When a spouse passes, what you say matters
BY KAREN L. RANCOURT
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 800,000 spouses are widowed each year. Although family members and friends may be well intentioned, widows/ers report that about 85% of what is said during their initial grief is not helpful.
What Is Said Is Often Not What Is Heard
For example, in the article, “What You Say To Someone Who’s Grieving Vs. What They Hear,” someone might say, “You need to try to move on.” The grieving widow/er hears: “You’ve been upset for too long.” That is, someone is suggesting there is a timeline for grieving and presumes to know what is should be. There are 15 different examples, all worth considering.
Helpful and Empathetic Statements
Rather, as suggested by the widow/ers I interviewed, it is better to use empathetic phrases such as:
• “I cannot imagine what you are feeling.”
• “I am here to listen, if you want to talk. Otherwise, I am here to be with you for as long as you would like me to keep you company.”
• “I just don’t know what to say, but I care, and I want you to know that.”
Caution is advised regarding religion-based comments. For example, one widow I interviewed found it soothing when people said to her, “Your loved one is in a better place.” Conversely, another widow became extremely upset with this same comment and says, “Don’t talk to me about my husband being in a better place. His place is here, he should be with me.”
Similar comments, for example, “God called your loved one home because he was needed in heaven,” or “God needed another angel,” are comforting to some, and upsetting to others.
The best strategy is to avoid initiating comments that have a religious basis to them unless you are confident they will be welcome.
Maintaining Control Vs. Surrendering It to Others
Another area addressed by those I interviewed pertains to letting others take over decisions vs. the widow/er wanting to maintain control. One widow was enormously relieved to have trusted family members, friends, and co-workers deal with all the logistics and details pertaining to her husband’s sudden death.
However, a widower said he resented others presuming he wanted them to take over; he said he had to get a bit aggressive with certain friends and family members who kept trying to make decisions for him. In these situations a friend or family member can say: “Someone needs to discuss some details with the funeral director. Would you like me to take care of that, or did you want to be involved?”
The widow/ers agreed that non-pressure invitations were most helpful, for example, to receive an email or call saying, “I am going to the grocery store today. Can I pick up anything for you, or would you like to come with me?” Another example: “We are having some friends over on Saturday for a casual dinner. No need to RSVP; just come, if you can join us.”
It is hoped these suggestions help family and friends to provide grieving widows/ers non-judgmental, heartfelt, and helpful support.
About the Author
Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.