Advice about choosing your words wisely when someone is in mourning.
About a month and a half after my husband died of kidney cancer, I was talking to my mother-in-law about starting therapy and how helpful I've found it. My relationship with my in-laws had been strained during my husband's two-month illness, but my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer the week Lance died, so I was trying to touch base with her regularly.
Her response? “I'm so glad you have someone to talk to—I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't talk to Ron about these things.” Ron was her husband, my father-in-law.
My mouth dropped open. I sputtered. And I made an excuse to get off the phone, not knowing what else to say. Because if anyone should have understood that I was in therapy because I didn't have a husband to talk to anymore, it should have been her. Talking to my husband was a luxury I wished desperately for, but that option was ripped away from me when Lance died in my arms.
I knew she didn't mean to hurt me, but her unthinking comment was just one more to add to the list of tone-deaf and naive statements I heard in the weeks and months following my husband's death. Of course, unless you've personally experienced a significant loss, it's hard to know what to say. And people's discomfort contributes to the out-of-touch or rote commentary of “I'm so sorry for your loss” or “My deep condolences.” I was struck repeatedly by how people seemed to more or less say, “There, there, you'll be fine—you're so strong,” and move on. Which is convenient for them, because they can move on.
Of course, there's no perfect thing to say to a new widow. Every interaction and experience is so raw and emotion-filled in the early months that, depending on the moment, the interaction, and the personal details of the death, even the most sincere conversations could be misinterpreted or misconstrued. But if you're looking for ways not to make life harder for someone grieving, do your best to avoid comments like these.
“God must have needed a ___ in heaven”
The first time I heard a comment like this was at Lance's funeral. He had been a college baseball player, and while baseball hadn't played a significant role in his life since then, during the two month course of his illness, baseball became very important to him. Following his funeral, a distant relative came up to me and said, “God must have needed a center fielder in heaven. I'm sure he's up there playing baseball right now.”
Forget the fact that my husband's relationship with God and religion had been complicated before and during his illness, or that he hadn't actually played baseball in almost 20 years, but I personally felt that no good or loving God would want people to be horrifically tortured as their bodies rebelled against them because He “needed” them for something in heaven (especially something as inane as baseball).
Frankly, it's a slightly trumped-up version of, “He's in a better place now” or even “Everything happens for a reason.” (Again, these are especially unhelpful if you don't know the person's religious beliefs.) While meant to soften the harsh reality that your person is dead, it softens nothing. Your person is dead. He's not with you any more. And no amount of saying “he's needed elsewhere” is helpful when you can never eat dinner together, sleep next to each other, or pick up the phone to talk to him again.
“I know how you feel—my mom died”
Jeremy Toche, a friend of mine who lost his wife and partner of 22 years to cancer in 2019, was immediately struck by the grief comparisons family and friends used to try to relate to his experience. But hearing, “I know how you feel, my mom died,” is fundamentally different from losing your life partner and the parent of your children. Yes, grief is grief, but trying to relate through comparison is unhelpful. “I lost a parent, too,” says Toche, “But losing my best friend and companion is nothing like anything I've ever experienced. It hurts on a multitude of levels and it constantly floods your mind.”
After Toche recounted his experience, it reminded me of the people who tried to relate to me because they'd lost a pet. Again, grief is grief, but losing a pet, losing a friend, losing a grandparent, knowing someone else who lost someone close—these experiences are different. It's best to say, “I don't know this experience, but I'm here to listen if you want to talk.”
“Time heals all wounds”
My sense of time following my husband's death became incredibly distorted. I was doing everything in my power to make it through each day, carrying a wound with me that no one could see. Days stretched on for what seemed like forever, and when it was late enough to lay down to sleep, I couldn't get my mind to rest. Making it through one day, one week, one month, all without the person I thought I'd spend my life with, felt like an awful betrayal. I mean, how could I possibly continue to live without the love of my life? So when people would say, “Give it time. You'll be fine. Time heals everything. Memories fade.” I wanted to punch them.
And through my experience, I started to realize time heals nothing. My husband died August 7, 2018. Some time has passed, but all it takes is one second for me to allow my mind to go back to the place where he died for me to experience the same pain I felt that day. The exact same pain. But repetitions help, such as getting up every morning. Going through the motions. Driving home without the daily phone call. Going to family events alone. Making decisions on my own that I would have made with my partner. Repetitions of daily life make it easier to make it through each day, but if you avoid doing something—like going to a gravesite—it doesn't matter how much time has passed. The first time you go is going to be a blow to the heart, even if it's years later.
“That’s what he would have wanted”
Elizabeth Enea, another friend whose husband completed suicide in May of 2018, says she would become livid when people would tell her, “He would have wanted…” before proceeding to tell her what they thought her husband wanted. “Please don't presume to tell me, the person closest in his life, what he would or wouldn't have wanted,” she says.
And she's spot-on. Even if you feel close to the person who died as a family member or friend, chances are you aren't privy to the intimate conversations that take place between a husband and wife regarding wishes, future hopes and dreams, or end of life/post-death plans. Unless you have some sort of written documentation signed by a notary with information the spouse didn't have, keep your opinions about what he or she would have wanted to yourself.
Ask for comfort for your grief
I'm not even kidding, a couple weeks after Lance died, a woman he had dated more than 20 years before sent me an email saying she was devastated by his death. The email was long and winding and recounted how much he meant to her. But she didn't say she was devastated for me, you know, his wife of 15 years (and partner for 18 years). She said she was devastated.
I just about lost my mind. She was not devastated. I was devastated. She didn't have to go to bed every night without him. I did. She didn't have to go through his things or receive mail in his name, or phone calls from the dentist's office reminding him about appointments he'd clearly never be able to go to. She hadn't even talked to him in 18 years, so who did she think she was to insert herself into my experience of devastation as though her pain were equal? As though she wanted me to comfort her?
Even if you feel deep pain at the loss of someone you love, consider the Ring Theory before you seek commiseration from someone else also experiencing grief. Essentially, the more distant your relationship or friendship from the person who died, the more conscientious you need to be about who you seek comfort from. If you need comfort, or someone to vent to, talk to someone with a more distant relationship to the death than you. It was absolutely inappropriate for an ex-girlfriend to try to seek commiseration from me, the widow.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it—you’re so strong”
These statements come from a place of care, and presumably, admiration, but when you hear them over and over and over again, the unspoken implications start to wear thin. First, becoming a widow isn't exactly something most people choose or want. But when you're handed the worst situation you can think of, you do it because you don't have a choice in the matter and the sun still rises and sets every day whether or not you want it to. It's not that you're “so strong,” you just don't have another option.
And sincerely, I hope people I love never have to go through what I went through, especially at such a young age. It's horrible. But saying “I don't know how you're doing it—I don't think I could,” almost implies that I'm not grieving well enough or deep enough or hard enough. Like I shouldn't be able to go through the motions of each day if I were really grieving. Of course this isn't what's meant by the statement, but I heard it so many times in the weeks and months following Lance's death that I stopped being able to stomach it.
“You’re young, you’ll find love again”
At Lance's funeral, my mother-in-law took it upon herself to introduce me to a distant relative of hers who had been widowed in her 20s. “But look, like you, she was young, she got remarried and had more kids, she's happy now,” my mother-in-law said.
I excused myself from the conversation.
First, the funeral wasn't the time or place. Second, losing the love of my life changed how I felt about love and relationships. I was acutely aware that I was only 36 years old when Lance died. I was acutely aware that I might live more years without him than with him. I was acutely aware that, at some point, I might want to fall in love again. But having other people try to comfort me by encouraging me to “move on” with someone new? I didn't want to hear it. In fact, I wasn't sure I'd ever want to risk love again, because risking love means risking loss.
For most widows and widowers, love after death will happen—for some very quickly, for others very slowly, there's no right or wrong “time period” to wait before seeking new relationships following the death of a spouse. But dating after loss is a complicated and challenging road to walk. Other people's hopes or opinions on the subject don't make things easier or faster. And for many, in the early days following death, the thought of finding someone new is enough to make a person want to vomit. Let the widow lead the way in conversations about future love.
“It’s good you didn’t have kids”
When my husband died, we didn't have kids, but we had started talking more seriously about it in the months before he got sick. And when he got sick, he and I decided to try to harvest sperm so that I could have the option to have his child one way or another. This is information almost no one close to me knew. The harvest failed—the cancer had ravaged his body too much—so the option to have kids was taken from me at the same time as he was taken from me.
I know another widow who had been struggling with infertility for years. While her husband was dying of pancreatic cancer, they tried to implant an embryo; the implantation failed the same day he died. While she still has another embryo and more of her husband's sperm available to try to have his baby, she has to make the tough decision about whether or not she should.
If you know a widow or widower without children, you may not know what additional pain or challenges they're managing in addition to the loss of their spouse. Yes, there are options available to childless widows or widowers that make grieving “easier.” But for many, the loss of a spouse at a young age also means losing the chance to have children with them, or the chance to have children at all. And when people imply that it's a blessing you didn't have children, it's just another reminder of all you've lost. Unless you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the new widow or widower didn't want kids, it's best to avoid mentioning the lack or presence of children as a blessing or a curse.
“Let me know if I can help”
Everyone wants to help following the death of a spouse. It's a wonderful thing. People make food and babysit and mow the lawn and offer all sorts of support. But saying “Let me know if I can help,” can be a challenge to a new widow. “The gesture means well,” says Enea, “But I don't have a clue how anyone at all can help, let alone have the strength to ask for it.”
So rather than putting the onus of asking for help on the widow or widower, just step in and offer something specific. Say, “I'm making dinner and bringing it by tonight.” Or, “I know you probably can't handle yard work right now, is Saturday morning an okay time for me to come mow your lawn?” Look for things you can offer or do, rather than leaving an open-ended offer of help that the widow will probably never follow up on out of sheer emotional exhaustion.
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How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.