Needless to say, I’m a bit unique in my beliefs, so please don’t generalize all widows, but I will share with you some helpful tips, and you can assess if they would apply to someone you know who has lost a loved one.
Get her out of the house ASAP!:
Immediately following his death, I couldn’t be alone. Every corner of the house reminded me of him and I wasn’t strong enough to clear his spaces. Some uplifting friends of mine from Nashville urged me to fly out and stay with them for a week. It was a beautiful time of positive words and shoulders to cry on. It helped soften things for a while until I could look at his empty side of the bed.
Run errands or take over some responsibilities:
I still owned two businesses. Patients were scrambling. Supplement orders needed to be filled. My staff was amazing and knew me enough to be able to handle all executive decisions. Jessie, my daughter stayed in Mexico to help bring back John’s ashes. A group of friends gathered to help plan the Celebration Ceremony (aka funeral.) I was not capable of making decisions. I needed people in my life to take charge.
Don’t buy plants: (and I apologize in advance to all of the lovely people who did…I loved them…really…and possibly still have them)
I, myself, always did this when an acquaintance or relative had died, as I felt it was nice to have something that would last rather than something that would die in a few days. But for months after his death, I found myself running a small nursery. I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for killing a plant (a bit of a sensitive subject), so I dutifully lined them all up and did my best to keep them alive.
And, by the way, having a plant as a reminder that it was given to me when my husband died…..yeah, not helpful.
Do buy chocolate or food:
One of the most useful gifts I received was from my neighbor from Belgium, who brought me a box of fine chocolates. The post dinner indulgence was probably the happiest time of my day. Often, it was my dinner. Chocolate helps produce serotonin which is our body’s mood stabilizer so I considered it medication.
I also appreciated those who bought me groceries, because it was a good month before I could pull myself together enough to go to the grocery store.
Help her get through the “Firsts”:
Mia unloaded John’s suitcase and held my hand as we entered the house for the first time. There was no easy way to enter the empty bedroom, but Mia beautifully honored my unavoidable pain. It takes at least a year to get through the “firsts”. Friends checked in on me for various special dates and two friends invited me to their place in Puerto Vallarta for Christmas. I have one memory of going to a beautiful garden with a huge group of friends, that I had previously visited with them, accompanied by John. As loving and fun as these people were, one friend saw me and revealed, “Oh dear, you aren’t okay,” then proceeded to hold me tight. I burst into tears and the beautiful woman in charge of the group announced, “Quick, everyone make her laugh!” They did and it was hysterical and exactly what I needed.
Don’t send anything that you expect a thank you from:
I think often of the lovely gifts and cards I received, but it was a lot, and truth be told, most of them blended together. There were some key items and stories that I remembered. One patient of John’s sent me a check, which I used to take my daughter out for dinner. Another patient randomly had lunch delivered and that was perfect. There were some over-the-top flower arrangements that were exquisite, and of course the chocolate. However, all of the cards sat on a pile next to my kitchen and I had no idea when I’d have the emotional strength to write these lovely people a thank you note. I also did my best to keep track of it all, but I am sure I didn’t. Please don’t judge a widow who doesn’t respond or thank you.
Cards with notes and emails are great:
I loved them all, but it took months before I could open most of them. Be alright with that. Don’t expect a reply. I just couldn’t go there. It was easiest to breathe in the beautiful memory or sentiment and let it go.
Take a widow out for a meal:
Eating alone, especially at night, was really tough for me. I loved friends who took me out. It was a powerful distraction to see life moving on for the rest of the world.
If you know that money is tight, offer to help if you can:
Two women, whom I am sure would prefer to remain nameless, stepped up to the plate in monumental ways. One paid for some of John’s insane Mexican hospital bills and one paid for a good portion of the funeral. Some other friends paid for the ambulance bill, and others loaned me money to help get me through some really bad situations until I could (and did) pay them back. I still tear up thinking of this generosity. You know who you are, thank you, and I love you.
What to say and more importantly, what NOT to say:
This is tricky because I suggest meeting the widow at the emotional set point for where she is at. If she approaches you with tears in her eyes, cry with her or just hug and give her love and empathy, but if she’s in a good mood and smiling, PLEASE smile back. A couple of months after John passed, I went to a seminar where I would see several of John’s friends. I was so happy to be there and so lit up, but person after person approached me with tears and that look of, “You’re life must really suck now.”
“Well,” I thought, “It didn’t until this moment, but thanks for reminding me.”
Most of my friends, however, hold a similar belief system to me, and they knew I was tough and could get through anything. Without a doubt, the hardest people to face were John’s patients. A beloved doctor, John was a maverick who stood up for patient’s rights and protecting children naturally and holistically. With so few doctors like him, many of them were in deep grieving.
Once I made it back to the office, each time I would focus myself into my work, a phone call would come that would knock me down and remind me why my eyes were constantly puffy.
I have to add that there have been times when I enjoyed these conversations, and many of them were really beautiful and moving and I always knew they were with the best of intentions, however, when I’m in a good mood, it’s the most bubble bursting shit I could imagine.
The worse scenarios would be when they cried, “How will I (meaning them) survive without him?”
Really? That is SO not my problem. I’m not the one you cry to. I’m not the one you grieve to. I’m the one you uplift. I’m in survival mode, I need to be selfish, and if you are not in a position to uplift, please leave me alone or bring me chocolate.
Some days, people stopped by shocked by my smile and levity, so they felt the need to warn me of the peaks and valleys of grief. “Thanks, that gives me something to look forward to. I’m glad more despair is headed my way,” I wanted to yell.
Honestly, from moment to moment I didn’t know if I was wanting to be cheered up or allowed to cry. Some days I enjoyed the memories of John from a tender story, but other days I wanted to push him out of my head. Many times I wanted to be in a cave and often, while in the cave, I would wail, “Someone rescue me the hell out of here!” But usually those screams go un-noticed and I sat and cried until the tears stopped and I had melted into the couch.
There were a handful of friends who were relentless in not letting me crumble. They would constantly call or come by the house for short visits and deliver food or invite me to meals over and over and not be the slightest bit offended if I didn’t want to go or I canceled at the last minute. A friend who lived far away came to visit but required no entertainment. All of them made me laugh by finding small funny things to say.
They would speak with optimism and not try to flood me with advice. They would remind me to be gentle with myself over and over. They agreed with just about every revelation I had, which about 95% of was ridiculous and totally impractical. I wanted to move to Europe. I wanted to buy a condo in Santa Cruz. I wanted to train for a cross-country bike ride. I wanted to liquidate everything and travel the world.
They told me I was pretty. That I was smart. That I was capable of anything, not because it was what I needed to hear, but because they genuinely believed in me. They saw my well-being the way someone watches a romantic comedy and knows the ending will be happy.
There was no judging and it was pure unconditional love as they acted like bodyguards to my psyche. My favorite line from one beautiful friend was:
I’m under no obligation to make sense to anyone.
They didn’t lean on me unless I asked. And sometimes that was fine because it was nice to get out of my head and listen to someone else’s trials for a while.
There were many, however, that I expected more from. Friends that were so paralyzed in not knowing what to do, that they simply did nothing.
I didn’t need or want, someone caring for me. I didn’t want to tell the story again. I definitely didn’t want to bring anyone down. I just wanted to have fun on lonely nights and since I was often the host for gatherings, it made the situation additionally challenging as many didn’t know what to do with me.
Grieving is exhausting. An intense bike ride is loads more invigorating than 2 hours of tears. For many months that followed, my once hyper, and often intelligent brain was clouded. I didn’t want to make decisions.
If someone said, “Would you like to join me for lunch?”
The next question needed to be, “Would you like burgers or Indian food?”
Give me choices. Don’t make me think.
Plan an evening and present it this way, “Hey, Larry and I were thinking we might go Friday night to Off the Grid. You could drive to our place first, we will drive you there, and feel free to spend the night so you don’t have to drive home in the dark.”
Those were the things I longed for. Just showing up. One friend was a season ticket holder for many events. “I’m saving a ticket for you. It’s waiting at the box office. Be there at 5:30.” Perfectly presented to someone who can’t even figure out how to go to a grocery store without breaking down.
When someone you love is suffering see them as capable, but lift them up with your support. Then stick two straws up your nose and pretend you’re a walrus.