Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 28, 2012

What not to say

In case one is wondering what to say to a widow, NO VERSION OF THIS IS OK.


YES, this really happened.


Sorry for all the caps. I am A LITTLE UPSET.

I am driving slowly up the little road to our place in Sullivan, to the house that Jeff built. Although I love it with all my heart, coming here, especially alone, is about the hardest thing I ever have to do, still, after all this time. I just drove over to check on things after dropping Anna back at school. And then I will run away home.

My neighbor is walking her dog along our road, so I roll down the window to exchange pleasantries. I haven’t seen her in months. While we have talked numerous times over subjects as dangerous as politics, religion, and land use, we are acquaintances, not friends.

Neighbor: I haven’t seen you around much.

Me: Yes, it is hard for me to spend much time here these days.

N: (puzzled expression)

Me: You do know what happened?

N:  (puzzled expression)

Me: Did you know that Jeff died?

(And believe me, it was many, many months before I could say those words without crying.)

N: No! (shocked) When??  How??

Me: It’ll be 3 years this summer.

N: What happened??

Me: Cancer.

N: Oh no! What kind??  [Now, maybe this is just me – I don’t think so – but I am already offended by this question. What possible concern is it of hers? And what good can possibly come of this? I always want to know, too, but I refrain from asking, because it is not helpful. And I am learning that it often leads to editorializing of a most unpleasant and intrusive variety.]

Me, answering anyway, against my better judgement: … Colon cancer. Which spread.

N: Oh, that’s quite treatable, isn’t it? If you catch it early?

Me: …

N: So he had no clue? He didn’t go to the doctor?

Me: …

N: If only he had caught it in time…..Colon cancer is considered quite curable.

Me, suddenly having had enough, putting the car in gear, and driving away: Apparently not! Well, nice seeing you.

She did have the good grace to follow me down my driveway and invite me to dinner. Not that I would ever go to her house in a million years.

When I rather tearfully told her the story, our dear friend A, who GETS IT, said: “WHO SAYS THAT? Colon cancer is no biggie? EVIDENTLY NOT! Who tells the widow that the cancer is curable when you’ve just been presented with DIRECT EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY?”

Which is why I love her so.

And why, instead of walking up my own road, I will drive across the county to go to her house for dinner a million more times.

“The black will be gray and the white will be gray, but the blues are still blue” – Belle & Sebastian



  1. I’m sorry that you had that kind of encounter. Some people do seem to have a weirdly morbid form of curiosity and a need to express their opinions. When Don was sick and also after he died, I avoided stating that he had lung cancer as I just knew how so many people would react. “Oh! Did he smoke?!” “How long did he smoke?” “I never knew he smoked!” etc… Even doctors and nurses used to ask us that — “What? He never smoked? Really?!” – to the point that it got so old and tired. He was a never smoker and I’m sure that fact horrified some of the “rude askers” as they had probably never considered the possibility that *they* might be equally vulnerable to this type of cancer. Anyhow, yes, that kind of thing is really weird and disturbing.


  2. As a student of human nature I guess I should not be surprised, but, yeah. People are ignorant. I have another friend who lost her non- smoking husband to lung cancer, who gets this sort of judgement all the time too. Like it’s not hard enough without that! But writing this story helped me realize that I don’t need to engage in this ever again. Next time I think I will adopt a puzzled expression and ask, Why do you ask? or something similar that helps them stop before inflicting more damage to someone already hurting.


  3. prezactly – a well placed “why do you ask?” leaves said people with only two possible responses – silence, or truth: “I am being nosey.”


  4. Good GAWD, Carolyn!

    Though, of course, I’m not shocked. Been there, heard that, or pretty close. As a breast-cancer widower, of course, I have the whole “pink” thing to deal with. The oppressively universal narrative of how breast cancer is one of those “good” cancers, that’s “treatable,” and how we should raise money for “awareness” and celebrate “survivors.” Julie had a 100% clean mammogram in July of 2007, and was diagnosed with Stage 4 in April of 2008. She died in January of 2011, despite receiving excellent care and access to the best treatment available. Statistically, her lifespan was almost exactly the average after a Stage 4 diagnosis. Most people are shocked beyond belief when they hear this. They had no idea something like that could even happen. How about some “awareness” around THAT, eh Komen?

    Of course, people sometimes misunderstand my issues around this. I am very close with a number of breast cancer survivors. I am THRILLED that they are disease-free and I hope more than anything that they stay that way for their entire lives. But so much of the time all people want to talk about is “treatable,” and “preventable,” how “lifestyle and diet” can “prevent most cancers.” Because many don’t want to face the simple, awful reality, which is that cancer kills, and there is OFTEN (not seldom or rarely) not a flipping thing we can do about it. Unfortunately, I believe, the more we allow that denial to go uncorrected, the more cancer will continue to be able to kill. It’s hard to fight a problem you won’t admit it real.


  5. Gadzooks. Sorry you had to exchange those un-pleasantries.


  6. So grateful to have my people here. Love you all. Mortality is so much easier to deal with in theory than in practice. Cancer kills, and so does lots of other stuff. (Fuck awareness, find a cure?! I hate pink.) And Jeff lived almost exactly the statistically perfect number of days and months of someone presenting with colon cancer stage IV at dx also. Not that I ever told him what that was expected to be, although I knew from day one. He very carefully did not know. We did think, hey someone has to be in that 2,6, 8,10% (depending on your resource). Might as well be us. But no.
    And don’t even get me started on where the cancer comes from.


  7. I deal with this on almost a daily basis. When I am asked about what type of cancer I have, most automatically assume or say “Breast cancer”? and give me a horrified look when I tell them no, I have rectal cancer. I then receive all types of unsolicited advice. On my last day of radiation we found out that my husband has type 4 lung cancer, and so many people brush it off like he deserved it because he was a smoker. We try to deal with this with humor, and not let people know they are being offensive, but when it got back to me that some people we know didn’t want to come visit us. because they thought our house had caused us to have cancer, I just lost it. Then a relative (who shall remain nameless) didn’t want to sit in my recliner, because she didn’t want to catch the rectal cancer. You just can’t make this stuff up!


  8. Hi Carolyn.
    I’m sorry about the direction that conversation went, and of course, for your loss. My brother died of AIDS and when it comes out that this is what took his life I get some pretty ignorant questions too. I think people are sometimes just awkward about knowing what to say. Still, no excuse.


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