My Husband Died of Cancer at age 41—Here Are 9 Things You Should Never Say to Me or Any Other Grieving Widow

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.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

husband died of kidney cancer, Ring Theory, Healthy Living, special series

How to Be OK When You're Not OK  Check out Health's special series on life after loss.

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

Some Hospitals Are Preventing Unvaccinated Patients from Getting Organ Transplants—Here's What to Know

© Provided by Health Getty Images A growing number of hospitals across the country are refusing to do organ transplants for patients who are unvaccinated against COVID-19. The Cleveland Clinic ... Read more »

Politician Maya Rockeymoore Cummings Reveals Why She Chose to Have a Double Mastectomy Weeks After Her Husband's Death

In 2005, my boyfriend discovered a lump on my breast. I went in to have it checked out and the doctor recommended a biopsy. The lump turned out to be ... Read more »

Is There a Diet for Psoriasis? 5 Foods That May Be Beneficial and 5 That Probably Aren't

If you’re a psoriasis sufferer, then you’re already well aware that those red, itchy, and sometimes painful patches of scaly skin can be triggered by just about anything. © Provided ... Read more »

How to Turn a Guy On

Turning a guy on is easy once you know what to do. To turn on a guy, you need to have confidence, know how to flirt, and learn to be ... Read more »

Constipation Can Cause Nausea—Here's What to Know if You're Experiencing Both

© Provided by Health Getty Images You know the less-than-comfortable feelings of constipation—fullness, cramping, and bloating are all too common when you just can’t go to the bathroom. But sometimes, ... Read more »

What Is Misgendering? Here's Why It's Harmful and How to Apologize If You Do It

© Provided by Health Getty Images As a nonbinary, transmasculine person, I have accepted that my existence looks to be a complicated one to most of world. Oftentimes, I feel ... Read more »

What Are Uterine Fibroids—And What Can You Do If You Have Pain and Bleeding?

Hearing that you have a growth in your uterus is understandably unsettling. Although uterine fibroids are usually benign, they can be problematic—causing pain or heavy menstrual bleeding, says the federal ... Read more »

Wedding of the week: Bronwyn Jones and Dusty Ellen provided more than just good food and music when they wed

Wedding guests can usually look forward to a live band or DJ to dance the night away but on Bronwyn Jones and Dusty Ellen’s special day, the entertainment just kept ... Read more »

What Causes Nocturia? 13 Reasons You're Constantly Getting Up to Pee at Night

If you’re waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night to urinate, one of the biggest questions on your mind is probably why? We can’t change or improve health-related ... Read more »

Queen Latifah Says She's Been Asked to Lose Weight for On-Screen Roles: 'I Have Felt That Pressure'

© Provided by Health Getty Images For years, celebrities have been asked to lose weight for on-screen roles. Now, in an interview with model and body-positive advocate Hunter McGrady for ... Read more »

Shannen Doherty Shares 'Truthful' Photos From Her Personal Journey With Breast Cancer on Instagram

Shannen Doherty revealed in February 2020 that she has stage 4 breast cancer. And now, she’s sharing photos with her Instagram followers that she says are “truthful” of what she’s ... Read more »

Hey Bestie: What do I do if my partner is jealous of my ‘work husband' and is it ‘emotional cheating'?

My husband is jealous of my “work husband”, what should I do? He says it’s “emotional cheating” but we really are just friends who spend a lot of time together ... Read more »

Adele Opens Up About Her Weight Loss Journey in New Vogue Cover Stories

In case you didn’t hear the sound of the internet breaking, Adele is coming back. © Provided by Health Getty Images Earlier this week, the singer announced that she will ... Read more »

Kelis' Husband Mike Mora Has Stomach Cancer—What to Know About Stage 4 Stomach Cancer Causes and Symptoms

© Provided by Health Getty Images “Milkshake” singer Kelis’s husband Mike Mora shared a series of Instagram posts this week, revealing that he’s been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. ... Read more »

Some Ellume COVID-19 Home Test Kits Recalled Due to False Positive Results—Here's What to Know

© Provided by Health Getty Images Ellume, maker of an at-home COVID-19 test, is recalling some of its testing kits over concerns that users have an increased chance of receiving ... Read more »

CDC Director Warns Flu Season Could Be 'Severe' This Year—Here's Why, and How to Protect Yourself

© Provided by Health Getty Images Though the US is about to hit the two-year mark of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not the only infectious disease that should ... Read more »

How to Stop Snoring, According to Sleep Experts

© Provided by Health Getty Images Whether a light hum or a loud rustle, almost everyone knows someone who snores—even if that person may be you. In fact, according to ... Read more »

Is the Flu Shot a 'Live Virus' Vaccine? Here's What to Know

© Provided by Health Getty Images Putting off your annual flu shot? If you’re dragging your feet because you’re concerned about getting the flu from the flu vaccine, let’s take ... Read more »

First Malaria Vaccine Approved by WHO: 'This Is a Historic Moment'

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday announced an “historic” recommendation: The global health agency endorsed the use of a new malaria vaccine—the first of its kind—which could “save tens ... Read more »

10 High-Fiber Cereals That Can Help Keep You Regular, According to Experts

Fiber is one of the most important nutrients in your diet. Consuming enough of it can lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease, but let’s be real—it’s stellar rep ... Read more »

How to Detect Ovarian Cancer: What Doctors Want You to Know About the Diagnosis Process

In 2021, it’s estimated that 21,410 people will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The disease—a cancer that begins in a woman’s ovaries, the ... Read more »

Health Anxiety Is Real—And the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Making It Worse for Some People

I’ve lost count of all the conditions I’ve thought I had over the past year and a half alone. There were COVID-19 worries, of course (at one point, I convinced ... Read more »

Ohio Woman Got to Feel the Baby She Delivered in an Emergency C-Section Before Dying of COVID

A pregnant Ohio woman who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 because she was worried it would harm her unborn baby has died of the virus. © Provided by Health ... Read more »

Valerie Bertinelli Shows Her Red Skin After a Vampire Facial: 'It Feels Like a Really, Really Bad Sunburn'

© Provided by Health Getty Images Valerie Bertinelli is giving everyone a candid—and humorous—look at the latest addition to her skincare routine. The 61-year-old actress posted a video to her ... Read more »

How to Stay Focused: 7 Tips That Work, According to Experts

© Provided by Health Getty Images We live in a world buzzing and flashing with distractions: Slack messages sidle onto screens, phones vibrate with breaking news and chats from the ... Read more »

Best Sleeping Position for Lower Back Pain, Sleep Apnea, and More

© Provided by Health Getty Images You probably already know sleep is an important part of overall well-being and there are a lot of factors that contribute to how well ... Read more »

What Is an Ingrown Toenail? Everything You Need to Know, According to Experts

© Provided by Health Getty Images Ingrown toenails are incredibly painful and, while easy enough to treat, can potentially be dangerous if one becomes infected. They’re also very common—two out ... Read more »

The Most Common Types of Learning Disabilities Found in Kids and Adults, According to Experts

© Provided by Health Getty Images If you have a learning disability, your brain operates a bit differently. Learning disabilities occur “when someone has an impairment in learning or processing ... Read more »

Kate Moss' Daughter Lila Walks Runway With Insulin Pump Showing for Her Type 1 Diabetes

Supermodel Kate Moss’ daughter, Lila Grace Moss, walked the runway during Milan Fashion Week—but her gold, baroque-style jacket and bodysuit by Fendi and Versace weren’t the only statement. 19-year-old Moss’ ... Read more »

Are Chickpeas Healthy? Why This Nutritionist Calls Them 'Nutrient Powerhouses'

© Provided by Health Getty Images I’ve been chickpea-obsessed for years. As a nutritionist, I’ve long touted the nutritional and health benefits of this mighty plant. And as a plant-based ... Read more »

Hey Bestie: My FIFO partner wants us to sext but I don't know how

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT Do you have a question you’ve been too afraid to ask about your relationship or sex life? From how to turn a booty call into a relationship, ... Read more »

Can You Go on a Cruise if You're Unvaccinated? Here Are the COVID Requirements for the Top Cruise Companies

A cruise can be a fun way to visit certain areas of the world at a slower pace. Amazing buffets, cool amenities, and plenty of travel—what’s not to love? But ... Read more »

The 4 Main Types of Leukemia—Plus, Several Rare Types to Know

In 2021, the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicts there will be 61,090 new cases of leukemia, a type of cancer that affects the early blood-forming cells in the body. Most ... Read more »

The CDC Urgently Recommends COVID-19 Vaccine for Pregnant People in New Health Advisory—Here's Why

© Provided by Health AdobeStock The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a health advisory urging people who are pregnant, recently pregnant (including those who are lactating), ... Read more »

Jana Hocking: What are the rules when dating your friend's ex?

OPINION: This week on my podcast I had my gorgeous friend, Laura Csortan, on as a guest. We met at a party a few years ago and it’s like two ... Read more »

What Are the Symptoms of Leukemia? 10 Signs to See Your Doctor

© Provided by Health Getty Images Leukemia symptoms aren’t always obvious, compared with other health concerns. If you develop a sinus infection, pain and pressure in your face will likely ... Read more »

Berritt Haynes, Teen Contestant on The Voice, Says He Has 'Sudden Death Disease'—Here's What That Is

© Provided by Health NBC / Getty Images A 19-year-old with a serious heart condition earned a spot on The Voice after originally just wanting to attend a taping of ... Read more »

These 4 Influencers Share Their Skincare Routines, Plus Their Favorite Products

© Provided by Health good-skin-diaries Ally Love © Provided by Health When we look at these four women, we see happy, healthy skin that glows from within, which is why ... Read more »

Illinois Man Dies of Rabies After Waking Up With a Bat on His Neck—What to Know About This Infectious Disease

© Provided by Health Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash An Illinois man has died of rabies after waking up to find a bat in his room. The man, who ... Read more »

No sex please: Why Melbourne mum was forced into celibacy

It’s a topic Wynona Fenech never thought she’d speak about publicly, let alone in a television interview. “There’s always that apprehension because your face is on TV, you’re talking about ... Read more »
On free-english-test.com you will find lots of free English exam practice materials to help you improve your English skills: grammar, listening, reading, writing, ielts, toeic