Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 8, 2011

To the friend of one widowed:

This is a repost of a facebook note I wrote a while ago. A friend asked if he could share it, so I looked it up and reread it. To read it again after all this time was wince-inducing, and I wrote it! So I don’t know how other people will feel….

I wrote it months ago, and things are not all that different now, although they may appear so to the untrained eye. We widowed become better at assimilating into society, I suppose, to the relief of everyone, although when we are alone and among our kindred spirits, much of this described pain is still gospel truth. Daily.

To the friend of one widowed: What not to say, and why, and what you can do instead.

If you know someone who is grieving, you may wonder what has happened to your friend, why they are so sensitive, and how to be helpful, not hurtful.

Here are some things all widowed persons have heard, repeatedly, and why we dread hearing them. But you can help in other ways if you really do care.

•I know how you feel.

-No one knows how I feel, not even other newly widowed people. We know this about ourselves; one widow would never say this to another. Even other widows can only stand by the hole alongside one another and silently stare into the terrifying darkness. The grieving also know not to compare our traumas like playing cards: sudden death or prolonged illness, elderly husband or young soldier, miscarriage or teenage car crash, estranged mother or beloved pet. Don’t go there. Respect it all.

•How are you?

-Don’t bother asking how I am, unless you really want to hear. Most people don’t. In superficial conversation I now respond “I’m ok”, even if it is nowhere near the truth. But I know when it is not a real question, and I’d rather not see your eyes looking past me, hoping for a diversion if I speak openly of my pain.

•At least the worst is past / his suffering is over.

-Please don’t make me feel guilty for wanting him alive again. And the worst is not over for those who survive.

•What did he die of?

-If you did not know us well enough to know this already, please do not ask me for the excruciating details now. It comes across as the worst kind of rubbernecking. The cause matters far less now than the unalterable, undeniable fact of his absence.

•At least you had him for those years.

-Please, this is not the time or place to say that. In time I will be grateful for our life together, but hearing this now just makes me sadder, and then angry to hear that the past should be enough. His future is gone now, and so are big chunks of mine. Not to mention our child’s, who now and forever has no father. Not a consolation.

•Did he leave you life insurance/Social Security/enough money?

SO tacky. Just don’t. And no, he didn’t. If we are close enough friends, believe me, you’ll hear about my money problems more than you ever wanted to.

•You’ll be ok / time heals all wounds.

-Time does not heal all wounds, it only allows scar tissue to form. This is not the same as never having been injured. I may look healed on the outside at some point, but I will not be the same person I was before this. And I miss that person too.

•You’ll find love again.

-OK, this is just highly offensive on so many levels. A new love is the last thing on my mind. New love cannot be used as spackle to bridge a broken place, to fill in this hole. (There is not enough spackle in the world.) New love does not replace past love. This presumption also implies that our love is replaceable; simply substitute a new variable and go happily onward. I am not capable of holding someone new in my heart now, and anyone who could think of choosing me now would be getting a rotten deal.

•He is in a better place / he is in God’s hands.

-To this I can only respond with the words of C.S.Lewis, mourning his late wife in A Grief Observed, “…but if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here.”

•You’re so strong / we are not given more than we can bear.

-Oh, you have no idea how not strong I am. A person does what they must until they cannot do it any longer. Hopefully you will not witness me at that point; it is not pretty. We widows try to save our episodes of crumpling to our knees on the hard floor and beating it with our fists while choking on bitter tears and shrieking obscenities for when we are alone. Not always possible, but we set the bar low and hope only for that. It scares the children and the animals, and we don’t even feel better afterwards.

•You can start over.

-Yes. Indeed I MUST start over, and it is not a comforting thought. The reason for starting over is that everything we had contemplated and worked for together is wiped away. Not only is the landscape of our old life swept treeless and barren, but I can no longer pretend that tragedy could not happen to anyone at any time, to someone I love, even to me again. It is draining to acknowledge this while struggling to keep up the illusion that we have any control over anything at all. Yet holding onto this fragment, this naive prayer for mastery over our fate, is the only way we humans can keep getting out of bed in the morning.

•Are you dating yet?

-Disdainful silence and a cold stare is my only answer here. Especially if you are asking in hopes of an affirmative for yourself, and even more so if you were one of his friends.

•What does your therapist say?

-Not that it is anybody’s business, but my therapist, and anyone who knows anything about grief, says that there is no timetable for reasonable grieving. She is one of the few (along with widowed friends) who is not worried that I am not over it yet. Grief does not end. I hear you can eventually manage the pain; it becomes a chronic condition rather than acute crisis, and you are less likely to have to put down your basket and run out of the grocery store in tears. I hear that it ebbs. I look forward to that day, at the same time I despair that reaching it will mean our life together is truly over.

•Do you still cry all the time?

-Yes. Yes, I do. I cry over dates on the calendar, songs on the radio, bills in the mail, notes tucked into books, pictures hidden in drawers. I cry when I see him in our daughter’s face, voice, posture, and mannerisms, and when I do not: when I see her growing and changing without him here to witness. I cry when I think of calling to tell him something I just heard, and when I laugh at a cartoon he would have appreciated in the newspaper. I cry on holidays, and on normal days because they are no longer normal to me. I cry over the snowblower, the lawnmower, all the tools whose function I had no need to know before, and over his art supplies, hand-colored cards, penciled notes in cookbook margins. I cry in the shower, on the beach, in the car. I cry when I remember, and I cry when, for a moment, I forget.


What you can do instead:

Call. Call over and over, because I often don’t answer the phone, and I may not return messages. Keep trying. Don’t be offended by my reticence.

Hugs can be helpful for some – real giving human contact. To others they are an intrusion, anathema, a reminder of the one they will never hold close again. “May I give you a hug?” will let you know what to do next.

People stay away, or act like everything is fine because they don’t know what to say. It is not complicated. Say I’m sorry for your loss. Say You must miss him. Say I miss him too.

Let me talk about him. I can’t pretend he never was, as so many seem to think is best. Let me tell the same stories again and again. I want to hear your stories about him too. Please, talk about him. I may cry but it is fine: I cry whether you are here or not. Remembering him for a moment is a gift you can give to us both.

Silence is ok too. People are afraid of it, but when there is nothing to say that will help, no way to fix the problem with words, then silence can be welcome and even helpful. The friend who can be silently present is giving a great gift, that of not running away from grief, not trying to hide it under an avalanche of unhelpful words.

Show up. The simple gifts of time and practical everyday things are huge to me. A meal, a bottle of wine to share, flowers from your garden, mowing the lawn, walking the dog together, helping me fix some small broken thing in the house, coming by to sit and talk, being here to take laundry off the clothesline together. Any of these can fill a gap far larger than the offering itself.

Anything that you have offered which has been accepted, please, you must DO IT. Make time for it. The rug has been pulled out from under me. Do not add to the uncertainty of my world by failing to follow through.

Know that I will not reach out to ask for help. I just won’t. I’m not strong enough, organized enough, or healthy enough to think of it, and the ability to plan and complete everyday tasks is apparently one of the first things to go. I no longer cope with daily life like I used to, or as other people do, and getting through each day is sometimes a heavy burden. I do not not eat, sleep, or think well; my brain function is truly compromised and likely will be for some time to come.

Know that I am not fine, and please be gentle. Even if I look fine to you, it means I am acting well, and likely exhausted by the effort. I am not well. It is taking everything I have to get through this.

Lower your expectations of me as a friend. I may not want to go to the mall, to the movies, to a bar. To the beach or to the woods, maybe. I will not be the same person I was before this. With the loss of a partner, whole incarnations of myself present and future have died too, and this I mourn as well. My future does not look the same – everywhere there are unwelcome changes – and I am so battered by sadness and loss that all I can do is hold on and wait for time to pass until I am well enough to figure out where to go from here. All I can ask from my family and friends is not to hinder me in this journey I never wanted to take.

©Carolyn Stephens 2010



  1. This is a wonderful post. I wrote one of these on my blog, too, but I didn’t cover all of the things you did. You did a great job.


  2. thank you for this post! things like this are very helpful for friends of widows. I spent hours searching the internet for different posts like these when my friend was newly widowed.

    A friend and I recently started a blog for friends of widows, to provide information and support for friends so they can better know how to serve and love on their widowed friends. to know what helps and what NOT to do/say. We also made it as a resource that widows can share with their friends that need help understanding more what they are going through without the widow having to make a huge effort to spell it all out or try to articulate what she means while she is still raw with grief.

    Just thought I would share that with you in case you are interested.

    (I hope you do not mind me posting this here. I will not be offended if you want to delete this post if you feel I am out of line sharing this with you here. )


  3. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Like

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