One of the things I've been meaning to write more about on this retirement blog is widowhood. It's something I rarely touch on, and it's probably overdue. I've been planning a series of blog posts on the topic that will cover from the time my husband became ill, until now. Meanwhile, while I have lots to write about, two people have asked me specifically about how to talk to or include widowed friends. Also, in the past year I've seen some family members and friends who have lost spouses and significant others, friends and relatives seem unsure how to deal with the widowed person that they know.
So, since I'm crazy busy in the middle of a project, here are just a few stream of consciousness thoughts on my perspective of widowhood, that may be of value in no particular order.
First, someone on another blog (forget where) said that we live in glass houses, and it's true. We are judged by how we grieve. We are publicly judged by how we deal with our pain. We should read a book on grieving, grieve longer, have gotten over it sooner, not laugh in public, laugh in public. Those stages of grieving are rough outlines at best, and rarely happen in specific order or on a time table. My husband died in 2006, and while I have an active, full life, I still went to a grief seminar here in Colorado, since I have moved.
I say again, we all grieve differently. By a year and a half after my husbands death I had given away his clothes all except a few personal items and t-shirts. Other people hang on, and do what works for them. I never cried when my husband was ill, but during his illness our dog (then about thirteen) became ill. On the half hour drive back from the vet, where he was left to be treated, I cried all the say home. There is no time, where it is appropriate to move on. We all react differently..
Don't just be "there" during the first weeks or so. Those first few weeks are often not the worse time of the grieving process as you are involved-with kids, family, funeral planning, decision making, thank you note writing.Eventually, though, family may have to return to where they live, the busyness stops and THAT is when your friend needs you for the proverbial long haul. When you think the worst is over is when your widowed or widower friend is going through their worst and most difficult time. Six months is generally the most depressing and dangerous time for survivors, and the one year anniversary can be devastating.
Don't be afraid to talk about my husband or wife, even if it makes you or me uncomfortable. The most offensive thing is for you to avoid mentioning his name, or cut off conversations when you start talking about him. It hurts me when you act like he never existed. Casually bring him or her up in conversation when appropriate, and on occasion (only if you know it is 100 percent true), say things like , "That would have made John crazy".
The best things you can say are "I'm Sorry", or "How Can I Help You" (and mean the latter). The worse things you can say are "I know how you feel", "I know what you are going through", "I know how hard this is for you", "It was for the best", or "It's a blessing". Even worse is "You'll find love again", or "At least you had him/her for so many number of years". Even if any of these are true, please keep these thoughts to yourself. We all know you mean well, and it can be difficult to know what to say. Still, less is more in this area. Also, don't ask how much money he left me, if I still cry, if I have started dating............!! Say "I miss him too", or "I know you miss him".
Instead of just commiserating or offering sympathy, help me. Say, "What can I do?" and mean it. I am overwhelmed and often frozen. Bring me a casserole, and not just during that first week. Take me to lunch and make sure I eat. If I still have kids at home, take them somewhere for a few hours. If you are a professional or have a skill, offer it up. None of this applies to women only. In fact, traditionally women are better at finding support and neighborhood connections than men.
Don't be afraid to invite me to your party or event, even if everyone else is a couple. Might I get emotional about that? Possibly. But I would rather be with friends I know, and it's not like I lost all my social skills or need for your friendship when my husband died.
Know that I am not fine, even if I look fine and you think I talk normally. Be the friend you always have been, even if I am unable to do so. Know that for the first full year I am barely keeping up. I may miss engagements. I may not call you or I may turn down your invitations. Eventually though, I will come out of that pit again, and I will need those friends. So even if I said no to lunch, ask again next month, and the next, and the next. This is not the time for tit for tat friendships. If I am not the friend I was, be understanding during that first year, and take up my slack if you need to.
Widowhood does not get easier with age. Younger widows do not have greater problems. They may have more logistical issues with young children, but widowhood is not easier for me because I am older, have grown kids, may know other widows, or lived a long life with my spouse.
Remember my anniversary or his birthday. I'm going to have no problem remembering his death, but I still welcome anniversary cards, and celebrate his birthday every year. My children post their dad's picture on Facebook every year on his anniversary.
Even if you were close to my spouse, realize that I will do things now as I recover and make a life for myself that may not be what my husband would have done or would have chosen for me. I realize this sounds counter intuitive. I need to make decisions now that are best for me, and those often will not be the same decision I would have made with my husband. There is a different dynamic, there are different priorities, and frankly, I may not have the resources that I did when married. To use a silly example, my husband would never have purchased a brand new SUV, and certainly not as big a one as I have. He would have cringed. I once knew a person who criticized her late friend's wife every single time she made a purchase. I am not disrespecting my husband by making different choices (In spending, lifestyle or anything else) than he would have or than I would have when we were together as one.
And finally, it has to be said. I am not interested in marrying again, and if I was, it would not be the husband of my best friend or neighbor. Fear not the widow or widower. Widows especially often never choose to marry again (widowers choose to be married again more often and earlier than us female counterparts). And if I am considering dating, I will let you know. You do not need to include a single male in the neighborhood dinner party, at least for my sake.
And there you have it, my off the cuff, first thoughts of the morning on widowhood.