What to Say when a Spouse Dies
“Sixty-one years is a long time to be married to the same person — and then lose them,” Elaine said as she stared into space. “Wow,” was my response. “That is amazing and I can’t even imagine how it must feel for you now. The loneliness must be overwhelming.”
“You’re right, it is,” was her confident reply. We went on to cover simple changes both she and I had experienced over the last year: buying food and cooking for ONE instead of two, learning to manage jobs our mates always did, and adjusting socially to being single. I noticed that her spirits and demeanor improved following our talk.
Did you notice that I did not say anything like, “I know how you feel?” or “I know, I lost two wives!” Neither statement is helpful. I really don’t understand another’s personal pain, and she did not expect me to. She only needed me to empathize and acknowledge her pain. And comparative statements tend to shut people down. Too often, when we don’t know what to say to FIX their problem with grief, we feel we can’t help and so we shy away. Not so. Grievers need to be heard, not fixed, or out-done.
EXPRESSION, NOT QUICK FIX
Expression and closure are important for those who have experienced loss.
I had the opportunity to share my experiences and lessons of going through loss at a large men’s prison in southeastern California recently. The chaplain, who is a long-time friend, invited me to share with the “church” he was responsible for behind bars. It proved to be a great opportunity to offer healing.
Following my talk, men began lining up to express appreciation and tell me their stories. One impacted me in particular. A man in his early 60’s with a ponytail had joined the line. When he got to me he was so emotional he couldn’t talk. He stepped out of line for a moment before he composed himself enough to tell me his story. He had married his childhood sweetheart, then went to Viet Nam. He came back with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and she eventually left him. Later in life he was able to overcome the effects of the war and she returned to him. He never said why he was in prison, but while he was serving time, she died. He never got to say goodbye, nor did he have the opportunity to settle any hurts OR even go to her funeral.
My forthright talk about grief and even my facial expressions made him feel that I was the first person to come into his life who understood his pain. This rough and tough man sobbed on my shoulder for the longest time, and it gave him release.
You can be of great help to those you know by allowing them multiple opportunities to express their pain (not fix it) and thus aid them in steps of closure. It can even be helpful to ask, “Where do you see yourself in your grieving process? Tell me about it.”
GET TO THE POINT
Get to the point. This is good advice for people who wish to really be of practical help to a friend or relative who has experienced a recent loss. It is very easy and tempting to make general statements like, “If there is anything I can do to help,” or “Let me know what I can do.”
As clear as these may seem to you it can sound more like “la la land” to the griever and require more energy than they have. Grieving takes a lot of emotional and mental energy. Often simple “yes” and “no” questions are all one can process with any level of definitiveness. Future planning skills are hampered in the minds of the bereaved. Thinking about needing groceries next week will not be a need until the minute one runs out of milk.
If you are really serious about helping your friend or relative in some physical way, specific questions are better. “Can I come over on Tuesday and help you get your housework caught up?” “I do grocery shopping on Saturday, can I call you then to see what you may need from the store?” “Is it okay if I call you Thursday evening between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. to chat?”
Judith died early on a Sunday morning. Seeing and touching her lifeless body is permanently embedded in my memory. I walked from the bedroom to the living room and collapsed on the couch with uncontrollable sobs. I was inconsolable. As the tears lessened, my soul began to hurt and a hollow feeling overwhelmed me. I felt like a nobody. Immediately, my identity and definition of who I was vanished. I was no longer Judith’s husband. She was gone. I was single again and did not know what that meant. I was no longer among the marrieds group in society. I no longer had someone to check in with concerning daily events and decisions. All future plans we had made were useless and gone!
Some have tried to explain this identity crisis caused by the loss of a spouse as an amputation of one’s self. One man, following the loss of his wife, expressed it well. He likened him and his wife as a pair of pliers. With both sides present and attached, the pliers are a very useful tool. He said he felt like one side was now gone and the “pliers” could no longer grasp anything. The re-definition of one’s self becomes then compounded by the difficult situation of loss due to death. It barges in as a situation that has to be worked through and not easily dealt with by immediate replacement. Some of my sense of fulfillment in life revolved around Judith’s happiness and well-being. That purpose in life for me vanished.
Friends’ comments that meant the most in helping me cope at this stage included, “I know how much you loved her,” “I don’t know how you feel right now, but I want you to know I am here for you,” “I am praying for you,” and “You are still very important to me.”
Being single again created many other adjustments for me. For the longest time after both of my wives’ deaths I still felt married. I wore my wedding band for months after they departed. I still thought of myself as half a couple. Adjusting to my new reality and viewing myself as a whole single person took time. I began to realize that my regular circle of friends had to make the same adjustments. Some pulled away while others saw me as a threat.
Elisabeth Elliot, in her book Loneliness expressed it well:
In spite of this modern shuffling of ancient norms, social gatherings are still often made up of what we (sometimes loosely) call couples. As a widow I never enjoyed being a fifth wheel. I threw things off balance simply by being there, but this was a reality I had to come to terms with. It was nobody’s fault. It would be silly to protest that the married people were supposed to do something about my feelings in the matter. Many of them tried. Everybody was kindness itself in the beginning, hovering over me, offering helps of all sorts, inviting me out. Many continued to be kind when the so-called grieving process was supposed to be over, but there was nothing in the world they could do about my not being half of a couple anymore. (pg. 41)
HOLIDAYS CAN HURT
The first holidays after losing a spouse can be excruciating. Christmas especially looms as hard for many. Being helpful and attentive to those you know who were recently widowed can be very important.
Following Ruth’s death in October, her parents were still living near us and, of course, I had four children to think about and care for. We had Thanksgiving with her parents as usual. Christmas developed differently. A good friend who lived in Grand Rapids made me an unusual offer. He had been a missionary pilot and now had his own plane. He invited us to join his family for the week of Christmas in a private cabin complex in the Bahama Islands. We only had to meet him at an airport in Florida and he would fly us over to the island and take care of us for the five days we were there. We took him up on it. The solitude was just what we needed at that time. The pain we could have experienced during the holidays was diminished.
Judith’s death was also in October. I saw the month of December as an opportunity to heal through many “firsts” in my grieving process. This time I had an empty home. Two families of kids and grandkids lived nearby, but my house was empty. Early in December I flew to Iowa to attend a Christmas gathering of my many siblings and their families. I knew this would be a good opportunity to begin the Christmas season by connecting with them for the first time since Judith’s death. It turned out to be a great time of healing for many of them as well as for me. I then had an evening of Christmas gifts and meals with the two families living near me. For Christmas day, however, I was alone. I thought nothing of it since I had celebrated Christmas with my kids. However, a couple hours after I got up and realized it was Christmas day, I began to sob. I wept for several hours that morning. My healing was continuing. That afternoon I attended a community potluck meal and met some new friends that I enjoyed being with.
Both experiences, being with people in a different setting, as well as being alone helped me to reflect and heal. Some grievers continue to struggle, trying to reproduce past Christmases. Some avoid the season altogether, while others start all new traditions for the holidays. As with the grieving process itself, there is no best way to deal with the holidays. Dangers and benefits to each exist. It becomes important to have a plan that best suits the people involved.
You don’t have to come up with an almighty solution to a griever’s pain over the holidays. It is often important that you address it by asking them what their plans are for the upcoming holidays. This can give them an opportunity to talk through it and it lets them know you are aware and concerned with their pain.
WAYS TO HELP
Remember that grieving can’t be “fixed.” Grieving is a process to be experienced. A great way to help the mourner, can be by assisting them physically to ease life’s demands while they heal.
Judith often told me about the ways many people helped her during her years of widowhood. She had four young boys and a house to maintain. Prepared food that arrived at her door became a valued treasure as she could not concentrate on preparing food and everything else. She spoke of ladies who showed up and simply came in to help clean or do dishes. Some people came to help remodel the basement in order to make it more usable. Men would take the boys and teach them to shoot or ski. Actions like this actually aided in her ability to heal. Serving becomes the same as comforting.
She pointed out that the most effective servers were people with whom she had a good relationship. Interestingly, there were those who did not make the effort to build a relationship either through service or emotionally. For them it seemed easier to do a “token task” and avoid her pain and situation altogether. But that approach to help falls short when practiced by friends.
During Judith’s time of terminal illness, friends set up a website folks could go to in order to sign up to bring meals to my house. Our large circle of friends brought meals every other day for three and a half months, which made our grieving burden seem a bit lighter. Likewise, offers to come clean my house after her funeral were greatly appreciated. Though generally able to do everything before, grieving disables, if not derails, even the strongest person for a time.
Time is a Friend
To the griever who is engaged in the process TIME IS THEIR FRIEND. This can be both comforting and dreaded news. It is comforting because it assures them that time does have a healing affect in their grieving process. However, it can cause dread to those who wish grieving were a short event that is over and done in an instant and not something to experience over a length of time.
Your comments should reflect understanding that time will be an important ingredient in their grieving process. “You should put this behind you,” “You should get on with your life,” “Life goes on, you know,” or “What’s done is done” can give the wrong impression about time and grieving.
You can be more help by saying things like, “What was it like when…?” or “What are some things that have eased your pain?” or “No, you are not crazy. You are grieving.” or “I remember this about your spouse…”
« Point to Ponder »
Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process.
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