Have you ever lost a loved one and had people express their sympathy? They are caring people but often only make things worse. When my husband died, I learned what helps and what hurts. Here are a few suggestions about what not to say to a newly widowed person.
1. If there's anything I can do, just let me know. A noble gesture, perhaps, but often insincere. Most of the widowed won't ask for help, but they do need it, especially if they live alone. Better to say, "I've some free time on Saturday, why don't I come to your house and mow your lawn and weed your garden" or something of that nature.
2. How are you? is a common question but difficult for a widow to answer truthfully. She'll probably give a polite reply like, "I'm doing better," when she might feel like saying, "I feel rotten. I wish I were dead, or "Do you really want to know?" Instead, it's better to tell her that you've been thinking about her and wonder if she'd like to go for a walk or go shopping. Knowing that someone really cares means a lot to a widowed person.
3. I know how you feel. No you don't, unless you've been through it yourself. It's best to picture how it would be if it did happen to you and then say, "I can only imagine how you must feel. You had a wonderful life together. If you want to share those memories, remember that I'm here to listen."
4. What happened to your wife? I didn't even know she was sick? If you really have to know this, ask someone else. A widower may want to tell you, "Leave me alone, I don't want to talk about it anymore." A different approach would be to talk about something general like the weather and let the bereaved person take the lead in the topic of conversation.
5. I knew someone who had the same thing as your husband, and he suffered for a long time. You should be glad your husband passed away quickly. It doesn't matter how long a loved one suffered, it matters that he did and a widow doesn't need to be reminded of the details. Better to skip this kind of talk entirely.
6. I'll call you on the weekend and we'll go out. The widow perks up a bit and thinks, "Good, I won't have to spend another weekend alone." But many times she waits for a call that never comes. More helpful would be to mention a particular movie and suggest a specific time and day that you could pick her up.
7. Come to my house for dinner anytime. That's almost as bad as saying, "If there's anything I can do." Eating alone is a painful part of widowhood. To eat with someone is a pleasure, but a dinner offer should be a definite invitation. Few of the widowed would "just drop by" at dinner time.
8. You should sell the house right away. It holds too many memories. That's just it, it does have memories, and that's all a widow or widower has left of the loved one. Most want to stay put. They find it hard enough to adjust to a single lifestyle without having to find a new home at the same time. It's best to wait until the bereaved is ready to sell (if ever), then offer to help in the move.
9. Oh, you poor thing, someone said to me only one week after my husband's death. "I know you'll miss him, but you must learn to forget about it." Forget about it? How could anyone say that? But she was right about one thing, I do miss him.
10. No matter what anyone tells you, it takes at least two years to heal. When a widower said this to me, all I could think of was, "You mean I'm going to feel this way for two years?" There's no time limit on grief, and every man or woman finds this out. Someone who has recently lost a loved one doesn't need to hear how long it takes to feel better. For one widowed person trying to help another, a more comforting comment would be, "It's not easy, but it will get better."
The people who offer the most consolation are those who continue to help the person who is grieving in the days that follow the death of a loved one. The warmth of their hands and the caring in their hearts help heal. A widow or widower knows these people will support them when they need extra strength.
About the author: Jean Powis is a freelance writer from Troy, New York, with over 250 articles in print in a broad range of publications, including Florida Retirement Life Styles, Old Farmer's Almanac, Grit, and Successful Retirement. "Writing is a natural way of life," Powis says. "Without it, it's depression."