It occurred to me last night, I have spent a few articles discussing how hard it is to hear ‘comforting’ words from others. It’s hard to hear because we all know there is nothing that can make a fresh wound hurt less. Often those words of comfort stab like knives instead. How do we, as widows, expect something different? Just like there is no guide-book for widows, there has been no etiquette book on how to be a good support system for a widow.
This website has been my attempt to fix both of those problems. This is not a memoir blog. It is more self-help. I used my story as an example so you can see how it affected my life and what I did. Hearing information from someone who has been there is a big help. Up to this point, I haven’t discussed anything about a widow support system, other than from the widow’s perspective.
This article is my attempt to remedy that neglect. If you are part of a support system, watching a loved one or friend go through the most challenging storm of his or her life, this article is for you. Helping the wounded just isn’t easy. I have no hard proof that these ideas will work for whomever you are helping. I can say this is what I needed (and got most of the time because I wasn’t afraid to ask for it). When I got the support the way I needed it, my days were much easier. Lord knows I needed all the ‘easy’ I could get in those first months, even years.
How do you help the wounded?
There are probably a million self-help books out there, maybe more. Many of those deal with grief, some probably even deal with how to help someone who is grieving. Maybe those books were written by widows or widowers, however, I would venture to guess most were written by professionals. Professionals who know what the textbooks say and what clients have said, but maybe no real experiences of their own. Everyone experiences grief at some point, so they might even have some personal experience. Most of those professionals probably do not speak from experience as a widow or widower.
To be perfectly honest, I bought close to a dozen books for widows in those first few months. I figured something had to be in there for me. I rarely got past the first chapter. I was either sobbing so hard I couldn’t keep reading or the book didn’t apply to me at all. So, technically, I have no idea what is in those books. I know what I think, what I learned from experience, and what a college education in social work taught me. And, that’s all I know about being a widow or helping a widow. This article, is from the heart. Some of it might match up to other things you have read and other pieces might not. If you want a professional opinion, you probably should buy one of those books. If you want to know what another widow thought, then keep reading this and when I publish my book I will let you know so you can read that, too.
Being a widow is hard, so is being support for a widow. Maybe it’s just as hard, in different ways. Just as hard because it is almost harder to watch someone you love hurt so badly and be unable to fix the problem than it is to go through it yourself. Harder because your life goes on while your friend or family member is still reeling through their grief. There is a disconnect that you can’t overcome, no matter how hard you try.
I remember reading in a story in Chicken Soup for the Soul. An excerpt is as follows:
“Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four year old child whose next-door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentlemen’s yard, climbed onto his lap and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” (Ellen Kreidman)
That speaks to the exact essence of how to help someone who is wounded on the inside. If I made a list of the things I would have appreciated as a new(er) widow it would be this list:
1. If your friend or loved one doesnt answer, go away.
Grieving people have a lot on their mind and on their heart. Especially the first few months. Chances are, it’s stuff you can’t understand. It’s probably true that they aren’t depressed and they aren’t going to hurt themselves. They are grieving. They just want to cry in peace. They didn’t answer becasue they just want to be alone today. Tomorrow might be different. They want to stare at a blank wall and hold something that smells like their spouse, or reminds me of their child, or makes them remember the cookies grandma made. That’s okay. They hurt so bad they hear their stomachs grumble and they don’t care. That hunger pain is nothing compared to what is in their heart. Even eating a meal is hard to do, a reminder of what you are missing.
You can’t move around grief, a person just has to go through it. Part of going through it is hurting. People don’t usually want to hurt in front of people. They hold back and refrain from what’s really on their mind. Eventually, slowly, they will be ready to see people. If you insist on talking or insist on seeing them, they probably will oblige you, but don’t expect great company.
What can you do?
Do call, do email, do send notes. If they answer, fantastic (see #2). If they don’t answer the phone leave them a voicemail. Don’t leave 5 or 10 a day, but try to make contact a couple times a week. I promise, they will get the note off the door, they will go to the mailbox (maybe), and they will listen to the voicemail. Then, they will probably go back to staring, crying, and thinking. One day, they probably will answer the phone or answer the email. Maybe, if it makes you feel better, drop a few sandwiches or a small meal by the house, just in case. If you do insist on seeing them, please don’t over-stay. Tell them you love them, give them a hug or a nice touch on the arm, and leave, unless they ask you sincerely to stay.
2. Listen or cry, whatever they want you to do.
When you do see your loved one or friend, inevitably you will ask them how they are doing or how they feel. It’s something we just ask as habit. You might really want to know the answer. Be careful, though. I have found so many times what people really want to hear is that the friend is healing nicely and feeling better, but that may not be what you hear. Instead you might hear some unintelligible words through tears about how awful life is. You might hear nothing, but silence.
If your friend wants to talk about it, listen. Don’t one up them. They really and truly do not care how poorly your aunt Beverly handled your uncle George’s death. Not because they don’t care…no, it is because they don’t care. At least they don’t care right now. A few months from now or a year, they probably would find the story interesting and might even have questions about what she did to feel better. Just listen. If they cry, listen.
Don’t dismiss their feelings. When you say things like, “God has an angel” or “It will all work out” or “God’s will, God’s time” or “He/she fought the good fight” or any other feel good phrase you can think of, it is aggravating. Sometimes it is maddening. Nothing feels good and I can almost guarantee you, your friend can’t imagine how they are going to make it through tomorrow. A year or five is no where on their mental map.
Don’t go on about how wonderful your life is or how great the kids are, or even how insensitive your husband/wife is. It’s all an effort to help them forget about their problems or to show them life goes on, or whatever reason you have, but it isn’t helpful. Whatever the reason, it’s because you care. There is an awkwardness when someone is hurting so bad. Please know, that awkwardness is just your feelings. They are hurting, they don’t notice how awkward it might be. Your friend might make polite conversation, please keep your answers brief.
What you can do:
LISTEN. Whatever you hear, whatever you see, it’s okay. Let your friend or loved one do as they need to. It makes a person uncomfortable to watch someone cry. We feel the need to make it all better, to cover it up, and to push it away. That almost makes the person who is hurting feel like their pain doesn’t matter. Sometimes it can make them feel like their pain is abnormal. I know that isn’t what you want them to feel. You love them and want them to feel better. You can’t make that happen for them, no matter how much you want it. If only it were that easy.
3. Offer to help or just do it.
I know this seems to contradict what I said earlier (just go away), but sometimes, especially when there are younger children, stepping in might prove helpful.
It’s hard for a new widow to get off the couch, but there are things that have to be done, like meals for kids, laundry, groceries, etc. If you ask, your friend or loved one might tell you no. Again, they want to handle it all themselves, yet they might appreciate if you just step in to help.
What you can do.
If people asked me if I wanted meals or for them to bring the kids home, I often told them no. If they said, “I made an extra meal for you, when could I bring it over?” I was more inclined to accept it and appreciate the fact they did it. Or, if they said, “I’m taking Billy to church tonight, could I pick up your kids and take them with us? Billy would love it.” I appreciated the effort to do something for the kids and the time to just cry. The kids loved it too. The way you approach makes a difference. Make it an offer they can’t refuse instead of a pity party.
4. Remember, your timetable isn’t necessarily their timetable.
Your life has probably moved on. It might even seem like your friend’s life has moved on. The difference is, your life really has move on and your friend is doing the best they can to make it look like theirs has too. When you are grieving a loss, it is hard to watch people several months after. Their lives are normal. Suzy goes to soccer and Ben attends his guitar lessons and people quit offering help. They avoid you to keep from talking about it. They just want to go to lunch or a movie. They want to talk about kids and work, not how life is still hard for the grieving. The widow or grieving friend probably isn’t ready to do that yet. Don’t let the fact he/she is willing to leave the house make you believe they have healed. There is still a lot of re-building in front of them to get through–years of rebuilding to go. Don’t hurry them to get with the program or suggest it is time to ‘join the living’. That would be hurtful.
On the other hand, maybe it seems like they are doing fine and have moved forward too fast. It might even seem like they didn’t take time to grieve. Please remember, it is their timetable. They know what they need to do, you probably don’t. Maybe they didn’t grieve completely. Maybe it hurts too bad to do it right now, so they are avoiding it. Just keep being a friend/loved one and encouraging them. Hopefully, they will figure it out on their own. If they don’t, ask them.
What can you do?
Be sensitive. Remember the loss they suffered. Remember how much it changed their lives. Remember they might still be struggling to get laundry done, bills paid, and kids taken care of because grief really is the one still in charge. Still offer to do things for the kids. Suggestions for your friend might be heard now, so gently suggest opportunities or ideas. Your friend or loved one might be willing to listen now. Also, inviting your friend out to do something besides think about grieving or taking care of someone might be a welcomed change. If the offer isn’t accepted this time, try again in a month or so.
Use sensitivity without patronizing your friend or loved one. Remember that their view point is not the same as yours. it may feel like you have the answers, but you might not. And above all, remember this journey is about them. What they need, what they want, and on their time schedule. They may not know what they need or want yet. That is okay. It will come. If you are feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, confused, or uncomfortable, just imagine what your friend or loved one is feeling like.
Give them space, time, and plenty of love and support. They will love you for it.