Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Widows and Widowers

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Dear readers,

This is an unabridged column I wrote for GRAND Magazine.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 800,000 spouses are widowed each year. Well-intentioned family members and friends, often not sure how best to be helpful to and supportive of their grief-stricken loved ones, often say and do things that are insensitive, even hurtful. In fact, widows/ers report that about 85% of what is said to them is not helpful.

To help increase the chances that one is helpful, I have compiled a list of do’s and don’ts, based on research as well as interviews I conducted with widows and widowers.

The Grief Recovery Institute has compiled a list of 11 things not to say to a widow/er, including the following:

  1. You’re still young. You can always remarry.
  2. You must stay strong for your children.
  3. Don’t feel bad, your husband is no longer in pain (if he died of an illness).
  4. Your wife wouldn’t want you to be sad. She’d want you to celebrate her life.
  5. Everything happens for a reason.

The reason why these statements are potentially inappropriate or insensitive or perhaps even offensive is because “Recovery from grief involves healing a broken heart, not a broken brain. The more often people attempt to fix widows and widowers with intellectual comments and advice the more isolated they feel.”

During my research, I found the article, “What You Say To Someone Who’s Grieving Vs. What They Hear” to be particularly helpful. For example, someone might say: “You need to try to move on.” The grieving widow/er hears: “You’ve been upset for too long.” That is, someone is suggesting there is a timeline for grieving and presumes to know what it should be for a widow/er. There are 15 different examples such as these cited, all worth considering.

The widow/ers I interviewed suggest it is better to use empathetic phrases such as:

  • I cannot imagine what you are feeling.
  • I am here to listen, if you want to talk. Otherwise, I am here to be with you for as long as you would like me to keep you company.
  • I just don’t know what to say, but I care, and want you to know that.

These types of statements presume nothing and offer non-judgmental and heartfelt support.

Religion-Based Comments
The widow/ers I interviewed discussed some statements that I did not find in my research, particularly ones related to religion. For example, to say to a widow/er, “Your loved one is in a better place,” is not universally soothing. For example, one widow talked about how her strong faith was instrumental in helping her deal with the sudden loss of her young husband, and how soothing it was for her when a priest drove her son home from college.

Conversely, another widow became extremely upset when a well-meaning salesperson said the same thing to her. She had to leave the store. She was angry and wanted to yell: “Don’t talk to me about my husband being in a better place. His place is here, he should be with me.”

Similar comments, for example, “God called a loved one home because he was needed in heaven,” or that “God needed another angel,” are comforting to some, and upsetting to others.

The best strategy is to avoid initiating comments that have a religious basis to them without being 100 percent sure they will be welcome. However, if the grieving widow/er makes a religion-based comment, then it is appropriate to reinforce their beliefs, regardless of your own, for example, by saying “I can see it brings you great comfort.”

Maintaining Control Vs. Surrendering It to Others
Another area addressed by those I interviewed pertains to letting others take over decisions vs. the widow/er wanting to maintain control. Again, there are various reactions. One widow was enormously relieved to have trusted family members, friends, and co-workers deal with all the logistics and details pertaining to her husband’s death. She is forever grateful because she said she was so numb she was not able to think straight, and she appreciated “just completely surrendering all decisions to others.”

However, a widower said he resented others presuming he wanted them to take over; he said he had to get a bit aggressive with certain friends and family members who kept trying to make decisions for him. He emphasized that part of what helped him get through the initial stages of his loss was his feeling focused with the purpose of getting done what needed doing. He resented people trying to usurp this from him.

So again, it is best to let the widow/er communicate his/her wishes regarding his/her involvement. A friend or family member can say: “Someone needs to discuss some details with the funeral director. Would you like me to take care of that, or did you want to be involved?”

Extending Invitations to Widows/ers
And finally, some of the widows/ers I interviewed talked about invitations, be it to go shopping, or to something more formal, such as a dinner party. It was agreed that “Let me know if I can help” was pretty much a non-starter. What was more helpful was to get an e-mail or call saying, “I am going to the grocery store today. Can I pick up anything for you, or would you like to come with me?” Another example: “We are having some friends over on Saturday for a casual dinner. No need to RSVP; just come, if you can join us.”

The widows/ers said that accepting / declining invitations was often difficult because they didn’t know how they would feel at the time of the event. It was agreed that concrete, sincere, no-pressure invitations worked best for them, especially in the early stages of their widowhood.

I close by referencing a website the website of Dr. Robert Friedman, Ph.D., Widowhood and Aging. Particularly relevant is the section, “Talking to Widows And Widowers; Do’s and Don’ts,” where he discusses questions that are often asked of widows/ers – mistakenly viewed as conversational and benign – that are, in fact, intrusive.

A final thought from Dr. Friedman: “The key to talking to widows or widowers is to evaluate what would be a welcome question or suggestion and what would not. When in doubt, better not to say it. Sensitivity and good judgment are crucial.”

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

Karen L. Rancourt is the author of
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen:
 Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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