10 Things Never to Say to a Widow

Time-Tested Advice on How to Support the Ones You Love Better

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Holding hands with my beloved husband, David Beynon Pena, a few weeks before he died in my arms at home.

Nobody knows how to act or what to do after a loss, even the bereaved person. It’s awkward and compassion for that discomfort is a good start. Still, I was shocked…

ONE: “Would you mind if I come over and say goodbye to his body?” 

On the day David, my husband, died in my arms from pancreatic cancer, his friend was scheduled to visit. I called to cancel. If this friend had been in contact during my husband’s illness, I might have answered differently. I said, “NO!”.

TWO: “I can’t believe how bad I feel about his loss. I didn’t know it would be so awful. Can you give me a few of his button-down shirts to wear so I can feel better?”

The day after my husband passed away, a friend rang me, a day-old new widow, crying most of every day. It would not have been so bad if she had acknowledged that my loss after our 25 years together was deeper than hers.

THREE: “I had a dream about your husband last night and he is glad to no longer be married. He told me it’s time for you to date again..”

Five months after his passing, I got this in an email. I blocked her forever.

FOUR: “Only you know if you were faithful to your wedding vows. If you want, we can talk about this privately.”

I was offended because I wrote that nothing happened, beyond sparks, in the vulnerable Facebook post AND fidelity was a core value in our marriage. It also validated my observation about the ingrained secrecy and fear of judgement about a caregiver or widow even considering sex.

FIVE: “How are you?”

People don’t know what to say and it’s a caring question. The true answer could be ‘sad’, or bursting into tears. What can you say instead? Limit the question to ‘today’ or ‘right now’ so it’s less open-ended. Don’t say, “Oh that’s a stupid thing to say!” It’s not, just awkward. This is uncharted territory for all of us.

SIX: “I’m sorry to tell you about grieving my separation, divorce, loss of a pet, job, business, health or home because it’s so much less devastating than the death of your husband.”

I will never hold my husband again, see him smile, kiss his lips or hear him sing, “Macho Man”. My loss is unalterable. True. But loss is loss. Your heartbreak is no less valid than mine. Measuring how deeply or long we are allowed to grieve our losses makes no sense. Stop apologizing.

SEVEN: “I know how you feel.” or “I’m sure you are comforted, knowing his spirit is with you.”

No, you don’t. Please don’t assume. It’s irritating. Ask, if you really want to know and then interact with what I say. Many times, I just want him back with me and his spirit is small comfort.

EIGHT: “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

You didn’t make me cry. Tears are simply a part of every day, even after eleven months. The triggers are myriad and unpredictable, sometimes even nonsensical, like crying over carrots. Music, places and smells are triggers which make sense to other people. My backdrop every day is grief light to despair. People don’t know what to do with a widow’s tears.

Know you are not responsible for provoking my tears. They are like a tropical storm. Unless suppressed, tears pass. Be comfortable enough in your own skin and with your own feelings first. Otherwise, stay away for now.

Ask before touching or hugging. Permission is key. Sometimes touch is comforting but not always. One woman, the day after David died, started petting me on the arm until I wanted to throw her hand violently off. I endured but was enraged by her lack of respect for my boundaries.

You don’t have to leave when I cry. I am not broken, just deeply sad. I don’t have to leave the room and hide in the bathroom when I cry (unless I want to) so that you will be more comfortable. Letting me be ‘as is’ is the most profoundly kind act you can do.

NINE: “Now you can move on.”

OK, how? I was his caregiver for eleven months, stepping out of my business to do so. I loved him and he was the center of my world for twenty-five years, close to half my lifetime so his absence leaves a chasm in me. He was an incredible artist and I am left with his legacy of 1000 works while getting back to my own work. Financially, medical expenses and what was not covered gutted our finances. Some people in my community have distanced themselves. Most of all, I am in uncharted territory, rediscovering who I am now.

TEN: “Where is your wedding ring?”

Two weeks ago, chatting with a stranger at a bar in France about, he looked pointedly at my ring finger which is empty now. I pulled out our wedding rings from the chain around my neck to show him. Afterwards, I got resentful. What gives a stranger (or anyone) the right to expect me to still wear my wedding ring when my husband died eight months ago? Why was I so eager to show him my rings? To prove my love? To stave off his judgement of me?

As a widow, I encounter friends, family and colleagues who want to support me and don’t know how. They fear to ask because they don’t want to hurt me. I fear to ask because I don’t want to drive them away by being too much or too sad for too long. Nobody gets what they want, need and desire. Opening up these conversations can make it a win-win for all of us.

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