Ten things you may not know about grief and losing a spouse - and how you can help a grieving friend
Losing a spouse suddenly, especially at a relatively young age is many peoples worst fear and some peoples most stark reality. And yet it is some peoples living reality. Here is a list of things you may not know about grief if you understanding is limited to feeling sad. Imagine having your very heart ripped out of you and all the plans and dreams you had suddenly being taken away along with the person you most loved and relied on in the world. Imagine losing everything all at once, including your identity as that persons wife/husband.
Some you may have heard and some you may not have even thought of. These are part of every grieving persons ‘every day’. Spare a thought for the deeper unspoken world of the widow/widower now and again.
1. People will say the stupidest things and you will have to resist the urge to slap them. Sometimes they just feel the need to relate and other times they have just never experienced real loss.
People will compare your loss to the loss of their cat or an illness that a child or partner had but recovered from, or still have but are doing well. Here are some real life conversations that grieving people have had.
"One person asked me one full week after my husband died if everything was back to normal now!"
"More than once I sat stunned wanting to run far away from a café we were sitting in together, when one person told me they knew what I was experiencing because their cat died and another said my experience was the same as when their adult child was diagosed with mental illness,... yes your child who is alive and well and holding down a job and living independently... just the same". SO what should you say? The most comforting thing to hear was “I really don’t know what it is like for you but I can imagine it is really hard. I’m here if you want to talk about it”
How can I help? You may or may not know what they are experiencing but you dont have to know what they are feeling. Saying "I cant imagine how you feel but I know I would be devastated" is a much better option than "I know exactly what you are going through" - you dont, you are not them.
2. For a long time people will stare at you or go to great lengths to avoid you, backing fast out of the same supermarket aisle as they deal with their own humanity and lack of ability to say the right thing.
How can I help?
Hot tip – its ok to just smile as you pass, no-one expects you to be the answer, but please don’t turn away, they already feel alone. Its ok to smile, wave, move on. Much better than the awkward "I hope they didnt see me" - they probably dont want to talk either.
3. You will lose some friends. They wont know what to say or you remind them you are living their greatest fear. Or they will say stupid things to you that hurt so deeply its best to avoid them. On the flip side you will find a whole lot of friends in places you never even looked. People who you never imagined will be your closest companions. It’s a whole new world for everyone and not everyone can handle it.
How can you help? remember to be a friend and include the grieving person, they do not have a disease and you can handle a few tears if need be, they have lost their world - they dont need to lose you as well.
4. The losses continue long after the initial loss of your spouse. You haven’t just lost a partner; you have lost all future dreams you ever had together. You have lost a provider (of all things from cuddles to income), a protector, loving care giver, a father or mother to your children and the only other person as invested as you in their lives. You lost someone to help with all the day to day living tasks such as taking out the garbage, gardening, and doing half the driving on long trips, helping with cooking and being the other adult in the room. You lost someone to talk to about the struggle of your day or a big decision you have to make. You have lost the ability to take holidays together or to sleep in whilst someone else does the school run. Life has changed forever and it will never ever be the same again. And it sucks. Secondary losses are the worst.
How can you help? Validate and acknowledge the losses. Offer your services where you can and an empathetic ear where you can’t. Realise the loss goes way beyond that of a person and touches every area of their life. Ask how they are doing.
5. You will have to review all of your life choices and values in light of this loss. You may have valued being a stay at home mum or dad , or at least being there when your kids get home from school…. You may have enjoyed being full time employed. Now the only one who is going to financially support this household is you but you also have to think about being home with the kids who are grieving just as hard.
You may have to retrain, study or earn a living working long hours where you don’t see your kids and they are in after school care or home with a sibling. You may have to stay home and try to work shorter hours. You might have to change direction so completely you lose yourself trying to keep it all afloat. It sucks.
How can you help? Be understanding. Offer to help pick up kids from school a day or two a week. There is often no family around to help and friends can step in where they feel confident.
6. You will never get used to seeing people only connected to him without him there. Never. It will always be a trigger no matter how much you love those people. He should be here when his mum or siblings visit or his best mate drops in.
How can you help? Acknowledge and validate, dont dwell on it but dont over look it. Dont stop visiting or asking them out to join activities you used to all enjoy.
7. Triggers Your partners favourite song or that song that played at your wedding or whilst you took that romantic drive that time will come on the radio and you will be standing talking with your boss and suddenly have to excuse yourself to go cry. Music is a huge trigger, which is kind of ok if you are driving or alone, but at work mid conversation… its awkward, and the rest of the day doesn’t go much better.
How can you help? Be attuned - if they ask for the radio station to be changed, just change it.
8. You don’t get ‘over’ it. You might grow around it and move forward though it but you always feel you have lost your right arm and leg and half your head. You will turn around 5 years after the event to ask them how you are related to so and so or where exactly you got lost on the way to that holiday one time and realise there is no one to answer that question and there never will be... You will want to share one of ‘their stories’ that they always retold in the funniest way when others are telling their stories but you bite your tongue and swallow and blink and remember it to yourself, feeling more alone than ever in a happy crowd of people.
How can you help? Remember this person was once a part of a couple relationship - it was valid and still is - allow and ask for the stories so they can join in. Dont be awkward if they start to share about someone you didnt know - it is important to them and allows them to feel included - something they dont often feel anymore.
9. Why are the kids not helping? This is such a common accusation if your kids are over the age of 10. The reality is your kids are grieving every bit as hard as you are but people expect them to pick up all the pieces that your partner once did and to ‘step up’.
Guess what, they are kids and it is not their role to ‘step up’, they are grieving, they have their own pressures and studies or work. Its often easier to sit with overgrown grass than try to explain or justify why the kids cant mow it just like they cant mow it for lack of time, energy and other commitments now that you carry full time parenting, full time working and full time every other role.
No-one will understand this. No-one.
Most people will just see lazy kids and have no idea of all they have done already and what they are carrying.
How Can You Help?
If someone asks for help in mowing, a yard clean-up or heavy lifting, either help or don’t help, but don’t try and educate the widow/er on how to better parent their grieving kids.
10. There is a freedom to not having to consult someone about if you can go out with friends or buy takeaway or spend money, and you will learn you can go on long drives at opportune times all alone and not have that someone ring to demand you come home, except there are kids to look after.
But it comes at a cost as you know too well the reason for this freedom, and at the end of the day, you are alone and that doesn’t change.
There will be rare days where you will be so proud of what you have achieved as a widow/er and single parent and how you have coped. You will smile at yourself and say well done you. Do this more often. You are rocking this widow/er life. And all those other days where you feel you need to rest more often and you cry more, even 5 years on, don’t beat yourself up, love comes at a cost and you reached ‘til death do us part’.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with grief - consider debriefing with a counsellor. Click on the links above to book in a session face to face/ via phone or online chat. It is worth it, even once.