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What to Say and Do When a Friend Is Grieving a Spouse

Alternatives to 'How can I help?' from an author of 'Suddenly Single After 50'

By Margaret Crane

(Editor's Note: The following is adapted from Chapter 4 of Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends' Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life by Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane.)

Two months after my husband, Nolan, died following a long illness, I decided it was time for me to do something I swore I’d never be able to do again: Open the door to human contact. Of course, I didn’t really mean I would never re-emerge from my house. I had to at some point. But I still fantasized about moving to an alien planet where strange beings didn’t know who I was, didn’t care and certainly didn’t speak my language. They’d leave me alone since they might fear me and my deep grief.

Deep down, I craved attention, pampering and largesse of family and close friends to get me through and back to the land of the functioning. It was all the acquaintances and strangers I didn’t want to have to chat with and explain my story, again and again, as profound changes began to take place in my life.

The day I returned to work after my husband’s death, I was a nervous wreck and made the neurotic Woody Allen in his movie Take the Money and Run look calm and composed. Could I don a disguise, wear a wig, big sunglasses like Woody? What a silly idea. That would draw even more attention to me.

This idea of other people’s reactions became a major topic of conversation at grief support sessions. Pat who had a friend tell her, “Get over it already, it’s been long enough,” told how she lost that friend when she said angrily, “I’m not ready. Don’t tell me how to feel.” And Rita M., whose friends avoided calling because she kept crying on the phone, eventually understood that they couldn’t cope with her intense grief, so she stopped taking those calls. Before long, they stopped calling.

How dare supposed friends act as they did, we thought collectively. If only they really knew what we were going through, they’d become empathetic and know exactly what to say, to ask, to do — and also what NOT to say and do.

In the past, I, too, often was unsure, afraid to intrude on a person’s grief, or ask the open-ended, unhelpful question: “How may I help?” Before my loss, I never could have fathomed what it was like. I now grasp not knowing all the proper sensitive etiquette when tragedy steps in, and have compiled this list to help others:

What I Wish People Had Asked and Said When My Husband Was Ill

  1. What may I do for you? How about coffee tomorrow, if you have time in the afternoon? I have some great gossip to share and make you laugh.
  2. I’m going to treat you to a massage; give me times and dates when you’re available.
  3. I’m getting a pedicure tomorrow and will pick you up so we can go together, if that works.
  4. I’m going to the grocery store and bookstore: What would you like at both? I’ll drop anything off and not even come in.
  5. Have I told you enough what a terrific guy Nolan is? I’m rooting for both him and you.

What I Wish People Hadn’t Asked or Said When My Husband Was Ill

  1. How did he get sick?
  2. What’s wrong with him?
  3. Did you contact other hospitals, in other cities?
  4. Did you get a second opinion, and where?
  5. Is it serious and will he get better?
  6. I know what you’re going through and how you feel. (No you don’t.)
  7. How can you work full-time?
  8. He doesn’t look sick; how sick could he be?

What I Wish People Hadn’t Asked or Said When He Died

  1. How long was he ill and was it painful?
  2. What exactly caused his death?
  3. Are you OK financially?
  4. Will you stay in your house or move, and where?
  5. Do you think you’ll date — and if so, when? When do you think you’ll marry again?
  6. Do you want to be fixed up? We can double when you’re dating.
  7. He’s in a better place; at least he’s no longer suffering.

What I Wish People Would Have Asked and Said Afterward—And Some Did

  1. Do you need help around the house? I like to organize stuff and can be there tomorrow or the next day.
  2. Would you just like to be left alone? If so, let me know your favorite thing to read or to eat and I’ll drop it at your door.
  3. I’m sure you hate walking into an empty house; let me meet you the first couple weeks at the front door and make sure you’re safe.
  4. May I walk your dog for you if you don’t feel OK to leave the house? I’ll feed him, too.
  5. How are your parents doing? I’m going to send a card or give them a call to make sure they’re OK; I’d also like to write Nolan’s mom even though she didn’t know me well.

What People Did That Most Pleased and Consoled Me

  1. A group of friends and neighbors hosted the shiva [Jewish period of mourning] after the funeral, organizing all the food purchases, setting it all out, cleaning it all up and putting leftovers in the fridge.
  2. One couple did a home wine tasting in my late husband’s honor with my kids and their friends pouring great wines from their cellar.
  3. One couple invited all of us for Passover.
  4. One friend sent flowers on the first anniversary Nolan and I missed sharing, and also gave me a pedicure to a favorite special spa.
  5. One friend started helping me clean out my house and organizing stuff to take to sell.
  6. One of my sisters, who helped me write thank you notes, accompanied me to buy the gravestone after I wrote more than 25 different epitaphs and sent them around to family and friends to pick the one they liked best.
  7. Many of my family and closest friends began calling each year on our anniversary, on Nolan's birthday and on the day of his death.
  8. Many couples included me so I wouldn’t be alone on major holidays and New Year’s Eve.
  9. A childhood friend made my favorite cookies and dropped them off at my door.
  10. Many of my girlfriends with handy husbands or partners and family pitched in and fixed things in the house and when I moved to my condo.
  11.  A partner of a good friend came and sat in my apartment the day I moved to meet the movers and told them where to put everything and how to arrange the furniture.
  12. Many have kept sharing stories about Nolan —all his strengths and his wonderful quirks; they help me keep his memory alive.

I am now a member of one of the most unwanted clubs in the world. Although I wish I could resign or be voted out, I learned how to be a better, caring friend to others during and after a crisis. Gradually, I adjusted — and most, I hope, will, too.

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Margaret Crane is a nationally known freelance writer focusing on business, food, wine, real estate, and home furnishings. Her latest book is The Kitchen Bible: Designing the perfect culinary space. In addition, she writes and maintains the weekly blog, Lifelessonsat50plus, with co-author Barbara Ballinger. Read More
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