Losing a spouse and experiencing the accompanying grief is heartbreaking. Life changes overnight.
What was once easy can become difficult. It could be paying the bills, cooking, eating, getting out of the house, or remembering appointments. Widowhood is unlike anything someone has typically experienced.
The brain fog that can come with the death of a spouse is challenging. It doesn’t help that grief is swept under the rug in the United States. We aren’t taught how to experience grief or how to be there for someone experiencing it.
It can feel awkward. You may be unsure of what to do. You may be worried about hurting someone or bringing up sad memories if you say the wrong thing.
Don’t let that stop you from being there for someone who recently became a widow.
Let’s talk about 4 clear ways you can help a widow.
1. Listen to a Widow
Death is not the time for opinions, stories about yourself, or trying to fill silence.
It’s a time for listening – authentic, compassionate, and truly caring listening. It’s a time for sitting in silence and being there in someone else’s emotions. It’s about being okay in the uncomfortable feelings.
There is no clear path in grief. It’s unpredictable. It’s volatile. It’s simply all over the place.
The sooner you can recognize and internalize it, the easier it will be to listen and sit with someone without an agenda or worrying about what to say.
What to Say to a Widow
If you are looking for ideas about what to say, here are a few options:
- What kind of day has this been?
- What you are feeling sounds so natural to me. It sounds like someone grieving the death of a loved one.
- What’s your favorite memory of ____________ (use the deceased’s name)?
- There are no good words for loss, and I’m here with you.
- What do you wish people knew about what you are experiencing?
If you are looking for more ideas of what to say to a widow, here is an ultimate guide of what to say to a widow.
Many people shy away from using the deceased’s name or are afraid of bringing up memories of them. Don’t shy away from it. Lean into those feelings.
Saying the deceased’s name is a way to tell the widow they are not forgotten and are loved. Reminiscing about stories with that person is a way to honor them. What a gift it can be for a widow to hear about your favorite memories with their loved one.
While the rest of the world may try to avoid emotions, stories, and grief widows often experience, you can be the one they feel more comfortable around.
What Not To Say to a Widow
First, recognize you are going to make mistakes. You will likely say something wrong.
As long as it’s said with love and kindness, and are willing to apologize when you notice, it’s likely going to be okay.
If you aren’t constantly worrying about saying the wrong thing, it’s much easier to hold space for someone and speak from the heart.
Here are a few phrases you should eliminate from your vocabulary. It can be tough because many of these are common phrases we hear.
- I understand what you are going through.
- I can’t imagine what you are going through.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- They are in a better place.
- Any phrase that has “at least”.
- At least you had a long time with them.
- At least they died quickly.
- At least they didn’t suffer.
If you mess up and say the wrong thing, own it. Apologize to them immediately and clarify what you should have said instead. If you notice it later, call them to explain. The sooner you can recognize you said the wrong thing that may have hurt them, the sooner you can apologize, and the sooner you can help the other person start healing from what you said.
Again, almost everyone makes mistakes in what they say, particularly at first. You are communicating in a way that isn’t taught, is rarely experienced, and if you go off of what other people say, you are often learning the wrong lessons.
2. Be Specific in Your Offers of Help to a Widow
Have you ever had someone say, “Let me know if you need anything” or “I’m here if you need anything.”?
How often do you take them up on it?
Rarely, I’m guessing.
When someone is recently widowed, they often do not know what they need. They may also be too exhausted to ask for help or are afraid of imposing.
A better method is to be very specific in your offer of help, and follow up after with, “Is there anything else that would be more helpful to you now?”
This way you have already proposed an idea and given them an idea of how much you are willing to help, but also leave the door open for other options if there is something they need more.
For example, you could say, “I want to come over and clean your house on Saturday between 1 and 5 p.m. and then get takeout for us to eat dinner together. If you are not up for me being around on Saturday, it’s okay to cancel on me, including when I arrive. This is an idea I had, but is there anything else that would be more helpful to you now?”
What’s great about this statement is the following:
- You proposed an activity you can do for them (cleaning).
- You were specific about the day and time (Saturday between 1 and 5 p.m.).
- You invited them to do something with you (eat dinner).
- You gave them an out if they aren’t up for having you over (an okay to cancel last minute).
- You left the invitation open for them to suggest something else that they may need more at the moment.
It’s rare that a widow would not appreciate a cleaner house or a meal together. It is possible they need space and don’t want to see anybody on Saturday, in which case, they can cancel at any point.
In this situation, you did the heavy work of coming up with an idea, but you are putting them in control if they don’t feel well or want something different.
Let’s look at a few common offers of help.
Food is one of the most popular ways people offer to help. It’s easy to make a main dish or bring takeout.
If you are going to bring food, I would try to get a sense for how much food they already have. If they end up with too much, you are possibly creating another problem where the widow’s freezer is full or food needs to be thrown away because it’s gone bad.
It’s okay to bring food, but a better idea may be to bring food in the weeks or months after death. Immediately after death, there are often many offers of help. After the first few weeks, many of those offers suddenly disappear.
Food may be more helpful later.
House Cleaning and Other Household Tasks
Trying to do normal life things while grieving can feel insurmountable.
You could offer to do laundry, dust, vacuum, or anything else that may need cleaning.
It doesn’t have to be you. You could arrange for a professional housekeeper to clean.
If there are repairs that need to be made, you could do them or hire a handyperson.
Some widows may find certain household tasks are a good break from everyday life. If they prefer to clean or do other household tasks, don’t force the issue. It can feel nice to have control over parts of life.
Another option is to offer to mow the lawn, weed the garden, or shovel snow. If you don’t have the time, you could hire a lawn service.
Like cleaning, a widow may enjoy being in their garden, and you don’t want to take that away from them. It’s best to get a feel for what they might want help with by proposing an idea and seeing if they have any objections to it.
Getting Out of the House
It can be easy to start a pattern of staying home and feeling isolated as a widow. An offer to go to a restaurant, walk in the park, see a movie, visit a bookstore, go to a museum, or anything else that is out of the house can go a long way.
Home is usually filled with memories, smells, and reminders. Being physically present in a different space may help emotionally or provide a good distraction.
If the widow declines the first few times, it’s likely okay to keep offering. They may not be ready at first, but would welcome an invitation later.
It’s not uncommon for many offers to come in around the same time as death, but then taper off. Like many social engagements, if someone says no enough times, it’s common for them to stop inviting them, but for a widow, it can be isolating. You should consider continuing to invite them.
If you are looking for other ways widows have shared how people have supported them, you can read this article by Modern Widows Club.
3. Send a Book About Grief
This one may sound strange, but grief isn’t talked about enough. Grief isn’t socially accepted for anything more than short periods of time. Grieving and moving on tends to be the request from society.
What if you gave a widow a book that talked about grief and allowed them to feel what they are feeling?
What if they had permission to explore their grief?
Life might be better.
There is no one-size-fits-all book for grieving. Some books will resonate with one widow while another hates it. Below are a few books to help you get started in your search.
I’d also recommend you read a copy of what you send. It may help you make sense of what is happening in a widow’s life right now.
- It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand
- How to Survive the Loss of a Love
- Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief
- Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief
- The Year of Magical Thinking
If you are looking for more ideas, you can check out this New York Magazine article.
If you are uncomfortable sending a book about grieving, consider giving a journal. A journal can be used for reflecting, but also to keep track of everything that is happening. While widows have widow fog, I often recommend they write down appointments, phone calls, dates, times, what was discussed, and anything else important. It can help them keep track of what is happening and be a reference for if they forget.
4. Check in Regularly with a Widow
As I mentioned earlier, I often see an immense support circle and offers of help in the immediate aftermath of a death. It’s great there is a powerful force behind a widow during that time, but I am often disappointed to see it drop off over time.
If you want to make an impact, make a note every few weeks to check in with a widow. Continue being specific in your offers of help.
Although the immediate actions that need to be done after death are painful and challenging, life usually doesn’t magically get easier a few months after a death.
Often, there is still paperwork to be done, the house needs more cleaning, and grief is still present, but the rest of the world normally moves on. It can be challenging to watch friends and family resume their normal lives while a widow’s world is still turned upside down – never to be the same again.
Anniversaries, Birthdays, and Other Important Dates
People often shy away from sending notes or calling on important dates for fear of reminding the widow of that date.
A widow already remembers that date. They remember their anniversary, birthdays, and the death of their loved one. They are likely grieving in the days leading up to it and on the day.
It’s okay to call them and say something like, “I know it’s Jim’s birthday on Saturday, and I wanted to call to acknowledge it may be a tough time. What’s life been like recently for you?”
It’s okay if there is silence on the call. It’s okay if you feel uncomfortable. It will likely feel uncomfortable at first. You are showing up in a way you haven’t normally. You are showing up in a way many others won’t.
Remember, it’s okay to share a favorite story about the person who died. It can be a gift for the widow to hear it.
If you don’t feel comfortable calling the widow, send them a voice recording, video recording, or a note in the mail.
An acknowledgement that they are loved and their spouse is remembered can be meaningful.
Final Thoughts – My Question for You
I’ve kept this list of ways to help a widow purposely short. I could give you 100 different ways to help a widow, but if you can get at least a couple of these down, you will be creating space and helping more than most.
If you can learn one phrase to say to a widow instead of, “Let me know what you need”, you will be helping.
If you can be specific in your offers of help, the widow in your life will appreciate it.
A book about grief can be a nice way for them to explore their own grief and open the door to conversations about grief.
Finally, checking in regularly shows you care. When many other friends and family have stopped checking in, you could be the friendly face they want to see.
I’ll leave you with one question to act on.
What is one way you will remember to help a widow?