Losing a spouse is a devastating experience whether it happens at the end of a long illness or without any warning. In a moment, everything changes. For many, widowhood feels surreal, like the whole world has shifted slightly, leaving them standing apart from the life they used to know.
Modern culture in general, and American culture in particular, do not offer a lot of guidance for how to support someone who is grieving such a loss. This leaves many of us feeling deeply uncomfortable. In the worst cases, those awkward feelings keep us from offering the help we desperately want to provide to a friend or loved one.
We just don’t know what to do or say.
But while we may feel unsure about the right words or actions, that shouldn’t stop us from being there for someone we care about.
Here are 7 ways to help and support a loved one or friend who has recently been widowed:
1. Find the right words.
Platitudes, while easy to deliver, are never helpful. Telling your friend that their spouse is in a better place will not make them feel better. Neither will reassuring them that they will find someone else or that everything happens for a reason. It’s also not appropriate to say that you understand their pain. Even if you have suffered a similar loss, everyone experiences grief differently. Though well intentioned, these kinds of expressions usually do more harm than good.
It’s also generally unhelpful to offer unsolicited advice. Losing a spouse is overwhelming on so many levels. It can be tempting to offer your opinions, but being on the receiving end of so much information can exhaust a widow even more.
Instead of focusing too much on what you should say, focus on listening. Ask your friend how she is feeling, and then hold the space for her to share whatever she wants to share. Do your best to show compassion rather than pity. Pity—even a well-meant hug—can trigger uncontrollable emotions that your friend might rather avoid in certain settings.
Do be proactive about trying to help. Reach out and take the lead. Rather than asking what you can do, suggest specific things you’d like to do for her. And if your friend resists, you can say, “Let me do this for you.” It’s a gracious way to let her know that you really want to help.
2. Be there.
One of the hardest adjustments for a widow is transitioning to being alone. Everything reminds her of her life before loss. All the routines are disrupted. The place is so quiet. Each person will have different needs, but having a friend stay over for a while is often very welcome.
3. Bring food, but coordinate with others.
Bringing the bereaved casseroles is a cliché for a reason. Having nourishing food is both a necessity and a comfort. But if the widow has a large group of friends and family, it doesn’t take long to fill up the fridge and freezer. And that just creates another problem that someone has to deal with. Coordinating everyone ensures that the widow doesn’t end up with half a dozen lasagnas all at once. You can use a simple Google doc or spreadsheet, or sites like Sign Up Genius, Take Them a Meal, or others. It’s also helpful to create a “cheat sheet” that lets contributors know of any food allergies, preferences, or other restrictions.
4. Help out around the house.
In addition to food, there are plenty of household chores and other matters that would be better handled by someone else while a widow navigates the early stages of grief. In addition to offering personal help with anything from laundry and running the vacuum to mowing the lawn and paying bills, you might also consider arranging for professional help. But also be aware that sometimes keeping busy with “normal” tasks can be comforting to a new widow. Take your cues from her, and don’t force any help if she’d rather do some things herself.
5. Offer to take the kids out.
If your friend has kids at home, you can offer to take them out for an afternoon or evening. You might even offer to have them overnight if that seems like something that would be helpful. If you’re worried that your friend might refuse the offer, it can help if you start by saying you already had plans to do something and were wondering if the kids might like to come. That way, it feels less like you’re going out of your way, and more like you’re just inviting them to join you for an outing you were going to do anyway.
6. Get him or her out of the house.
Whether she has kids or not, your friend may benefit greatly from getting out of the house herself. Being in a home full of memories can be difficult, and a change of scenery or a new experience can provide a valuable distraction, even if only for a little while. Going out also helps a new widow avoid slipping into isolation, which is often a risk. An invitation to coffee or a movie or a walk can gently remind her that the world still has a lot to offer.
7. Start where you can, and remember that grieving takes time.
If you’re not feeling ready to offer direct support, sending a card is a great place to start. It’s often easier to write a few words than to speak them out loud, and a card will let your friend know that you are thinking of her. Even the smallest gestures can provide a lot of comfort.
Whatever support you offer, remember that grieving the loss of a spouse is something that takes a long time, and everyone does it differently.
Don’t judge, and don’t assume that your friend’s way of dealing with grief will be the same as yours. Some people want to be around others, some want to be alone. Some want to reminisce about the person they’ve lost, others need a lot of time before they are ready to share stories and remembrances.
The key is to listen closely and pay attention to the details that let you know what your friend needs. Let them take the lead, and don’t be surprised if what they need changes from day to day. Just be there for them—in the early days and beyond.