfortunately, the result is many people end up feeling paralyzed and offer no help at all.
If you’re struggling with how to help a widow, here are 10 suggestions to try.
1. Bring food, but coordinate with others
When tragedy hits, people tend to show up with casseroles, cookies and other edibles. That can be a perfect response – particularly if your friend has kids or grandkids in the house to feed. However, good intentions can quickly overwhelm a grieving family if they receive multiple meals in a single day.
Try a website such as TakeThemAMeal.com or CareCalendar.com to coordinate with other family and friends. Not only does this ensure your friend is getting one meal a day, but it helps avoid duplicates of the same meal within a week.
2. Come and clean her house
It’s not unusual for someone in mourning to struggle with even basic tasks. Help your friend by cleaning the house, weeding the garden or arranging for a handyman to come in and take care of all the items that formerly may have landed on her honey-do list
3. Suggest ways to help rather than asking
Here’s the catch to the above two suggestions: if you ask your friend if she wants help, she’s likely to say no. “We’re doing ok but thanks” was my standard response when someone asked if they could do something for us. That was one part pride talking, one part denial.
Plus, people in the thick of grief often have no idea what they need. They are in shock and can barely get out of bed in the morning, let alone articulate how someone can make their life more bearable. To help them out, rather than saying:
“What can I do to help?”
“I’d like to come over on Saturday afternoon to weed your garden. Is that ok?”
This phrasing makes it easy for your friend to accept help while still giving her the opportunity to say no if she really wants to be alone.
4. Send a card when you don’t know what to say
Death leaves us feeling helpless, and everything we say seems woefully inadequate. If you don’t know what to say on the phone or in person, send your friend a card. Every card I received after my husband’s death was a comfort. Being a widow is lonely, and the cards I received reminded me that other people cared and hadn’t forgotten about me.
Skip platitudes about it being God’s will or that he’s in a better place. Those things may be true, depending on your beliefs, but they are not comforting. Instead, say you’re sorry and then follow up with a sentence or two about your friend’s spouse – something along the lines of “I’ll always remember when” or “I loved how he” and then fill in your favorite memory. He was important to her; she wants to hear he was important to others too.
5. Talk about your friend’s spouse
Along those same lines, don’t make your friend’s spouse a taboo subject. Too many people seem to want to bury all mention of the deceased. And I get that. People are concerned about upsetting a widow or aren’t sure what they would do if she started crying.
It’s awkward for us too, but it’s even worse to think everyone has moved on with their lives and forgotten our husbands. Don’t be afraid to mention your friend’s husband’s name and point out things he’d love or happy memories you have of him. If your friend starts crying, say I’m sorry and that you miss him too. Don’t feel like you have to fill the space with any more than that.
6. Mark your calendar with her important dates
At a certain point, everyone else’s life does go on. That’s to be expected, but don’t forget that your friend is still grieving. There is no expiration date on her pain.
Milestone dates – birthdays, anniversaries and the date of a spouse’s death – can be especially difficult. Make a note of these dates in your calendar and reach out to your friend with a card, call or text to let her know you’re thinking about her.
7. Offer to take the kids on a fun outing
If your friend is caring for kids or grandkids, find an opportunity to take the kids out for the day. A couple of my friends did just that, and it gave my kids a welcome distraction while providing me with some much-needed time alone in the house.
To make it easy for your friend to accept your offer, don’t make it sound like you’re going out of your way to give her a break from the kids. It’s not that she would be ungrateful, but widows can be reluctant to accept help if they feel like they’re being a burden on others. It’s easier to say yes to something like “We’re planning to see a movie and wondered if the kids would like to come along” rather than “Let us take the kids off your hands for a day.”
8. Invite your friend out for the day
The kids aren’t the only ones who need to get out of the house after a death. Invite your friend to coffee, lunch, a movie or however else you would have socialized prior to her husband’s death. Becoming a widow can be an isolating experience. People don’t always know what to say so they say nothing at all. Don’t avoid your friend but continue to include her in activities as you did in the past.
9. Provide compassion, not pity
This is a tough one because there is a fine line between compassion and pity. While I can’t speak for all widows, I must say I hit a point where it seemed like everyone looked at me with sad eyes and gave the verbal equivalent of “oh, you poor thing.” It was tiring to feel like I had somehow become defined solely by my circumstances.
The first time you see a new widow, please by all means share your deep sorrow for her loss. But don’t dwell on it for each subsequent conversation. Hearing “I don’t know how you do it” over and over again is a good way for your friend to start to wonder: how does she do it?
For these later conversations, a good approach is to let her know you’ve been thinking about her and ask how she’s doing that day. Then, if it appears she doesn’t want to talk about her husband, go ahead and move the discussion to another subject. In short: have normal conversations with her.
10. Understand when she says ‘no’ or doesn’t want to talk
Everyone grieves differently. Some widows want to be surrounded by others; they want to talk about their husbands to anyone and everyone. Others prefer to stay home alone and process this loss on their own. And how people deal with loss changes as time goes on.
So don’t take it personal when your friend declines your invitations or offers for help. And don’t badger her into accepting either. The compassionate thing to do is to reach every couple weeks to let her know you’re thinking about her and let her know you’d love to see her when she’s ready.
Are you a widow? What’s the best thing someone did for you after your spouse died?
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