How to Support A Friend Who Is Dealing With Early Widowhood
Knowing how to support a friend who’s dealing with the death of a spouse can definitely be confusing. You might have a hard time relating to what they’re going through, or you might be concerned about saying the right (or wrong) thing. And it’s not always clear whether we should talk about their struggles and encourage them to face their fears, or give them some space and focus on being a fun distraction.
While there’s no rulebook for helping a friend with widowhood, there are things you can do to show your support and make the situation a little easier for them. In particular, young widows face unique challenges, often having to care for young children (or babies) and juggle careers and social relationships. They often feel like they’re “outliers” because they are faced with a challenge few in their social group have ever experienced and know how to navigate.
Here are a few tips to support a friend who is dealing with early widowhood:
Listen, Listen, Listen
If comforting a friend who lost a spouse is something that’s foreign to you, a good place to start is to become familiar with the general challenges widows face. It can also help to read up on whether your friend is experiencing anxiety that’s expected or typical or if it’s bordering on something more serious. Not only will you better understand what your friend might be going through, but you’ll also feel confident that you’re able to give the kind of support that’s actually helpful. If you have struggled with anxiety, it might make it easier to empathize. But everyone experiences anxiety differently, and we can be biased by our own experiences.
That’s why no matter how much reading you’ve done or personal experience you have, the best thing to do is to ask your friend about their experience. What do they worry about? What does widowhood feel like to them? What would they like to do ? And, most importantly, what kind of support are they actually looking for? Asking these questions in an open, non-judgmental, and even curious way will help you figure out the kinds things that are helpful and can be a type of support in and of itself.
Empathize with your friend
As much as possible, it helps to normalize what your friend is going through. Instead of throwing around statistics, validate your friend’s feelings and experiences. Let them know that you understand that their grief is very real and very difficult, and that it makes sense that they’re struggling (e.g., “Of course you’re feeling anxious. That’s a scary situation.”).
Sharing your experience can be a great way to make your friend feel supported, but it’s probably best to avoid saying things like: “I know exactly what you’re feeling.” Instead, share that you relate to how hard it can be and show an interest in hearing more about your friend’s personal experience.
Be careful not to minimize
“Your Husband is in a better place” – is one of the key phrases many young widows often hear. Despite our best intentions, minimizing the situation or our friend’s grief is rarely helpful. We might think that pointing out that things aren’t so bad, scary, or dangerous is a way to be supportive or calm them down. But when someone is grieving, they are rarely receptive to this kind of feedback. On some level, our friends usually know their anxiety isn’t totally rational, so this “reality check” isn’t giving them any new information and can feel insensitive.
At the same time, getting too caught up in saying the “right thing” can hold you back from saying anything at all, which often feels worse. Offering your genuine words of support is generally the way to go, as long as you are open to feedback about what actually does or does not help.
Don’t perpetuate a cycle of constant “grief-talk”.
When a friend is going through early widowhood, we might think the best way to be supportive is to constantly rehash the subject of grief. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of grief talk because the subject comes up so often.
Similarly, repeatedly discussing or rehashing the circumstances without being forward-looking (a process known as co-rumination) can happen. Even though these kinds of discussions might bring you closer together, they increase symptoms of anxiety and depression in the long run.
Don’t put them in situations where they are vulnerable.
Any situation or place where widows will have to reminisce or discuss their husbands death will make them vulnerable. Similarly, conversations that revolve around dating or relationships, can make young widows feel like in order to participate they have to bring up the past. Ensure that they can fully participate in conversations without pressure or having to rehash the past.
Help them overcome loneliness
When a friend is experiencing early widowhood, they often withdraw from certain people, places, or situations. They might avoid going to larger social events or even cancel plans that the two of you have. This isn’t just an issue for your friendship, avoidance actually maintains and reinforces grief. That’s why one of the best ways to support a friend who’s dealing with early widowhood is to help them maintain their social life. Ask them where they’d like to start and how you can make a difference. Offering practical help with child-care or bringing over dinner are all practical ways to help a friend.
Give them Hope
After my husband died, it seemed like the pain would never end. One friend tried to illustrate the transition from full blown grief to full recovery to me by using the bus illustration.
The Bus of Life
She said, “Right now you’re not ready to get back on the bus with us yet. You will just wave to us as the bus passes by”. The bus was a symbol for work, careers, the rat race and all the worldly pursuits we engage in to push our lives ahead.
She then said, “One day you will be able smile at us on the bus as it passes by”, illustrating that I was slowly transitioning to be able to smile and understand their pursuits on the bus of life again. “When you’re ready – you will be able to get back on the bus with us again”.
At that point, I couldn’t see myself getting back on that bus – not even smiling at it. But I can tell you today that I’m back on that bus – and I’m in the driver’s seat. Everything in life is temporary… nothing lasts forever.
One of the best gifts my friend gave me was the gift of hope. Not only did she realize that I just was not ready to hop on to the bus – but she reassured me that one day I would again, and that made all the difference.