What Does and Doesn’t Work by Resilience Consultant & Bad Widow, Alison Pena.
Discover how to effectively support someone who’s lost a spouse or significant other.
Easier to get it wrong than get it right. What I discovered after David died is that nobody actually knows how to support a widow or widower unless they have been through it themselves. People mean well but they end up saying or doing the wrong things most of the time – a balancing act.
Why? Based on their own experiences, they are offering up what they assume they would want in your situation. These assumptions about what your family member, friend or colleague needs, how long it takes to recover and what happens to confidence, competence and capacity after such a loss get in the way of asking better questions.
- DO ask short-term questions like, “How are you doing today?” or “How are you doing right now?” These are questions it’s possible to answer because they only require looking at the present moment. In the past lies grief and regrets. In the future lies grief, fear, anger and shame.
- DON’T ask long-term questions like, “How are you?” or “What are you going to do next?” or “What do you need?” This can prompt an angry response like, “How do you think I am?” It’s impossible to know what comes next because energy, focus and memory can be impaired by loss. The future they had planned for themselves vanished when their beloved died. It’s impossible to see beyond that. People who have lost their spouse or significant other just want them back alive, even though they know it’s not possible. Their needs start and end there.
WHAT TO SAY:
- DO say things like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” and “I can’t imagine what this is like for you.” and “I am here for you”. These are simple expressions of caring.
- DON’T say things like, “I’m sure (s)he’s in a better place” or “Aren’t you glad (s)he is no longer in pain” or “They are in Heaven now” or “They’re at peace with God”. To any version of these, the answer is “No!” We would rather they be here with us, even in pain, alive not dead. For a widow or widower, there is no glad in the person being gone and not much comfort in hearing we should be happy about it on any level.
DO let the person who has lost someone just ‘be’. Allow them to feel their feelings without judgement, whatever they may be: grief, fear, anger, shame, joy. This allows them to know they are safe to be themselves with you. Feelings are part of being human. Increasingly, science tells us mind, body and spirit all hold wisdom.
DON’T judge them, avoid them or decide they are broken. It is uncomfortable to be helpless in the face of tears or other overwhelming feelings. As human beings, we long to fix the situation which is hurting the person who matters to us. It’s how we are hard-wired to act when we care. Just stay anyway. Understand that, even for the bereaved person, these feelings are not predictable or controllable so asking them to stop is an unreasonable request. The triggers for grief can last decades, especially on anniversaries, holidays and special occasions, although the waves of them ease off in frequency after a few years.
DO invite the person to join you for holidays, especially if you usually spend them together. Do accept their ‘No’ with grace if they don’t want to come, without any pressure. The invitation still matters. Do call and connect with them if you aren’t getting together, so they know they aren’t forgotten. If they say ‘Yes’ and leave early, don’t take it personally. Honor that they are doing what is necessary to take care of themselves as best they can. People can be exhausting for a bereaved person.
DON’T expect or push them to be happy or merry, even if the season calls for it (Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Holidays). Joy is one of the hardest feelings to allow because it seems like betraying the person they lost and moving on. Only if you can let them be however they are, is it possible to be happy.
DO ask what is going on in their lives and listen closely. Do make a suggestion, based on what you heard. For example, do they need you to back them up on projects at work, babysit from time to time, help financially with rent, go for a walk, call every week for a chat, make dinner.
DON’T assume you know what they need as that will change over time. At the beginning, people, especially the ones who tell you what to do, keep trying to fix you or judge what you are doing, are exhausting. I promise the bereaved person is doing the best they can, no matter how it looks from the outside. Don’t step back or out of their lives, even if they cry or lash out or you can’t help. Don’t tell them they ‘should’ be, say or do anything. There is a very fine line between caring and respecting autonomy.
DO reach out even if the person doesn’t answer. Sometimes, they just can’t. Call or text or write on holidays, anniversaries and for no special reason at all. I recommend setting up a calendar to organize sustainable and consistent reach outs with a network of caring family, friends or colleagues so the bereaved person has more robust support without asking for it. Do keep contacting them for more than the first year. Time is moving differently for them than for you. It’s a widows’/widowers’ joke that nobody calls in the second year when even more support is needed because the numbness has started to wear off.
DON’T assume that not answering means the call or text was not appreciated. Don’t stop inviting them to participate and contribute again. One day, they will say ‘Yes’. Don’t put a time limit on how long they will need support. Grieving a spouse or significant other leaves an enormous hole which must be filled by everyone else after they die. It takes as long as it takes and is unique to each person.
ABOVE ALL, remember who they truly are. Hold that space for them with love and understanding. It’s very hard to recall, especially in the first year, that feeling broken by that deep a loss does not mean being broken. Human beings are resilient. Any loss changes us, clarifies what truly matters and creates a change in focus and direction.
If you are a widow or widower or someone who cares for a bereaved person who would like additional support, schedule a 20-minute complimentary call with me at bit.ly/BookResilienceCall