In part one of this series I spoke of helping children through loss. In part two I will speak to dealing with the loss of a spouse. I must admit that writing the first part was much easier. It had more to do with helping others and actively doing, this part will be far more personal and less to do with what I can do myself and more to do with others and what would be helpful to someone in my own situation.
Firstly, I just want to make it clear that every situation and person will deal with their loss very differently, but one thing will be universal in the experience, their lives have irrevocably been changed. They might react in different ways, but for them this will have changed their lives in ways that they cannot even begin to comprehend, yet. As I think back through the last eighteen months and think about things that have helped me or would have helped me two words come to mind.
Listen and Act.
Let me explain. As I said everyone will experience their grief differently so how can you know what to do when you don’t know how they are reacting? First you listen. Widows and widowers might not be up to talking right away but when they are ready to express themselves or their needs–be ready to listen. Right after their loss their life feels like it is in free fall. I like to describe it as being in the upper levels of Inception (yes, the movie), or like The Matrix (yet another movie), life seems to have been turned upside-down, shaken up for good measure, and then frozen in time. You have no idea how things will end up landing or even how to get your feet back on the ground. Shock is a very real part of life and is experienced before the mourning can even start. I have also heard it being described as being like a china doll that has been dropped and shattered into a million pieces. You have to figure out how to one; find your hands and two; put yourself back together. In my experience this feeling lasts a very long time and is understandably very difficult. Do not be afraid to ask how they are feeling that day, steer clear of “how are you doing”, they are obviously not going to be doing well…who would? What they really want to know is that someone is thinking about them and knows that they are hurting, they want someone to “mourn” with them and to be aware that they are going through hard times. Other widows/widowers and I have often joked about designing a t-shirt with a caution sign printed on it. I like “Caution: Widow. Approach with care, treat softly, speak kindly but think first.” Ask; just knowing someone is thinking of them will help immeasurably. Try to keep any personal advice to a minimum. I often describe myself as “broken”, because that is how I feel and I think widows/widowers should be treated as if they are broken–gently and carefully. Any personal advice like, “You should start dating” or “You need to move on with your life” should be avoided at all costs. Let me repeat never, never, never try to hurry someone trough their mourning, you have no idea what they are feeling only they know and only they can make those kinds of decisions. What you can do is listen and if they ask your opinion then feel free to offer your advice, but wait until they initiate the topic. Listen.
Next; Act. If you are thinking of someone who has lost a loved one and you want to do something for them, do it. Take that feeling and put it into action. I loved it when I received cards and letters before the funeral and out of the blue long after. I enjoy when a friend will call and say “You’re coming to the movies with me!” or “Let me pick you up for lunch.” If they had given me the option I would have stayed in bed, but they had an activity they thought I would like and they made it into an action instead of a question. Of course I could, and did, say no sometimes but they always made sure to schedule them for later so it ended up happening when I was ready. Follow your heart. If you feel like bringing a flower or making a call, do it. Again knowing that someone cares is important. I heard a story about someone who received a nice warm nightgown from a friend because they had the feeling that she might get cold in bed with her spouse gone. What a sweet thoughtful thing that the widow didn’t think to ask for. Freezer meals are always a great gift to give. You never know when you won’t feel like cooking or sometimes you might just forget you have to eat. Try to think of something that might be helpful to them and then just do it. People ask all the time what they can do to help and I can never answer that question, nothing will help but time and no one can do anything about that. Those in mourning are just trying to make it to the next breath so anything that you feel will help probably will. Keep it simple, thoughtful and heartfelt and you can’t go wrong.
Wow, this was super hard! I hope this helps, my heart goes out to all who have felt the pain of loss and those trying to comfort them.