(Through most of this post I refer to widows and women. I know there are widowed men out there. While the advice below may be helpful to widowers, I couldn’t really say for sure. I don’t know how the male experience of being widowed compares to the females.)
After a huge loss many widows are going to need a helping hand, daily encouragement and a positive force in their life. It is extremely difficult to know exactly how to help a new widow, because many do not know what they need help with. Since they can’t articulate exactly how you can help them they will seldom ask. Make sure your newly widowed friend is aware that you want to help. And remember that every bit of the advice I give in this post should be done gently and with care. When you offer your help or advice there are few things to keep in mind.
First, as I previously stated, you need to be sure your friend knows you’re willing to help. A strange thing happens when a person is widowed. They are absolutely surrounded by people for about a week or two. Family comes to town for funeral or memorial services. Friends are calling, texting and messaging their condolences. Sympathy cards are pouring in through the mail slot and many promises to check up on and take care of the widow are being uttered. These are all very comforting things. Then as suddenly as it all started, it stops. Usually a day or two after the memorial people gradually stop calling, sending cards or reaching out. Of course this is normal, people have their own lives. I think most widows understand this, but it’s painful and difficult when everyone seems to stop caring. (As a note, we know in our brains people care, but we don’t feel it, which are two different things.)
If it’s been weeks since the memorial service and you suddenly think of her, reach out to her. Even if you’re busy, send a text or an email. Give her a call if you are (and she’s) a phone person. Let her know you’re thinking of her. I had several friends who would think of me and say a prayer. Which was fine, I suppose. The thing is, I couldn’t hear prayers. So while everyone might have been praying for me, thinking they were being caring, no one was actually contacting me directly. If you are a spiritual, praying person, that’s fine. I’m not saying don’t pray, I’m saying go ahead and pray and THEN reach out to the person you’ve just prayed for. Perhaps God put this person into your mind not because you needed to say prayers for them but because they are having a hard day and need encouragement. I might have felt ten times better if people texted me each time they said they had been praying for me.
Don’t let no response discourage you. Unless you said something outrageously offensive in your text, email, or voice message it’s more than likely that she’s just feeling overwhelmed. Keep sending little notes of encouragement and love. It’s a very lonely time right after your spouse dies, knowing your friends are still there helps a bit.
If you offer your help, be specific! Don’t just say “I’d like to help.” As previously stated the widow might not know what she needs. There’s a million things to take care of and she probably doesn’t want to do any of them. So when you contact her be really specific about what you’re willing to do. Some suggestions might be prepare and bring a meal for the family. If you’re close friends offer to do a load of laundry, offer to take the kids out so she can have alone time, or time to get things done. Offer to clean, as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. Offer to take her to out to dinner or coffee or to come over and play cards or just chat. However big or small it seems, be specific. Again don’t be discouraged if she says she doesn’t want help with what you offer. Each person is different, she might want to do it all on her own. Just make sure she knows she doesn’t have to.
If she calls and asks for your help and you can’t due to other plans or obligations offer another time to help. One turn down can lead to her not trying again. You don’t have to give her a novel length explanation of why or apologize all over yourself just something like “I’m so sorry! I’m taking the kids to soccer practice then. But can I help you with that tomorrow/in a couple hours/next week?” A response like that will let her know you still want to help even though you can’t right at that moment.
Those are the more practical aspects of helping. You can also help her emotionally. This can be even more touchy than the practical helping. Because if you are not a widow you can’t understand her pain and she knows this. Reaching out to help her heal emotionally could cause her to shut down and shut you out. I’d only recommend trying to help in this way if you’re very close friends or close family. Remember, never, ever push her or try to force her to take a certain path. This is her grief journey, you are there to ease it not make it worse by instilling guilt, doubt or bitterness in her.
Let me share a bit about my own journey. Very shortly after Jordan’s death I began to develop feelings for another man. It was a man who was close to Jordan. I had my own reservations about it and felt weird about feeling attracted to someone so soon after Jordan passed. To be honest I’ve always been a little “boy crazy” so I wasn’t surprised to find myself attracted to this person.
I shared these feelings with some close friends. They had the knee jerk reaction of telling me it was not appropriate and I was not allowed to love anyone else right now except my infant son. While I understand why they reacted that way, that was pretty much the worst thing to say to me. Here I was a grown woman being told by people a few years younger what I could and could not do, who I could and could not love. I am a stubborn person and a bit rebellious. So when I heard the “you can’t” everything inside me said “Oh yeah? Fucking watch me!”
With some distance I now understand my attraction to that man a little better. I now know that I was clinging to him because when I was with him I didn’t feel like “Staci the widow” that people tiptoed around. I didn’t feel like “Staci the struggling single mother” that people pitied. I didn’t feel like “Staci the outcast.” I just felt like Staci and that was fantastic. It was great to be valued and cared about beyond being a single widowed mother. There wasn’t a terribly sexual feeling to the relationship for me until I was told not to “go there” then all I wanted to do was go there.
When he was around there was a feeling of comfort, a feeling like myself again. I don’t blame my friends for my bad choices in that situation. I do think that if the situation had been approached with more care, an attempt at understanding and less negativity towards my “motivations” for spending time with him things might have been different. Maybe we would have come to the conclusion that we were not meant to be together romantically but were meant to comfort each other through this loss that we were both enduring.
Now, I know the time for new love is not right after a spouse passes. However, if your friend does meet someone and begin pursuing a relationship shortly after the death of their spouse, approach this subject with caution. Instead of pushing your friend or telling her what she may and may not do, since she is in fact a grown woman, ask her what about the man or relationship makes her feel better. Is it a matter of companionship, sex, relieving feelings of loneliness or something else? Try to help your friend see her own motivations. If she is using this man to ignore her grief try to help her see that, but gently. And never make it seem as if you’re judging her actions or choices. That’s a sure fire way to make her write you off. If after talking with her, you can see that it’s not an attempt to ignore the grief she’s feeling then just let it go. Like I said before this is her journey not yours.
The last piece of advice I have is don’t treat her as if she’s made of glass. After awhile the pitying looks, deep sighs and tender hugs or pats on the arm got tiresome. I got so tired of people screwing up their faces and asking “How are you holding up?” This was especially annoying if I was arriving at a party or get together. I wasn’t fine all the time, but if I was dressed, out of the house with makeup on, chances are I was looking for a good time not a pity party. After several months I was trying to find a new rhythm to my life and felt these sorts of reactions didn’t help me in my attempts to move forward and find my new normal. Of course I still needed positive support but being treated like I might break at any second didn’t make me feel good. It made me feel weak or rather that I should be weak. As I get farther along in the journey I am realizing I am made of tougher stuff. I can take what this life throws at me.
This is advice is based off of my own personal experiences. You know your friend best and so should know how best to help them. There are no two people exactly alike in how they cope with life changing events. Hopefully the advice above has given you a better idea regarding how to reach out and support a newly widowed person.