10 Things You Should Never Say to a Widow

What do you say to someone whose life has fallen apart? To someone whose world has collapsed around them?

It’s tough. I’ve been on both sides of the conversation now, and I am quite certain I put my foot in my mouth numerous times in the past. We often have good intentions, but what we say comes out all wrong. Not to make you paranoid, but here are ten things you should never say to a widow.

I know how you feel. I’m divorced.

While I don’t want to diminish the horrible pain that comes with divorce, it’s not the same as your spouse dying. With divorce, someone made a choice – even if it was a hard choice. With death, that choice was taken from you. Please don’t equate a husband walking out the door with a husband being snatched away from his family.

Plus, death steals a parent from your child. Even if your ex is a complete jerk, your kids at least have the hope that things could change and one day they might have a good relationship with their Dad. My kids have no hope. If they want to visit their Dad, they have to go to the cemetery and talk to a rock. For their sake, if the choice were between death and divorce, I would take divorce every day of the week.

I know how you feel. My dog just died.

You would be shocked by often this comes up. It usually comes from someone who has just lost a pet, and at a certain level, I can understand. I love my pets, have shed many tears when they die and even wake up the morning after feeling like I’ve lost a part of my soul. So I understand it’s a heart-wrenching experience.

But still, it is a pet and not a person we’re talking about here. No matter how tragic you feel the loss is, please don’t compare the death of your dog to the death of someone’s spouse.

I know how you feel.

While we’re at, I think we should banish “I know how you feel” all together. Because none of us really knows how others feel – about anything. Even as a widow myself, I avoid saying this phrase to other because:

  • I don’t know what it’s like to be the woman whose husband died in a tragic accident.
  • Or the one whose husband took his own life.
  • Or the one whose marriage was on the rocks when her husband died.
  • Or any of a hundred other scenarios someone could have gone through.

Instead, if I want to let people know I’m on a similar journey, I use the phrase “I can relate.” So, for example, you could say “I can relate because my child died a few years ago” or whatever other (appropriate) way you want to commiserate….just as long as that way doesn’t involve saying your dog just died.

He’s in a better place. It’s for the best.

Ugh. This may be true in some cases, but it is most certainly not comforting.

My husband was in constant pain for the last months of his life. For him, it probably was for the best that he could leave that behind. But don’t tell me it’s for the best. My inclination may be to snap back that it would have been for the best if he hadn’t gotten cancer in the first place.

Same thing with him being in a better place. I can’t imagine any better place for my husband than here with his wife and kids.

God must have needed another angel. God has a plan.

First of all, you shouldn’t even mention God unless you are sure the widow shares your religious beliefs. Second, these come off as empty clichés and a bit condescending.

Theologically, I can see the wisdom in encouraging people to trust God, but these statements are NOT helpful to widows. If anything, they are likely to only engender anger and resentment toward God.

He’s watching over you from heaven.

This is another thing that people think is comforting but really is not. I usually get it in response to my comments about how I wish Tom were here to see something. Someone invariably assures me that he is watching from heaven and sees it. Again, this may be true, BUT IT’S NOT THE SAME! (Sorry for the caps — just the type of thing that makes me want to scream.)

You’re so strong. I don’t know how you do it. I could never manage.

This is one of my least favorite comments. It’s the one that makes me want to darkly respond, “Well, it’s either this or drown the kids in the bathtub.” Morbid, yes. But really, it’s the truth. We’re not strong. We’re doing what we’re required to do because the only real alternative is to do something unspeakably evil.

The second reason I hate this type of praise is that it completely dismisses the idea someone might be drowning in their grief. The implication is “Oh, you’re so strong. You don’t need help.” When it reality, that widow might be thinking of missing the curve every time she exits the highway.

Don’t tell her she’s strong and handling it amazingly well because you don’t know what demons haunt her when she’s alone. And don’t tell her you could never do what she’s doing. None of us thought we could do it either and yet here we are.

You just need to [fill in the blank].

Widows don’t need to just do anything. For those who haven’t been there themselves, it’s hard to adequately describe how debilitating it is to lose your spouse. I had plenty of time to prepare, and the grief still blindsided me.

Even simple things are unbelievably hard when you’re trying to process your loss, pick up the pieces and keep the family ship running largely on course. You’re lucky to get out of bed in the morning, let alone “just” do something.

Why didn’t you ask me for help?

After someone suggests you “just” do something and you respond with whatever reason why you can’t, it’s often met with a well-meaning, “Well, why don’t you ask for help?” or some similar variation. It’s sometimes delivered with a light tsk-tsk tone.

Oh, boy. I know this is meant as a way to let a widow know you’re ready to help. (And we want you to help!) But when it’s delivered this way, it is one more opportunity for us to internally pile on the guilt. From my discussions with widows, we tend spend a lot of time second-guessing our decisions. When you say this, we get to also feel like a failure for not asking for help.

Does this seem irrational to you? Maybe, but widowhood has that effect. Rather than saying “Why didn’t you ask me for help?” try “That sounds tough, but I’m glad you figured it out.” Or if they haven’t figured it out, try “Let me do X and see if that will help.”

It may seem like quibbling over semantics here, but let me tell you, rearranging just a few words makes all the difference in the world.

Oh, everyone deals with [fill in the blank].

Now that I’m three years into this journey, I hear this a lot. I think it’s because people, quite frankly, forget I’m a widow. For example, if I complain about how much time I have to spend in the car driving the kids, people say “oh, everyone’s busy!”

Yes, everyone else is busy, but I am busy doing everything all by myself. Even if it’s years later, widows want every once in a while to hear an acknowledgement that we’ve been dealt a lousy hand in life.

I readily admit to occasionally whining, but as long as it doesn’t become all-consuming, I like to think I’m entitled to a pity-party every now and then.

Then what can you say to a widow?

That’s my top ten list of what not to say to a widow, but for those reading whom I know personally, don’t despair if you’ve uttered any of these to me before. I, like I’m sure so many others widows, understand people are doing their best to find the right thing to say in stressful and tragic circumstances. In the end, I appreciate people being supportive and talking to me even if what they said wasn’t always what I wanted to hear. Imperfect words are better than no words at all!

Now that I’ve eliminated all these, you may wonder what’s left. Next week, I’ll go over some of the things that I think you can safely say to any widow.

And for all you widows out there, please add to this list in the comments. What do you hear well-meaning people say that makes you want to scream?

(photo credit)

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    1. My adult daughters don’t seem to understand the difficulties I am facing is 70 years old. I ran a very successful company supported the two girls giving them everything they ever needed the great education, material things, travel. And help support 3 adults when I was younger. Maybe they see me as indestructible and totally independent. But I’m not anymore. It hurts my feelings that they don’t understand what I’m facing and as widow now too.

      1. I’m so sorry for your loss SuEllen.

        I don’t think people understand how incredibly debilitating grief can be. Too many people think you can just power through it, but you can’t. I know I probably glossed over a lot of people’s grief in the past because I didn’t get it either. Now that it’s happened to me, I understand. Not sure what your relationship is like with your girls, but I hope the opportunity will arise over the holidays where you can tell them exactly what you need from them. And I hope they will accept that with open and loving hearts.

        Sending my love and best wishes that you may find comfort and peace.


        1. Thank you Marlene. I appreciate your message and now getting older we all “get it”. The holidays are stressful enough but we also lost a new infant. It seems to have put my eldest daughters relationship with me and a better perspective. Although she is 37 and has been resentful of me for 15 years I can’t get to the bottom of that I even took her to therapy when she was 15 years old. I can’t seem to get out of her why she’s so disappointed in me what the problem is.
          I hope life is treating you well. Be well

          1. Oh, no. That’s awful SuEllen. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose a child. Sounds like you’ve had difficult times with your daughter, but maybe you can lean on one another as you both work through your grief. Take care.

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