People Say They Want to Help. They Won’t.

That’s right. Plenty of folks say they want to help, but they never will. That’s not a knock on those people. It’s just reality – a reality I think every widow (or really, any person facing tragedy) should prepare for.

Because if you don’t, you may find you’ve set yourself up for deep disappointment. When I bottomed out emotionally after my husband’s death, it was because I thought Person X would surely help with Situation Y. When that help didn’t materialize as expected, I found myself feeling alone and abandoned. It was really minor in the grand scheme of things, but it was just enough to push me into a very dark place.

So I don’t post this article with the intent to call out the people who don’t follow through. I post this so the new widows of the world won’t feel alone. I post this because, in hindsight, if I have adjusted my expectations of what Person X was offering, it may have saved me a lot of heartache.

In my experience, people have the very best of intentions. They want to be helpful; they want to do the right thing. But sometimes life gets in the way. I find folks typically fall into one of three groups:

Those who say they’ll help and have no intention of doing so.

Before you jump to conclusions, I’m not saying these are bad people. These are, by and large, great people who, faced with an awful situation, say the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, their offer of help is not grounded in reality.

When you first become a widow, prepare to hear this a lot: “let us know how we can help.” However, let’s be real. Aunt Hilda, whom you haven’t seen in five years, isn’t likely to suddenly become a daily presence in your life. Same goes for Cousin Sally who lives across the country. Their hearts are in the right place even though they know you won’t be calling on them to shuttle their child to basketball practice.

So what is the right way to respond to those you think are only offering help because it seems like the right thing to say? Smile, say thank you and that you’ll let them know if you think of anything. You might even follow-up on that with a future request for assistance, but keep your expectations low so you won’t feel let down if they hem and haw and then say no.

Those who say they’ll help, intend to help but ultimately can’t help.

This category includes all those people who very much expect to help you out. They plan to bring over a meal. They want to pick-up your kids from school. They really, truly mean to mow your overgrown lawn.

But then their own kids need to be run to activities. They have jobs to attend and houses to manage. In the running of their life, yours becomes a second thought.

Again, like the first group, these are people who have the very best of intentions. Go ahead and ask for them help when the opportunity presents itself but don’t take it personal if they can’t follow through.

Those who say they’ll help and who actually help.

Now that I’ve made it sound like everyone is all talk and no action, let me share some good news.

I was floored after my husband died by all the people who came out of the woodwork to help. And these weren’t people you would expect either. The friend who has, hands-down, been the biggest help to me is someone whose name I didn’t even know until a month after the funeral.

In fact, most of the people who have been the biggest help are those who previously occupied space on the fringes of my life. They weren’t close friends; they were casual acquaintances who stepped up and in the process, became close friends or trusted allies.

They didn’t say “let me know what you need.” They said, “I’ll bring your son home from practice tonight.” They said, “I’ve got an extra casserole in my freezer and would like to bring it over.” They said, “Can you go out to dinner with me next week?”

They offered help in a way that didn’t make me feel as though I was accepting charity. They offered help in a way that didn’t put the onus on me to request their assistance. It felt loving and natural and for that, I was so extraordinarily grateful.

Keep your focus and expectations in check

Every person’s family and community support network is different. Some people may have enough friends donating meals that they won’t have to cook dinner again until 2018. Others may be lucky if they know one person willing to run the grocery store to pick up some staples.

It’s easy to make comparisons. It’s easy to feel let down with your one friend when someone else’s community is raising $10,000 on GoFundMe.

However, I truly believe you need to put on blinders and block out what you don’t have. You need to focus solely on what you do have. If it’s only one friend, so be it. Cherish and appreciate all that one friend does for you and forget about the others. Ignore groups one and two above – cling to group three.

That was my mistake. Instead of focusing all the amazing people who were there for me, I fixated on Person X. It seems silly, and if you’ve never been in that dark place, you may not be able to understand how serious it felt.

Of course, people don’t always know what to offer or how to approach you. If you think people want to help but aren’t sure how, you can read this article for tips on how to suggest options without feeling like a heel.

How did people help you after a tragedy? Share your story in the comments below or on The Mighty Widow Facebook page.

(photo credit)


    1. Oh my, you are such a good writer. I love to read your blog. You are a damn good person. I needed to hear this exact “lesson” tonight. God bless you.

      1. Thanks Laura! This blog has been such good therapy for me, and I’m glad others can relate too!

    1. Thanks so much for your Mighty Widow blog! I lost my husband 12 years ago…plus 5 months, 20 days. We were married 44 years and one week. Yes, I still fixate, at times, on how long it’s been, and frequently ask myself if that’s normal. Before I was widowed, I visited with a lady who had been widowed a couple of years. While I was sympathetic and genuinely concerned for her, I couldn’t help but silently think she really needed to just move on with life. Yes, I’ve learned a lot about moving on…it isn’t easy, at least on the inside. Outside, I laugh, stay active, still work part time at age 74, but being widowed has never felt “right” to me. The Scripture about the two becoming one when they marry is hard to adjust to when half of that one is no longer there. My faith is strong, however, and I know a Reunion is coming, and that is great to know. Blessings to you, dear Mighty Widow, from a sister wearing the same shoes.

      1. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting Mary! I’m not as far into this journey as you, but I agree that it just doesn’t feel “right.” I still feel married. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, but it often feels like he’s just gone on an extended trip and will be back someday. Wishful thinking, unfortunately.

        1. Your loss seems more difficult to have gone through…my husband left with no warning. One Saturday, he drove to our little church to work on a project. He died before he could get out of his truck…an instant heart attack at age 66. One week after our 44th Valentine’s Day anniversary. Such a shock, no time to prepare. You had time for saying goodbyes, but I can’t begin to imagine your deep agony during those very dark days. As I type this, my tears are welling up and my heart is breaking for what you went through. Neither way is “un-difficult.”

          1. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this. Part of me is glad we had that time together. We were able to say good-bye and make some final memories as a family. But the on flip side, it was heart-wrenching. There was so much pain — physical and emotional — and my husband’s cancer was an ugly way to die. He was on a feeding tube for almost the last year of his life and by the end he had lost his voice and couldn’t even swallow his own spit. It was horribly traumatic to watch the person you love go through that and not be able to do anything about it.

            But it seems equally as awful to lose someone instantly. No opportunity for a final kiss good-bye or a chance to have those conversations you always intended to have. I don’t think an immediate death seems much better than a lingering one.

            I tend to think the way my Dad went is best. He was 74 when he died of cancer. We had no clue he was really sick; he complained of pain but the doctor said it was arthritis. One day he didn’t get out of bed so Mom called an ambulance to take him to the ER. By the time the hospital told us it was probably cancer, his liver and kidneys were already shutting down. He died four days later and while it was sudden and shocking, we had enough time to say our good-byes. I guess in my book that’s the best of all the bad options we have when it comes to dying.

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