"Oh my. It's hard to know how to act around a widow."
Her words surprised me. I wasn't offended, and it didn't seem like an insensitive thing to say. It simply had never occurred to me that anyone would need to act a certain way, or even think about how to act around me since my husband died.
As I thought about my friend's angst, I could see her point. Most everyone in my life was acting weird around me, like they were uncertain what to say or like they didn't want to talk at all. Most people were sort of aloof, uncomfortable. I couldn't really figure out why people were acting so strangely until my friend revealed her heart to me.
People were uncertain how to act around a widow.
My friends were uncertain how to act around me… a widow.
I don't presume to speak for all widows and widowers on the planet, but I think a fair number of widows will agree with me on a few ways that we want to be treated.
How to Act Around a Widow
1. Acknowledge our grief.
Unless we are at the funeral, this does not have to be the entire conversation. It can be as simple as saying, "I'm so sorry that you have to walk this road" or "I have been praying for you. Is there anything specific you would like me to add to my prayers?" Even during the several months after my husband died, I would receive an occasional card in the mail or a Facebook message from a friend who just wanted to say that she was thinking about us. Those small gestures are much more meaningful than you think.
2. Treat us normally.
You don't have to walk on eggshells around us, nor do we want you to. We can still talk about normal things, and very often want to! You would be surprised at how many people only talk about how you are doing in your grieving. Sometimes we want to feel normal. So don't be afraid to talk about our loss, but also don't be afraid to talk with us about normal things, too.
3. It's okay to talk about the spouse we are mourning.
In fact, we love to still talk about him! So many people seemed afraid to talk about Vince after he died. Maybe they thought that bringing him up would make me sad or remind me of my loss. Trust me, your new widow friend has not forgotten for a minute. You won't be reminding her of her loss by bringing him up. You will be reminding her that he is not forgotten, that he made a lasting impact on those who are still here, and that you miss him too. I especially love it when people tell me a story of something that happened with him that I may not know about or tell me something that he said to them that made an impact on them.
4. Invite us to the party!
It's helpful for us to get out of the house, but we don't often get invited to things. Sometimes it becomes weird to have a bunch of families or couples over and invite the widow– the one without the other half of her couple– so it's easy to forget or decide that she will feel like the odd man out at the event without her spouse. Invite her anyway. She may need to be with friends. It may help her feel a bit normal for a while. Of course, she may say no… She may say no several times in a row. It just may be hard for a while. But please keep inviting her. It helps to know that you are thought of, even you can't get yourself to go. And one of the times, she will say yes, and you will have made her feel loved and still included.
5. Assume we are still tender, and be generous with your grace-giving.
Yes, I said treat us normally up there in point # 2, and I still mean it. However, there may be little things that hurt us or that bring up a giant tsunami of grief. Sometimes these things hit us suddenly and we react in ways that are not characteristic of our normal behavior. In those moments, please try not to take it personally and please don't hold it against us. If you are with your friend when one of those moments hits, please try to just give her some extra grace and love. You may not even be aware of what is happening. It could be that she suddenly has tears in her eyes or needs to quickly and briskly excuse herself from the conversation. There will times that you may need to ask if she is okay or if there is anything you can do for her/ that she needs, and there will be other times that you just need to dismiss it and give her space. I won't lie, you may not get it right. You may take the wrong approach or say the wrong thing. But doing something, anything, to love your friend and messing up is better than doing nothing at all. You can always just apologize and say that you were trying to be helpful because you care about her. That is what we need most.
I hope this helps you feel more confident in how to act around a widow (or widower). Your friend needs people around her who love her during this time of grief. And that time will last longer than you think it will. Grief is never easy, but grieving the death of a spouse is long, lonely, and much more difficult than you would imagine it.
Helping your newly widowed friend by not being weird or aloof around her is one of the best things you can do for her. Trust me.
This post is part of a series called On Grief.
During the month of October 2017, I will be exploring topics related to grief. My hope is that I can answer some of the questions you are too afraid to ask a new widow or a grieving friend, give you a window into the first two years of grieving a spouse, and answer some practical questions that will help you know how to help others in your circle of friends and family.