Have you ever known anyone who has lost a spouse? Most of us have been in a situation where we have come face-to-face with someone who is grief-stricken by the loss of his or her life’s partner. When I was nine, I remember being at the funeral home for my great-grandmother’s viewing and suddenly a young widow (probably in her 30s) came down the hall sobbing. She was held closely by a friend or family member and if I recall she wailed something like, “What am I going to do without him. I can’t go on!” Even though I was a child, it affected me. Twenty-one years later, I can still see the agony on her face.
Losing a spouse is a major life adjustment and, unlike going to college, getting married, or having your first child, it’s a life adjustment accompanied by anguish. We want to bring comfort and peace to those we love who are grieving, but what are those special statements we shouldn’t make? Below are just a few of the many comments that should be off limits while conversing with a recent widow or widower:
- You have to be strong. Says who? Why does he or she have to be strong? In fact, does anyone really expect a grieving widow or widower to be strong? If I was to poll one hundred random people and ask them if they think it’s necessary for someone who just lost a spouse to be strong and put together, I’m confident that the overwhelming majority would say, “No.” No one freaks out and calls a shrink when a woman dressed in black cries at her husband’s funeral. Grief is expected and, believe it or not, is good. We need to grieve. If we don’t grieve properly after a death or tragedy, we will grieve later and it might be when we’re least expecting it. This is the time to rely on others’ strength.
- I’ve been through the same pain. I know how you’re feeling. Even if your husbands were twins, wore the same outfit every day, and both gargled chicken noodle soup every night, you still can’t fully know how a grieving widow feels, just as she can’t fully know how you felt when you were grief stricken. In an effort to connect with someone who’s hurting, it’s tempting to look for ways to show our understanding, but husbands and wives in mourning don’t need to compare their pain with other people’s pain. They just need friends and family to show support and offer their shoulders.
- You can remarry. or Do you think you’ll remarry? Whoa mule! This question is considerably premature. The majority of widows and widowers don’t have a little black book full of backup brides or grooms to call. To start talking about remarrying right after a spouse’s death is inconsiderate and disrespectful to the deceased’s memory. Eric’s dad was approached by an interested woman less than a week after his mom passed away and it really angered Eric. People need time to process the death of a spouse, adjust, and heal before entertaining the idea of remarrying. This takes longer for some than others, but discussing the possibility with someone who just buried their spouse is inappropriate.
- At least you didn’t have… (kids, debt, a blue whale)… “No, we didn’t have kids and that breaks my heart because I’ll never have a child to carry on his or her legacy.” What might make sense to us rationally may be gut wrenching to the widow or widower. “Yes, we were debt free, but I’d gladly go back into debt if it would give me more time with my husband or wife.” We should not try to lessen someone’s grief. Even if we gave a mourning woman a million dollars to console her, it wouldn’t take away the raw pain of her loss. As uncomfortable as it can be to watch someone hurt, grieving spouses need the opportunity to work through the pain with the full support of family and friends. No amount of good life circumstances (an abundance of children and grandchildren, wealth, etc.) is going to erase the sorrow.
- He or she is in a better place now. This may be true. If the deceased was a believer who had repented and put his or her trust in Christ, he or she is in a better place, but that doesn’t mean the surviving spouse should just get up and do happy cartwheels around the room. It is a tremendous comfort to know your loved one is with the Lord, but when the heartache is new, some spouses aren’t yet ready to rejoice. In his anguish, he may want to scream out to God, “Why did You have to take her from me?!” And she may cry out in anger, “But I needed him!” Since we aren’t the ones experiencing the pain, it’s probably best to refrain from verbally looking for the good in the situation (even if we’re doing it with the best of intentions).
- How can I help you? This one surprised me. I would’ve thought grieving spouses would appreciate having people ask if they needed help, but after doing some reading and reflection it makes sense why this would not be a comforting question to ask. When someone is in the depths of grief, he or she probably won’t be in the right frame of mind to call and ask for favors. Remember, they are grieving and trying to remember how to breathe. It’s unlikely that they will pick up the phone, call a friend, and say “Hey, I could really use some toilet paper – the soft kind – and some barbeque chicken wings.” Instead, take some initiative. Be available. If you see something that needs to be done (dishes, trash, grocery shopping, etc.), then do it – even if it feels like you are overstepping your bounds. Sometimes just having someone in the house is a comfort, regardless of what chores are getting done.
- It was his or her time. “Oh, ok… so I shouldn’t be sad. After all, he lived as long as he was supposed to.” Whether it’s true or not, there is nothing comforting about it. I would imagine if someone said this to me while I was grieving, I would think, “And who do you think you are to tell me it was or wasn’t the right time for my husband to die?” Regardless of how true something may be, we have to ask ourselves, “Would saying this phrase I’m thinking help this grieving spouse?” If not, we need to zip our lips.
- Have you thought about moving in with your kids (or parents, if the widow or widower is young)? Are you going to sell your house? What are you going to do with the insurance money? How will you handle ______? When recent widows or widowers call into Dave Ramsey’s show with questions about financial decisions, he recommends that they wait six months before making any big financial decisions (e.g., selling a house, cashing in financial investments [unless necessary to live], etc.) and just cry. When my Granddaddy passed away, my grandmother suddenly became responsible for paying the bills and looking after his old responsibilities. Shortly after his death, she began having some panic attacks. Why? Because she was overwhelmed with grief and she was learning to live without him. Use soothing words, give a lot of hugs, and don’t add more stress to the minds of a widow or widower.
- God must have wanted him or her with Him. Statements like this can make the grieving spouse feel guilty for wishing his or her spouse was still alive. Again, such statements don’t help or comfort anyone. This also paints God as the bad guy. “You would still have your husband or wife if God hadn’t decided He wanted him or her to be with Him.” We don’t know the thoughts and ways of God because His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). It’s best not to speculate about why someone’s spouse died at this particular time, especially in his or her earshot.
- Can we help you pack up his or her belongings? Are you going to give his or her clothes to Goodwill? (or anything that suggests the grieving widow or widower should begin disposing of his or her loved one’s belongings). Again, this is overwhelming. For the first six months, a surviving spouse should not be concerned with moving anything, packing anything, or selling and donating anything. If he or she does want to start boxing up belongings, he or she may prefer to do it alone at his or her own pace. It’s hard getting rid of a beloved’s clothes, favorite collectables, medications, and other belongings. When it’s time, he or she will begin downsizing. In the meantime, just keep being helpful and available.
Don’t be surprised if your friend or family member is not his or her self for a while after losing a spouse. Let him or her have time to adjust to the new normal and give as much of your time as possible during those early days. After the funeral is over and people start getting back to their daily lives, don’t forget about him or her. Make sure he or she is getting out of the house. Go with him or her to the grocery store the first few times. Do yard work or clean something for that person. Even if he or she can’t express it at the time, your attentiveness and concern will be appreciated. ~smile~
How would you interact with someone who had recently lost a spouse?