What not to say to a widow (while she’s still grieving)

Here is a list of some of the things that have been said to me while I was grieving which just drove me to an insane level of rage and depression. I used to feel people were just plain ignorant of how I was feeling. Now, I realize, they were mostly trying to say something in an attempt to comfort, even though their attempts fell flat like a lead balloon in front of my face. A good rule of thumb when you don’t really have anything to say to a person who is grieving is just say nothing at all. If they are someone you are close to, give them a hug or pat them on the back, but keep your mouth shut unless you’re sure what you’re going to say will truly bring comfort to the other person. Sometimes, though, people don’t really want you to say anything. They just want you to listen. They don’t want solutions; they just want to be heard, their pain recognized and understood.

By the way, just so you know, this is not just “Heidi’s list of what not to say to widows because she’s oversensitive.” Rather, some of these are universally accepted by other widows (those with whom I’ve corresponded on the internet).

Everything happens for a reason. This one used to really get to me. Even if I was spiritual at the time, I would find no comfort in it. I know the person was merely trying to express that there is a reason for everything, even this tragedy. But that the reason is unknown to both us, it really does more to make me feel lost in the vastness of universe rather than feel secure. It just sounds like I’m supposed to shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well. He died for a reason. It’s part of the Master Plan.” I don’t know. I just have a hard time with the phrase.

He was meant to be in your life for a reason. Translation: “Your husband was in your life for a specific reason and when he fulfilled it, he died. Now you will grow to be a better person because of the experience.” None of which I find comforting. What makes me more important that he should be created to better my life and then die while I continue to live? This smacks of Calvinism. I just can’t buy into it. In my spiritual beliefs, there are certain random acts that happen of which God has no control over. It’s called free will. This statement, along with the one before it, just depresses me. I don’t want to imagine that my life’s plan, from its very beginning, was to fall in love and then lose the best thing in my life. I can’t imagine God being so harsh. Rather, I believe, the Plan is always in motion, whatever it is, and our acts on this planet determine where they go. Therefore, my future is what I make of it now that the tragedy has occurred. End of story.

Despite my univeralist leanings, I have heard even religious widows exclaim a disgust for these phrases that imply a plan. Even if they believe that God has a Master Plan, they really don’t want to be reminded that the Plan isn’t always rosey. Maybe it’s a concept they can handle later, after they’ve gone through their grieving. Though, for me, it’s still bitter words to my ears.

Don’t worry. You’re young, you’ll find love again. Said to me at my husband’s wake as I stood next to his casket greeting people. I think you can figure out how insensitive these words are without me explaining them. I don’t remember who said this, but I hope karma has kicked them in the butt somewhere in the last seven years!

Life is for the living. Said to me by the HR lady at my company when I returned to work two weeks after Mike’s death. Gee, thanks for stating the obvious. So succinctly and cleanly.

I understand how you feel. I’m divorced. Wrong answer, bucko/buckette. While I agree (and have stated in a post last year) that there are definitely some similarities in the way someone feels post-divorce, such as the feelings of loss of a foreseeable future, losing one’s spouse is a great deal different than getting a divorce. Forgive me if you are divorced for my crudeness, but the difference is this: losing my husband was like having your spouse die in the best years of your marriage before they took the turn that led to divorce. It’s really not the same thing at all. Mike and I were chugging along happily when tragedy broke apart our union. In a divorce, one or both parties has decided that what they have is not working out–they choose to dissolve the relationship. I do not deny that this is a painful process. I’ve broken up with people, I understand how hard that is, and I can’t imagine what that’s like once you’ve taken the vows of commitment in marriage. But, it is not the same feeling of loss that one feels when their spouse dies.

I understand how you feel. I recently lost my mother/father/uncle/grandma/cat. Okay, close. Still, not quite the same kind of relationship as you share with a spouse. Now if you’re saying that you understand grief and what it feels like to lose someone important, say that. Or say, “I understand some of what you’re going through.” Although, really, I’d just avoid saying you understand. I know that I would never tell a parent who lost a child that I understand how he/she feels because I lost my husband. The loss of a child, again, is a different relationship than a husband. And, furthermore, not being a parent myself, I don’t have the foggiest idea of what it feels like to have that kind of connection with a human being. I can imagine it or empathize with the idea, but that’s not nearly enough to say I understand. Instead, I would just offer to listen to the person grieving, probably in an empathetic attempt to understand. But I don’t think I ever could really understand unless I experienced motherhood.

In fact, I am not even sure I could tell another widow that I understand how they feel just because I’m a widow myself. If the person I’m talking to lost their husband to a long debilitating disease, it’s different sort of grief than the shock-grief that occurred when my husband died suddenly. Just listening to widows on my online widows/widower groups makes me realize how many diverse situations there are between how people died and how a person felt about the death. There are similarities, but I still can’t presume to know what someone is feeling simply because I went through a similar experience. We all grieve in our own way. Again, I stress listening as the key to these types of situations. Only through listening to others can we glean any knowledge of any situation. So instead of saying you understand, offer your ear for listening. Most griever just want to be heard. I can’t say that enough.

You’re so strong. While seeming to be a compliment, it actually smacks a widow in the face. First of all, implied in the statement is that you are showing no emotion and you’re being praised for showing no emotion. I would start to feel bad, thinking that I wasn’t doing Mike justice. Secondly, the last thing a widow feels is strong. Imagine you’re having the worst day of your life–you’re depressed, your boss yelled at you, you lost your favorite possession. Then someone comes up to you and says, “Wow! You look really happy.” But you feel miserable on the inside. How does that make you feel? It’s just kind of awkward. Because now the door is closed for you to express anything other than what others have projected you to be feeling. Telling me that I am strong is telling me that you don’t want to hear about anything that contradicts your observation.

What does it mean to be strong anyway? I always wondered if just the fact that I didn’t go outside and hang myself from the nearest tree was testament to everyone else that I was strong. Yes, I made it through the whole process. Yes, I went on living, I continued to work. That wasn’t strength, that was necessity. The only other option for me was to lay in a fetal position on my bed and never get out again. What I was doing was surviving because millions of years of biology have dictated self-preservation. Strength is for superheroes–people like Lance Armstrong who can barrow their way up mountains on bikes. You survive grief because you have to, not because you want to.

Besides, I seriously think you would have doubted my strength if you saw me in the evenings alone in my house. It was the only time I could crumble uninhibitedly, let the darkness on the inside ooze out. There was no strength. Only survival. Don’t envy me for survival. Envy evolution because you would do it too if you had to.

Mike would want you to move on. How the heck do you know what Mike would have wanted me to do? And, anyway, I think it’s an obvious statement that at some point, yes, Mike would have wanted me to “move on” with my life and find love again. Yes. But, really, do I need to hear this while I’m still trying to get through the grief of losing him? In the back of my mind, I always pictured asking Mike, when he were alive, if he wouldn’t mind if I dated someone else when he died. I can’t imagine that a person can really imagine their spouse with someone else, even if they basically give you permission to “move on” after they die. A spouse shouldn’t even have to tell someone that; it should be innately obvious that eventually the person will find someone else to love again someday. But no one wants to talk about that at the bedside of their dying spouse. Or maybe they do, when the person is dying of a long term illness, but I would still find that conversation uncomfortable and ridiculous.

I have to mention, too, that I really, really, really, really abhor the words “move on.” They were used (and still sometimes used) in lots of different incidents throughout my experience: I see that you have moved on; It is time for you to move on; How long was it before you moved on?

It’s really just kind of a heartless phrase. “Moved on” implies moving beyond, away from. Grief doesn’t really “move on.” It kind of stays with you your whole life, it just more or less “eases up.” Believe it or not, “eases up” sounds much friendlier to me than “move on.” This society is so focused on “moving on” in all aspects of our lives, like going forward is the only way to be, even if we have nowhere specifically to go. Staying somewhere for a long period of time is called “complacency” and people frown upon complacency. We always must “move on” to the next situation and then the next, leaving behind the bodies of those who refuse to move. I wouldn’t feel the need to move anywhere if I found that one happy spot where I felt compelled to stay. We don’t always have to be on the go. In the case of grieving, sometimes a person needs to stay where they are at for awhile. This going forward lingo of movement just implies being left behind at the station if the train of life you were supposed to take has pulled out. Will you have another chance to catch this train in the future?

Even today, I wouldn’t say I’ve “moved on” (though the phrase has slipped out of my mouth on occasion due to its popularity in mass culture and I cringe every time it does). I’ve let go of the bad emotions–the anger, the sadness, the depression–and opened myself again to new experiences, to living my life to its fullest, because I know with actual first-hand knowledge that that is what Mike would have wanted of me. The grief still lingers–I feel it from time to time, as I feel the loss of all those who have passed before me–but it no longer weighs on my soul. I’d call it learning to live with my grief rather than “moving on.” I’d beg you to do the same. I’m pretty sure “moving on” is a widely hated term by widows and widowers alike, not just oversensitive Mars Girls.


9 thoughts on “What not to say to a widow (while she’s still grieving)

  1. You spend a lot of energy trying to distance yourself from others. They are trying to build a bridge to you and relate on some level, trying to help you not feel so alone… and you knock it down and declare that they can’t possibly know what it’s like. They stumble and stutter and say stupid things, I mean, gosh, haven’t you ever said anything stupid? You know you have. I’d be awkward too in those situations.With your logic, no human being can ever fully understand another human being since no two people have exactly the same backgrounds or experiences. But the only thing that logic gets you is just a sense of hopelessness and terrible isolation. In life, we are able to relate to each other and understand <>not<> because we have had exactly the same experiences, but because through love we are able to build a connection to someone who is different not because it is easy but because it is hard. That’s what love is about… it is not about two identical persons who just naturally have had exactly the same experiences, it is about people who have not had the same experiences who struggle and work at it and communicate and make an effort to understand someone who is different. That is love.

  2. Well, I have news for you. It’s not just me. Lists like these have gone all over my widows groups. Because you havent experienced the loss of a spouse, I guess you dont understand how touchy we are… how somethings people say only make us feel worse. If you wont proof, I can search the archives of my widows groups and pull you one or two lists of people saying basically the same things as I’ve said right here. I’m providing PSA for the rest of the world so that they can react in mature ways when faced with someone they know who is going through this.Sorry, but I’m not an original on this one.Btw, I really think it sucks if someone says to you, while you’re husband is laying in the casket next to you, not to worry you will love again. I didnt even mention the guy who asked my friends if it was okay for him to hit on me at the funeral.So, you know, people can be really lame. Dont you go pointing the “I’m distancing myself” crap at me. I’m just trying to educate, like you do on your blog.

  3. And, PS, which is what I will do as a grief counselor, when I’m helping patients in my office who are also complaining to me about things people have said to them that have offended them. Because, sorry, you really <>can’t<> understand how it feels to lose your spouse unless you’ve been there. You can take guesses based personal experience, but you dont KNOW. I didnt know before it happened to me just what all I would experience and feel. I mean, seriously, I couldnt have taken a wild stab as to how I feel. So many weird things happen to you when someone you’re close to dies, such as thinking you see them in a crowd, or being afraid to get rid of their stuff because they might come back, or thinking that the person is going to walk threw the door of your house at the time when they always did, or forgetting in the morning what happened. I couldnt even imagine all the anger I would feel at the universe. I mean, I just didnt know. The sinking feeling I got when they told me he was dead, how I thought I could somehow turn back time and change the situation if I went through the morning a different way, which, obviously, is not something you can really do, you cant turn back time. I would have never imagined that I’d have blamed myself for his death. Or the depth of depression and the way the pain washed over me each day of the week after he died, how I have never felt–not in any breakup I’ve ever been in–such an overwhelming wave of anguished that burned every cell in my body so that I could feel fire in ever nerve ending. The days of listening to that floating static undulating in my ears. I cant even tell you in words what I felt. All words are inaccurate, but I have to say, without exaggeration, that I’ve never felt such paralyzing emotional pain in my entire life. And I’ve been depressed before, but it was not the same. Imaging Mike dying while he was still alive, I still couldnt imagine what I felt. I pray I never have to find myself swept up in that sort of agony again (though I fear that I will). I’ve always said that I dont think I could survive a second dose of that, but I suppose I probably would, thanks be to biology and surivival, I’d keep going. And I’d love again knowing that I’d have to be spiked with that same amount of pain again. And, unfortunately, if I could do my life over knowing what I know, I’d take the punch again to be with Mike for the short amount of time that I had him in my life. But I will never say it was easy. And it was very crippling. I am not sure someone could understand that unless it happened to them. But maybe I’m really dense and in my former life just not empathetic enough.

  4. Okay, don’t turn your anger to me, I’m not having it. All I’m saying is that you have a choice here–you can see the good in people or you can see the bad. It is up to you. You can either complain how no one can understand you or you can work with people who are trying to make a connection to you and build a bridge. It is up to you.

  5. Dar. That’s what I was doing here by posting helpful hints about how to talk to grieving people. I’m giving you what I have experienced as well as the others on my widow list. I’m providing information that lets you know what we generally do not like to hear. Just because you are trying to be compassionate does not mean you have free reign to say whatever you like to someone. I’m just letting you know what kind of comments hurt other when they are thoughtlessly said so that perhaps you can think slower when you’re talking to a person in this situation. My husband always said to edit before you speak… if more people did that, I’d be happier (though, I’m not blameless, even if it sounds like I think I am). In general, though, because of my experiences, I have chosen to not say anything if I can’t immediately think of anything fitting to say. I wait for people to talk to me… I dont try to fill them with wisdom of life (ie, “everythig happens for a reason!”) but let them open to me what they are feeling. Then more appropriate words come to mind than the general, empty niceties that everyone uses. Some of these sayings, after all, are like responses to the question, “How are you?” They aren’t truthful, heartfelt responses, just a lot of garbage everyone thinks you’re supposed to say in that situation.Perhaps I should make a separate entry about all the good things people did and said to balance out all the negative responses. It’s not all I experienced. A few close friends were understanding, much more compassionate, and not full of empty cliches.

  6. <>They are trying to build a bridge to you and relate on some level, trying to help you not feel so alone…and you knock it down and declare that they can’t possibly know what it’s like.<>Well, of course they can’t possibly know exactly what it’s like. But they can make sure that their comments don’t cut deeper when they were meant to soothe. Imagine the situation here that was Heidi’s experience. It’s her husband’s funeral, she’s standing at his casket, she still thinks that she’s caught in a horrible nightmare, all she wants to do is hide away from the world for a while, or punch someone out, or scream until she’s horse, but instead she has to stand there in a room full of people. The people are attempting to offer their condolences the only way they know how because they really have no idea, but the only way they know how is to offer trite cliches that make the widow want to scream even more. What I read you as saying in your comment is that the widow is NOT allowed to be upset at these trite comments that are only upsetting her even more, but, in her current agitated state, she has to be the one to take the higher ground and be gracious about all the stupid comments falling around her. And granted, the people making the comments don’t think that they’re stupid (for all I know I made some of these stupid comments), but they sure are upsetting the widow. But she’s in no rational state of mind to take those deep breaths and think, “Yes, I want to sucker punch them right now, because that was a <>really<> asinine thing to say to me, but they mean well so I can deal with it.” Yes, you can see the good in people or the bad in people, but in a situation like this, you’re not consciously processing your thoughts in this manner; you’re reacting with your gut. Heidi’s trying to offer the insight so that if one finds themselves in this situation, their comments really will help comfort the widow (or widower) rather than agitate them more. If someone truly does want to “build a bridge” to help the widow(er) “not feel so alone,” they should be reading this entry and taking notes, not throwing daggers at the advice. Our society in general has this thing about silence, it’s like one is compelled that they HAVE to say something, even if they have no idea what to say, when often in a situation like this, as Heidi mentioned, sometimes the best thing one can do is just not say anything at all.

  7. *applause*This right here is an example of why Diane is and always has remained throughout this entire process MY FRIEND. And, to my recollection, Di, you have never said anything that pissed me off and made me want to sucker punch you. You’ve always been compassionate and a good listener. This post isnt so much for people like you cuz I think you know how to be compassionate for people in a time of need. It’s in your nature. It’s the people who grieved with me for the loss of Mike because they knew him so well who did the best for me (Sarah, Di, Rob, and many others who were in my closer network of friends). The people who did cry real tears for Mike being gone cuz they knew him and maybe saw him as a brother too.

  8. <>What I read you as saying in your comment is that the widow is NOT allowed to be upset at these trite comments that are only upsetting her even more, but, in her current agitated state, she has to be the one to take the higher ground and be gracious about all the stupid comments falling around her. <>I’m not saying that at all. I would never deny anyone the right to their feelngs. If this post is a way for Mars Girl to help others deepen their sensitivity, then I’m all for it. If there is anything that is lacking in our culture today, it would be a lack of sensitivity and empathy.But I do think there is something in this overall thinking that can isolate a grieving person, which is not good for their long-term health and healing.<>This right here is an example of why Diane is and always has remained throughout this entire process MY FRIEND.<>I don’t doubt her friendship one bit. But sometimes friendship can come in many forms. As someone who spent many years thinking that everyone I met was an “enemy” unless they met some strict criteria I made up for them, I have realized that I might have missed out on a lot with this kind of thinking.

  9. Not the case here, Frank. In my grieving, I learned who my real friends were… it was the people who actually were there for me when I was suffering most. No strict criteria involved… Just those who reached out. And there weren’t that many. I didn’t make enemies out of those who didnt, I just realized that we werent all that close after all since they didnt offer to help me out. I dont hold anything against them now, I just know that they are the kind of friends you go to in good times, not bad. We have all different kinds of friends in this life and not all of them are the deeply committed kind. And that’s okay.Btw, I didnt have to isolate myself… It happened pretty naturally a week after the funeral when all of his family left and my phone didnt ring. There’s only so much a person can do. I wasn’t about to reach out to everyone else, making those who werent prepared to deal with what I needed try to deal with me. Whenever I called out for help and I approached the wrong people, they were really uncomfortable. So I just sat there in my own isolation (NOT SELF-IMPOSED) waiting for the few who cared to check in on me.I spent a lot of nights alone and it had nothing to do with anything I was doing to anyone else. I’m sure more people wanted to help, but were afraid and didnt know what to do. What I’m TRY”ING to tell people in my entries is that if you REALLY care about someone, and they are grieving, you need to reach out to them because most likely they wont come to you (because they are afraid to burden you). And the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do is LISTEN. Not try to solve their depression, not try to offer solutions for dealing with their grief, BUT LISTEN.LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN.Which is, in a way, what I am trying to get people to do with this blog that tells you, through the eyes of a person who has been through it, what a griefing person needs. This blog, originally, was a way to make people understand how I felt when I was going through it because I really, truly did feel that no one understood me. Their actions and words proved it. I tried to communicate it often. But I’m better in writing.So stop criticizing my feelings.

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