After a Loss: How to help

Some of you know that in 2019, I lost my husband to an incurable auto-immune disease. We knew from the start, the trajectory that we were facing and were open and honest with all family and friends. The three and a half years of his illness were tough, with the hospital visits, tests, ICU stays and more. But we kept going. Still managed a holiday or two and still had time to make memories. Its afterwards when, as a widow, I started to notice subtle changes around me. Changes in behaviours of people I know.

 

Here are just a few things that happened to me after the loss of Mark.

I made big decisions within days/months.

People were telling me I was wrong to do that. Wait a year. Don’t be hasty. Everyone had an opinion on what I should or should not be doing.

I got forgetful. (Widow-brain – google it. Trust me!)

It’s a real thing and its awful. You start wondering whether you have something neurologically wrong! You head to the kitchen, don’t know why you’re there.

I had a conversation with a friend who told me how much they missed my husband. 

When I added “I can understand that, I do too”, they responded with “grief isn’t a competition you know.” Yes, this conversation happened. It floored me. I didn’t know how to react to it.

Everyone had advice on how to manage my grief, just as if it was a problem that needed fixing.

The mountain of advice that came my way was crazy. Here are just a few: ‘he wouldn’t you to be sad’; ‘he`d want you to get on with life’; ‘he would want you to move on’. That’s just three. As a widow receiving the “advice”, I didn’t know what to say so would smile, nod, and say ‘yes, I know’.

Friends stayed away

Whether that was not wanting to disturb me or feeling that they would be in the way. Whether it was due to not knowing what to do. Whether it was for fear of upsetting me, who knows. But they stayed away.  Not all of them, but some.

Some friends that stayed away, just did not come back.

Yep, some friends didn’t come back to the friendship. They were gone. No explanation, just no longer part of my social circle. Megan Devine writes in her book “Its ok to not be ok” , that “grief changes your address book”. She is not wrong. The trouble is, as a widow/widower, you end up grieving the living as well as the shocking loss that you are already trying to comprehend.

“He was my child. My pain is worse than yours”

This came from someone else, not me. A family member had said “He was my child, and my pain is worse” Can you even imagine saying that to a widow/widower? This goes back to the “grief competition” I discussed earlier. It is said that the 1-2-3 of loss are child – spouse – parent.  But, even with that statement, it must be remembered that everyone’s pain is different and needs to be acknowledged as that. 

So, that was just a few things. Crazy isn’t it. Imagine facing those things on top of the initial shock of losing a loved one. One question kept coming to my mind as I revisited these issues.

How do I help friends and family of a grieving person to navigate these situations?

Here are my ideas. My cheat sheet for friends who have someone who is a widow/widower.

Dear friend of the widow/widower

Here are some ideas that may  just help you to help your friend. Just remember there is no right or wrong answers. None of these are written in stone. Just ideas. It is support for you so that you can help your friend. 

  • To help your friend, you need to accept that the situation will be uncomfortable to you. That’s not changing. If you are to help, embrace that discomfort.
  • If you don’t know what to say, it’s better to say exactly that! Tell your friend “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here” Your friend knows you’re there and knows that you ‘get it’. You know the sadness she/he is feeling.
  • As a friend, you will be grieving too. But please don’t use the line, ‘grieving is not a competition!’ It’s insulting and not what someone needs to hear.
  • Don’t say to your friend “ring me if you want something” – they won’t. Trust me. They will barely remember you’re there. They won’t remember you offered. Instead, call and say, ‘I’m coming’. Turn up with some meals. Sit on the sofa, let them know you’re there with no obligations. Make your friend a cup of tea, even if they don’t drink it. It’s simply the fact that you’re there. Thats what matters. 
  • Don’t tell your friend ‘Don’t do that yet’; ‘you can clear clothes later’; ‘it’s too early to think about that now’. Newsflash friends!!  It’s never too early. If your friend lost someone that day and needs to clear out the wardrobe, it’s ok. It’s what’s right for them.
  • Don’t try and fix the grief. It can’t be fixed. You want to see your friend happy again and that is the modest normal thing. But as beautiful  a gesture this is, it isn’t going to help. This loss is irreplaceable. It will be something they have to carry for ever. There will be good and bad days. 
  • Your friends grief is theirs to own, They are carrying a rucksack of grief that they never have the luxury of putting down, sometimes it feels lighter, that’s their good day. 

What your friend is going through is normal for them. There is no rule book for this.  .Clearing out their loved ones clothes after a week is fine. not wanting to be in their house forever is fine.  Its ok feel wanting to talk about their husband even if others don’t   Its okay about saying no to people if they don’t  want to see them.

Please don’t tell your friend that it is healthy to “move on”. They will never move on. They’ll move forward, yes but never move on. How can you move on from a person you’ve loved, had kids with or shared life with?

When you socialise with your widowed friend, if there is a group of people that are going to be there, let them know. When youre newly widowed, there is nothing worse than being blindsided by a group of people that you weren’t expecting.

Equally with socialising, when your widowed friend says no to a night out/in, don’t take it personally. Its not you, it’s the situation.

My final thing to say…..remember that being widowed has no ticking clock. Its not over in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years. They will always be widowed.  Yes, you lost a friend too, but your life and world continues. Their whole world has changed and it will never be the same again. 

Now, every situation is different of course but the bottom line is to be there for your friend as much as you can. Be the person that they don’t realise they need.