How to offer help to a young widow

Losing a spouse is unimaginable. After losing her husband at age 34, one woman offers concrete advice for those wanting to help young widows. Read this interview and learn what not to say to someone who has recently lost a spouse.

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  • One of the greatest sadnesses in my life is when I hear of a friend or family member who has lost a loved one. Unfortunately, the list of young widows I know is too long. I distinctly remember the confusion and shock I felt earlier this year when I learned that my friend Scott died suddenly at the age of 34. His wife, Brianne, has been very candid about the feelings and experiences she's had since Scott passed away.

  • I recently sat down with her to ask for her help and advice for those who find themselves wanting to help young widows. Although everyone's experience is unique, she offers general ideas for those in similar situations.

  • You lost your husband very unexpectedly. What helped in the first few days?

  • "Honestly, medication and childcare. It sounds weird, but the first 48 hours is a surreal nightmare. I was reeling from shock and played his last few minutes over and over in my head. I had a hard time processing what needed to be done and needed someone to make decisions and carry out basic preparations. It was also nice to have people listen to me. I am an external processor and wrestle with problems audibly. I needed to talk things out."

  • Brianne notes that making decisions about things like funeral preparations seemed overwhelming because Scott's passing was so sudden. She had a few close friends and several family members come to help. Brianne made a list, and people took tasks and did the best they could to fulfill them. Other friends took her 3 children (aged 6, 4 and 2, at the time) to play for short periods of time while Brianne was unavailable.

  • What are some things that people have said to you that have helped you grieve and feel supported?

  • "The best thing to say is 'I'm sorry.' Not many people understand what it feels like to have someone go so unexpectedly, so it is a hard event to empathize with. I found that if people didn't understand, the best thing they could offer was a heartfelt apology. I think also just showing up to chat or for a hug was helpful after the initial chaos died down. The first week is overwhelming and very sad, but it isn't until after everyone leaves and real life sets in that the real grieving begins. That is when it gets really hard and lonely and support is most important."

  • Many people dealing with loss agree that simple statements of sympathy help, and genuine words are appreciated. If you don't know what to say, it's OK to admit that too.

  • What should people avoid saying to young widows?

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  • "I felt like the worst was, 'Don't worry, you will see him again,' or 'Your family is forever.' In our religion, we do believe that family relationships remain intact following death, but that sentiment wasn't very reassuring immediately after the fact. I believe that I will be reunited with him someday, but that day could be a very long time from now. My immediate concern is my present situation. I am alone now. I have young children that need their father now.

  • Also to be avoided is the phrase, 'My aunt/grandpa/pet died, so I know how you must be feeling.' I remember thinking that nothing is the same as losing your spouse. Your spouse is part of your daily life and an integral part of your future. Losing another beloved member of your extended family is very different from losing your spouse."

  • Now that it's been a few months, what are people still helping you with? What do you wish you had more help with?

  • "It has been six months, and we have adopted a new family rhythm and are coping a lot better, but I would say that, for several months after, occasional childcare was really helpful. I felt so overwhelmed by the life-changing decisions and I was so tired. It was nice every time someone would take my kids for a playdate and I could get phone calls made or run tedious errands without interruption.

  • I felt a lot of guilt for being so upset and neglecting my children; when they were having fun with friends it allowed me to check out without feeling that I was failing my kids. I am coping, or surviving, most days. I haven't reached the point where I am really enjoying or relishing life yet. I am sure that will come."

  • Brianne has a great group of friends who help her with childcare, as well as nearby family. Other widows might need help with driving kids to lessons and activities, housecleaning, managing finances and home maintenance.

  • What advice would you give to those who are trying to help people in your situation?

  • "I would suggest checking in with those who are struggling with loss often, even months later. Even though life marches on, a widow is adjusting to a new life, and they are reworking it almost daily. It is mentally draining and emotionally debilitating at times, as well as very lonely. Reaching out to widows is important to remind them that they aren't entirely alone. Friendship cannot take the place of marital companionship, but it is better than suffering by oneself."

  • It is important to help a widow grieve in the way she wishes. This might mean talking about her lost spouse often, or giving her space. Brianne processes things through talking about them, and she has relied on her sister and other good friends to listen as she works through feelings and frustrations.

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  • Any other advice for those wanting to help young widows?

  • "Don't forget that the widow is still suffering even if she is feigning cheerfulness and healing. Six months later, I am usually fine during most of the day, but occasionally I hit a wall or feel completely despondent. I still cry and worry about my future. I try to keep it together, but sometimes wish I didn't have to. Grieving is tricky because it is different for everyone, but I can imagine it hurts about the same. I am always kind of walking the line between hope and despair."

  • If someone you love is struggling with loss, keep these ideas in mind. Search for ways to comfort and help that will make life easier for a young widow. Life is challenging, but with love and help from others, young widows can move forward with hope for their family's future.

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Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.

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