Last Updated on May 10, 2022
What do you say to a widow?
Have you ever had the awkward interaction of saying “I’m sorry” in response to learning that a widow just lost their spouse?
How do they usually respond?
Usually, it’s a “thank you”, “me too”, or something else short and sweet to wrap up the conversation.
“I’m sorry” is a terrible response to learning someone lost a significant other. It does nothing to move the conversation forward. It doesn’t invite the other person to share what they have been feeling or experiencing.
Unfortunately, most of us have been conditioned to respond this way. How many times have you heard, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
When my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer, I heard a lot of “I’m sorry.” I know people meant well, and I don’t fault them for saying it. I knew they really were sorry.
I just wasn’t sure how to respond to it.
Despite having that experience, I still catch myself saying it to others. How is that for irony?
Because of those experiences, I’ve been trying my best to engage differently with widows, caregivers, and others who are experiencing loss. I do my best to avoid “I’m sorry” phrases. Instead, I’ve learned about phrases and questions that can improve the interaction and leave it feeling less awkward.
To the widows, caregivers, and others who are losing someone or something in their life – I hear you. This article may validate your experience, but my hope is that it is a guide you can send your loved ones and acquaintances so that they can better engage with you through loss.
To the people who have been sent this article, I promise this work is not easy, but it’s worthwhile. You’ll mess up. That’s okay. I still mess up. Nobody will fault you for saying the wrong thing as long as you approach it with an open heart and a heartfelt apology when you say the wrong thing.
Getting Comfortable with Your Emotions
First, you are going to be uncomfortable. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Death does not happen every day. Nobody expects you to be comfortable talking about death, being around a widow, or discussing loss. It’s swept under the rug in our society. We are taught grieving does not happen in public. It happens in private.
Unfortunately, this encourages all of us to end uncomfortable conversations early – before it gets to the good stuff. The good stuff where people get to genuinely open up, lean into their feelings, and a real connection is made.
We get classes on chemistry, but not on experiencing life and the pain that comes with it. We aren’t taught how to communicate with others through hard times. It’s no wonder people have no idea how to approach a grieving person and often look for the first escape route at the first feeling of awkwardness.
Much like riding a bike, the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. If you don’t ride a bike for a long time, you are wobbly the next time you ride.
You are going to wobble. That is natural.
As long as you stay on the bike or get back on after a fall, you remember how to do it. It gets easier.
Before learning any phrases or questions, know that it is okay to feel awkward. It’s okay to sit in silence. Throw out any preconceived ideas of how you should feel.
Don’t try to walk on eggshells around a widow. If you try to walk on eggshells, you are going to fall in them. It will be a giant goopy mess.
Instead, know you are going to crack some eggshells and that is a good thing. Once you crack them, you have a solid foundation to walk on. That solid foundation is what allows space for a better conversation.
Before you have any conversation, get comfortable with your emotions. They are a good thing.
What Should You NOT Say?
Sometimes, the easiest way to learn is by learning what you should not do before you learn what you should do.
Instead of telling you what to say, let me tell you what not to say. Please keep in mind that everyone is different. Some people may like some of the phrases on this list, but from my experience, they are rarely positive phrases to move a conversation forward, neutral at best, and usually negative.
What Not to Say to a Widow
- I’m sorry for your loss.
- They are in a better place.
- You’ll feel better soon.
- I understand how you feel.
- You can call me any time.
- How are you doing?
- Anything that “looks on the bright side” or is positive. If it has the words “at least” in it, you probably don’t want to say it.
- Example: At least you no longer have to spend time at the doctor each week.
- Anything about how the other person should feel.
- Example: You should feel good that at least he is not suffering anymore.
Most of us have said at least one phrase on the list. I know I’ve said most of them at least once. I still catch myself saying “I’m sorry for your loss” and “You can call me any time.”
They are easy phrases, don’t require much effort, and are well-intentioned.
However, reverse the situation. Imagine you lost someone. How would you respond to “I’m sorry for your loss”? Are you going to call them?
In most situations, “Thank you” is a typical response to “I’m sorry for your loss” and never calling is the response to “You can call me any time.”
People don’t call because again, we are taught to grieve in private. We are taught to not be an inconvenience. Who wants to call someone up and say, “I’m feeling awful. I don’t want to go outside, I can’t sleep, and I have a constant headache. You said I could call any time, so I thought I’d explain how I am feeling”?
There is always the exception, but most people are not going to call.
None of these phrases above invite the widow to share. The only one that might is the “How are you doing?” phrases, but guess what?
They are doing awful. They are in pain. They may not have adequate words for how they feel.
There are better ways to frame this question that invite them to share if they want.
If you are wondering whether a phrase is something you should say to a widow, view it through these questions:
- If someone said it to me, how would I feel receiving it and how would I respond?
- Does it invite them to share?
- Does it in any way tell them how to feel?
If you would feel uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond, it’s probably not the best thing to say to a widow.
Not everybody wants to share, but you want to leave the door open for sharing. Other people in their life probably are not leaving the door open. Also, you don’t have to ask questions to invite them to share. Statements can be just as inviting as a question in opening the conversation if paired with silence after.
Please, please, please do not tell them how to feel. This isn’t the time to look on the bright side. It’s not the time for telling. It’s time for listening. Remember the last time someone told you how you should feel? You probably were not happy about it. People are entitled to their own feelings.
Now that you know what not to say, let’s discuss ideas for what you could say.
What Should You Say to a Widow?
I want to preface this by saying that everybody’s grieving process is different. It’s not a linear path. Someone may feel great one day and months later feel awful. Grief can come in waves, often random and without notice. Sometimes it’s calm. Other times, it’s a storm.
This isn’t a prescription, but a place to help you start thinking about questions and phrases to interact with widows. People may need different phrases at different times. Add your own touch. Make it personal.
Before I share things you can say during difficult times, I want you to know it’s okay to mention the deceased’s name. In fact, it’s more than okay. Use it in conversation. People like hearing their loved one’s name. Think of it as a gift you can keep giving.
What to Say to a Widow
- There are no good words for loss, but I’m here with you.
- I’m always curious how people meet. How did you and Noah meet?
- I know people usually say, “Call me any time” and it can be tough to actually make the call, so I am going to call on *say exact day* to see if there is anything I can help with.
- What’s life been like for you lately?
- Grief is tough. Death isn’t fair. These things happen without warning, and it always feels too soon.
- I could ask what you need help with, but I wanted to offer a few ideas in case you are unsure. I could bring you a meal tomorrow, clean your house, mow your lawn, or help you with thank you notes and acknowledgements. Which of these would be most helpful for you right now?
- Loss is incredibly difficult. Anything you want to share, no matter the emotion, is okay.
- If you are up for going out next week, I’d like to have lunch with you. Would that be okay?
- I’ll miss Noah. I remember that one time he *tell a story about him.*
- Who has been around recently and what have they done that is helpful?
- I find most people are not sure how to be around someone who has lost someone. How do you wish people would behave around you?
- I have so many fond memories of Noah. What is one of your favorite memories with him?
- What has surprised you these last few weeks?
- Would you like to tell me what you have been thinking about lately? Do you have any concerns, difficult emotions, or things you are grateful for that you want to share?
- I want to make sure I support you in the way you want to be supported. Are there things people are doing that are unhelpful or make you feel uncomfortable? Do you want to tell me about it?
Notice how much easier it is for a widow to share after hearing these statements or questions. Lead with curiosity about where they are at in their processing and invite them to open the conversation. They may not be ready to share, and that is okay.
Sometimes people process alone. I am confident that if you create a space for them to feel welcome and comfortable, they will come back to you when ready and if you continually check in on them.
Remember, you’ll mess up. You’ll say things on the what not to say to a widow list. Over time, it will get easier.
You don’t need to memorize this whole list. You can make it your own.
If you can only remember one phrase, remember one phrase. This way you are not struggling to remember among many options. One short phrase you could memorize is, “Loss is incredibly difficult. Anything you want to share, no matter the emotion, is okay.”
Finally, silence is okay. You don’t have to fill every silence with words, gestures, or sounds. People experiencing grief may need more time to process. An extra second – or five – may give them the time and courage to share something that has been on their mind.
If you are always talking, you leave no space for listening. Leave space for listening.
What Happens if You Say the Wrong Thing?
So, you said the wrong thing. You feel awful. It’s okay. It’s not about you. It’s about the other person.
Although saying the wrong thing can feel irreparable, it’s fixable. But again, you’ll need to lean into those emotions and be okay feeling uncomfortable.
If you said something wrong and you notice it immediately, say, “Wow, I am so sorry. I just heard what I said, and it was totally wrong of me to say. I’m sure you think I’m an insensitive idiot. Here is what I actually meant to say.” Then, say what you meant to say.
If you don’t notice it immediately and time has passed, you can follow up at a later date with something along the lines of, “Last time we talked, I said something I didn’t feel good about. I’m ashamed I said it and didn’t respond right after I said it. I’m really sorry, and I understand why you are upset.”
Like most things in life, don’t let your words fester. Acknowledge your mistake, empathize with how they are feeling, and reassure them you will do better going forward.
Final Thoughts – My Question for You
Since loss is not something we encounter on a daily basis, knowing what to say to a widow can be difficult.
Although walking on eggshells seems like a good idea, throw that idea out the window. Step on those eggshells to secure your footing.
It’s important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. No conversation about death is going to be easy and carefree. Go ahead and feel your emotions and leave space for silence and reflection.
The traditional phrases you hear everybody say to a grieving widow probably isn’t helpful for most widows. “I’m sorry” is a good way to end a conversation.
Instead, learn phrases like, “Loss is incredibly difficult. Anything you want to share, no matter the emotion, is okay.” Or, ask questions like, “What’s life been like for you lately?”
Remember, it’s okay if you mess up. Acknowledge when it happens and move on. Widows are understanding and will appreciate your efforts to talk with them when many people won’t.
I’ll leave you with one question to act on.
Which phrase are you going to remember for the next time you talk with a widow?