Another damn young widow. I never met the spouses of most of my widowed friends; it's actual grieving, rather than just making friends, when a loss happens to someone I knew “before.”
Everyone wants to know how to help. This subject is the number one request on my blog. I'm sorry to have the occasion to answer them, but here is a first attempt, way too long, incomplete, hastily done. I'll keep refining materials on this subject, so your feedback is much appreciated.
If the opportunity comes up, if someone wants to read this at tomorrow's memorial service, I'd be grateful.
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I had not seen Jane or Seth, or their darling Eli, since they moved to Cleveland. I was preoccupied with my own battle for a child, my relationship with my husband, and then with his illness and death. In the three years since then, as a widow caring for a young child, I learned a lot about surviving, what people in crisis need, and now, about building a new life and thriving again.
I learned that while a memorial service is for the person who has departed, it's really for those left behind. Jane is not me, but based on my experience and understanding of the dozens of young widows and widowers I know now, I can share some basics about how to make a difference for the grieving wife:
1. There is no wrong thing to say. Nothing can hurt her more than this loss. So say what you feel. “This sucks” is a good start. Any day you have a memory of Seth, any anniversary, birthday, on any coincidence or whenever you wonder how Jane and Eli are doing, pick up the phone.
2. Know yourself. Grieving splits loving families and challenges the closest of friendships. Jane and Eli can’t afford to lose a single one of you. And you are all grieving – learn about the process, be honest about your own feelings, and then be open to listening to Jane and Eli. They WILL need you. Offer any distraction or company that you can: a play date, coffee, drop by with a meal. Invite them to your place and make sure Jane knows no one will be dressed up.
3. Please, I know you mean well, but DO NOT SAY “let me know what I can do.” I can’t speak for Jane, but I have met hundreds of grieving people and every single one hates this phrase: Why? WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE NEED. We have a hard time finding words, we can’t think on our feet. In time, we need so much we’re ashamed to say. Asking is incredibly difficult at the best of times! So: Offer something specific – housework, grocery shopping, a meal, money – or just give it without asking first. Don’t be ashamed if it’s not grand.
4. Be persistent. I don’t know one young widow who was good about returning phone calls, e-mails, or other communication. An acquaintance of mine from school stopped by (wearing sweatpants) and really listened one June day, a visit that changed the course of my first year significantly. If you’re rebuffed, try again later.
5. Think about the long term. You may recover from the feelings aroused by this service in a few weeks. But Jane and Eli’s loss will be a part of their experience forever. In October, in March of next year, a year from now. Two years from now. Three years from now. Their loss will be real, and they will still need you, even though the needs will have changed.
At our wedding, the minister asked every guest to support and uphold our marriage. But at my husband’s memorial service, I didn’t ask the congregation to help me stay alive.
Please, each of you, in whatever way makes sense for you, help keep Jane and Eli safe, sound, and strong in the coming years.
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