National Grief Awareness Day reminds us that each of us who has experienced life-changing loss grieves in valid, non-linear, and unique ways. National Grief Awareness Day serves to bring awareness to a world that often prefers to push away uncomfortable topics like grief and death. So today, instead of spinning Grief into another optimistic meme, we should create awareness of real ways to help those who grieve.
Because I’m a widow, I feel like I can offer some ways you can help a widow, but I imagine these are things you can do for anyone who has lost someone they love.
- Don’t try to help her look on the bright side of her loss. Saying things like, “He’s in a better place” or “It’s all part of a divine plan” or “At least he didn’t suffer” don’t help. Immediately after Todd’s death, people said such things to me, and inside I was yelling, “No, he should be here with me” and “God wouldn’t end someone’s life to teach me a divine lesson” and “At least he’d be alive!” If you really can’t think of anything to say, don’t say anything–hold her hand, hug her, sit with her. Your presence can be more comforting than any words, and this applies weeks, months, and years later, too.
- Reach out to your grieving person. Call her. Text her. Just check in with her. Don’t wait for her to reach out to you because she probably won’t. Don’t wait for her to tell you what she needs. Try to anticipate what she might need. No widow is going to call you and ask you to make her a tray of lasagna because in the days and weeks after her loss, she can’t remember to eat, let alone figure out how to cook anymore. Make her a meal and take it to her. Walk her dog. Take her kids for a play date.
- Similarly, reach out to her even after months, or years, go by. The hole in her life isn’t magically filled as time passes. If anything, the hole gets bigger. Weekends and evenings are empty and long and horrible. Call her. Invite her to do even mundane things, like going for a walk. For me, even nearly three years after Todd’s death, nights and weekends can be pure hell to get through alone.
- Don’t give up on her if she declines your offers, thinking that’s a sign she is okay. She’s probably not. Anything social or involving lots of faces (as limited as that might be now during the pandemic) or small talk can make her feel anxious. Be patient and make the offer again next week, and the next, and the next. Widowhood can be isolating, and when people stop calling, the silence multiplies her loneliness.
- Talk about your friend’s person, not in a randomly weird way, but don’t be afraid to share memories of him in conversation. Saying his name and recalling a story about him lets your friend know he has not been forgotten. By the same token, invite your friend to share her memories or at least don’t make her feel awkward when she shares her stories as though he was still alive. For instance, I’m lucky enough to have friends at work who don’t make me feel the least bit uncomfortable about adding to the conversation with a story about Todd, even though I’m the only widow in the group.
- Compliment her. This might sound strange, but without her person to boost her morale, who else will? I have a friend at work who at least once a week tells me that I look pretty. Most days I don’t go to work feeling good about how I look, but after she compliments me, I feel better. Trust me on this one.
- A widow doesn’t get “through” grief. She doesn’t “get over” her loss. She learns to live with it, to carry it as long as she lives. She will have good days, but she will have bad days, even years after the death of her husband, that are crushing. She will have mornings when she wakes up crying or cries in the parking lot before she can get out of the car and go into work. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays become the saddest days of the year. Lose your expectations that she will snap out of it or return to “normal” one day. The old normal will never exist for her again, and she’s working hard to create her new normal, learning to live with her loss.
In essence, if you care about your widow friend, remembering is key.
Remember her in big ways and small.
Remember her husband.
Remember that her life has been tragically and irreversibly changed.
Remember that as unique as she is, so is her journey with grief.
Remember her on this National Grief Awareness Day.