How to comfort your widowed friend.

The line of fellow mourners who came to pay their respects to my family at my husband’s wake was overwhelming.  Arranged so quickly and happened so fast I felt like I was not really there. He would have been impressed that he was loved and respected by so many people from work as well as friends and family.  I spoke to people, but felt like I was just watching this happen from someplace else.  Over and over people said, “please call me if there is anything I can do”. That was nice.

I have never felt comfortable speaking to the people who have just lost a loved one.  Many of the wakes or funerals I have attended were for the passing of a friend’s parent.  The tragic ones like the death of a young mother or child are terribly sad and there is really nothing you can say to help the matter, it is just sad. When a spouse dies a part of them dies as well.  But what is a friend to do?

Well, I did not want to speak to anyone on the phone.  I knew that!  I could barely speak.  And I avoided the phone like the plague.  My friends, cousins and sister lived and slept in my house with me for the first 2 weeks.  They made the initial phone calls. They answered the phone.  They took care of the stuff.  They organized food.  They poured the wine. They made more phone calls.  That’s what friends and family do.

Those first few days are raw but you are doing stuff.  You need to make “arrangements” even if you were never really sure what those arrangements were supposed to be.  Family and friends are going to come.  Food should be available. People need to be called.  Obituaries need to be written.  Services need to be scheduled. And there should be food.

Recently I bonded with a group of women in my bereavement group. Each of us has our own story of  how our husband died but we share similar experiences since the funeral.  We discussed some of the things that really helped us at the beginning and some challenges that have been most difficult in our grief.

How to comfort a widow:

  1. Show up.  The widow may not know what to do and is most likely numb. Show up.  If there is a tradition she is upholding such as a memorial service, wake, funeral, sitting shiva – try your very best to get there.  Stop by her house and bring something – anything. Talk to her and let her tell her story.  She may want to talk.  If she doesn’t want to visit, just you stopping by was supportive.  Arrange to have her house cleaned. She will remember that you were there.
  2. Bring food.  The last thing the widow wants to do is cook food.  She may eat but only if someone has kindly brought over something to eat. She does not want to go out to the store yet. People stopping by so you are helping her host friends and co-workers.  She has no idea how to shop or cook for one. Share a meal with her and make her a cup of tea or a glass of wine.  Send a gift card to a nearby restaurant. She needs to eat.
  3. Sleep over.  She is not used to being alone.  She is fragile.  Be there when she wants to cry or scream. My sister and cousins slept over, the first 2 weeks.  I had not accepted the fact that my husband was not coming back.  Having a sleepover with  family helped me transition.  I wasn’t ready to be a widow.
  4. Send a card with a message.  It is so nice to know that so many people took the time to go out and buy a card to comfort you.  Many people add a fond thought about the spouse.  Some people send books that could be helpful.  I wanted to know I was not alone and appreciated reading about others who had experienced grief or had a fond memory of my husband.  Mass cards purchased with the promise that the spouse would be prayed for at a service were comforting, even if that faith was not always practiced.
  5. Take her out. She may not ask, but she will need to have someone to do normal stuff with.  Join her for a manicure or pedicure.  Sign up for a new yoga class or some class at the library together.  Go out to lunch or dinner.  Invite her to the movies.  She is not used to being alone so keeping her busy and engaged will be much appreciated.
  6. Help celebrate the life.  Wakes and funerals are generally somber events.  Some people have Memorial services immediately and some people wait.  Some people ask for donations in the loved one’s name.  Do something soon for close friends and relatives to celebrate the person they loved.  Go to the beach to float funeral flowers or candlelit lanterns out to sea to help make your friend feel connected to the one they have lost.  Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased.  Share funny stories or make  references to things about the person who is gone.  Say their name. Hearing other people fondly mention the spouse comforts the widow and enables her to speak about him as well.

Try not to…

  1. Hug her in public if you haven’t seen her.  She is a mess.  She made it out in public.  It was really hard.  Attention to her will probably turn her into a sobbing spectacle.  This happened to me in more than one place.  Small things can trigger tears quickly in those early months so be sensitive.
  2. Tell her he is in a better place.  Really?  He was supposed to be here!  He shouldn’t have left and she does not feel better about the fact that he is gone. She may be having an angry day – or a guilty day.  There are all sorts of days.  There is no true progression through grief, 5 stages of grief.  Just getting through it. He would understand. 
  3. Say she will find someone else.  She doesn’t want anyone else.  This was not supposed to happen.  She wants him back again so why isn’t THAT happening. It also implies some pressure.  Like she has a new job to do – go find a replacement.  She needs a friend, not a task master.
  4. Judge.  Everyone grieves differently.  She may withdraw.  She may act silly.  She may get depressed and cry a lot. She even may start dating. She is working it out and your unbiased love and support is most helpful.
  5. Push her to make decisions.  Can she afford to stay where she is? Should she work? Should she sue? Should she give away all of his stuff now? Should she sell stuff? She needs time to process her grief.  Many decisions can wait. Immediate concerns need to be addressed.  Taking over the jobs that her spouse always did will be unsettling. Help her do some of those things. Remember, she needs to take care of herself and treat herself kindly right now and so do you.  Be kind and patient.

My wise widowed aunt sent me a lovely handwritten card when my husband passed.  She wrote a memorable quote from Kathie Scobee Fulgham whose father died.  He was the commander of the space shuttle Challenger that exploded in 1986.

“Grief is a weird and winding path.  It’s got rest stops and pot holes.  With different depths of rage and despair.  The path might become smoother, and it might never come to an end.  But the biggest thing is, you won’t be staying forever in one spot.  You are going to move on.”

To read my post about making a care package for a widow, click this link.

Care Package for a Widow

How to comfort a widowed friend


21 Responses

  1. So beautifullly put and appropriate. All who join that club,that no one wants to join, stumbles on those rocks and potholes daily. Your advise of what to do and what not to do is so helpful to dear friends who want to do something but have no idea what to do…now because of this blog that will have some valuable ideas.

  2. Please add to your list – after those initial weeks are over – remember to keep in touch. When the shock/fear of being alone wears off – other aspects arise. Apparently those aspects can continue for many months, maybe years.

    The anniversaries that you had shared, will cause more sadness. Then there will be the decisions you make for yourself, maybe a year away that will set off more shock waves – possibly not for you, but for those who had “assumed xyz” in relationship to your “not-list”

    1. Really good points. I’ve been fortunate but I have heard from many widows how people stop coming by or calling. I’ve even heard the 2nd year can be tougher because like you said she has to face all those decisions she initially put off. It is a rocky road and having family and friends who maintain contact and support is really so important.

  3. Support truly is important and I agree with the celebration of life amongst your list. I have been to a number of wakes and celebration of that person’s life is so important, remember them and all they had to offer the world.

  4. I read once that you can’t carry the burden of grieving but you can carry the burden of taking out the trash. It’s totally changed the way to support those in these situations.

  5. This post is touching me deeply. My friends ( a young married couple) lost their mother AND their 2 young children yesterday in a car accident. My mind is whirring on what I can do and how to help, how to approach, how to comfort, how to cope. This was a very enlightening read for me, especially now. “Show Up”. That’s what resonates with me. Thank you.

  6. This article really touched me, so beautiful and compassionate. I can’t imagine the pain of losing your spouse, and I am sorry it happened to you. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, so we can learn how to at least begin to comfort our loved ones in such instances. Your aunt sounds like an amazingly strong and wise woman.

    1. Yes – my aunt is a no nonsense 92 year old snow shoveling, house owning strong woman who walks 2 miles each day. Definitely a role model! Thanks for reading.

  7. Beautiful post. I recently had a friend lose her relatively young dad. It was hard to know what to say but we showed up. Every day. And slept over when we could. Glad to know that may have helped.

  8. This is a sensitive topic but I’m glad with your heartfelt post. It’s hard but you made an informative post about it. I’m guilty with some of the stuff you mentioned, like hugging in public and saying something like “he’s in a better place.” Good to know and definitely a nice read!

    1. Thanks Gelli – hugs can definitely be good, but if she is feeling unsteady, best to be supportive and maybe not dwell on it. When I went back to work it was so hard to get my head in the right place, and then some people wanted to come hug me and tell me how awful it was. Not too helpful.

  9. God the 5 “Don’t”s are EVERYTHING! This should be common knowledge, but somehow it isn’t. Thank you for putting it all so eloquently.

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Runaway Widow
Join me, Kristin, on my journey to adjust to the sudden death of my husband and learn to live as a young, middle-aged, remarried widow.

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