How to help a widowed person

One of the things widowed people struggle with the most is asking for help. It’s one of the most common (and unhelpful!) lines you’ll hear at a funeral or after the death of a loved one:  ‘I’m here for you, call me if you need anything’.

For a start, we often don’t know what we need. Our whole world has just been pulled out from under our feet and we’re in a state of total shock. We’re barely able to remember how to make a cup of tea – let alone pull together a practical list of what support we’re going to require over the following weeks, months and years.

Secondly, we’re trying to re-discover who we are as people without our partners by our side. The thought of re-building our identities is incredibly stressful so often widowed people will put a lot of pressure on themselves to ‘cope’ and stand on our own two feet. We will also often try to take care of others first, because our own self-care and needs feels self-indulgent.

So nine times out of ten, we’re not going to call. We just can’t. And on that rare occasion that we DO call, it’s taken so much courage and energy that if we’re told ‘sorry, I can’t help with that’ it sends us spiralling backwards.

Turn up. Be there. Look for ways to help and make it happen.

So don’t wait to be asked – just do!

Share the load

If they have kids, offer to play a role in the school drop off/pick up or take them to their regular after-school sports or cultural activity. Commit to looking after the children one day or night a fortnight or have them for a sleep-over once a month. The children will enjoy the attention and the widowed parent will find that ‘me time’ invaluable – even if they spend that time crying in bed, it can be a release they can’t have while caring for their kids.

Lend a hand

Find a way to offer practical help, depending on your skills and abilities. Come over once a month and mow the lawn. Drop off basic grocery items and home-cooked meals. Get together with other friends or colleagues and fundraise for a fortnightly cleaning service. Offer to take the laundry or ironing away and drop it back later. Send a text  saying you're going to the hardware store, so do they need anything repaired or fixed.

Don’t stay too long (unless they want the company) as widowed people are often exhausted at the thought of entertaining guests. If you don't live close by, there are other ways to be helpful such as ordering a grocery delivery from their local supermarket or even posting a card with a voucher for a massage or facial.

Remember help isn't only needed in the first few weeks and months, the active grieving process can take years and widowed people often struggle the most around holidays or special occasions.  So if you know their loved one's birthday or wedding anniversary is coming up, lend a hand.

Most importantly, don’t make offers to help if you can’t follow through. The last thing a widowed person needs right now is to feel abandoned or let down.

Check in

Often, there can be a lot of support immediately after a death and it fades away after a couple of months. This leads to feelings of loneliness, as if others have forgotten and ‘moved on’ and we’ve been left behind. Visits can be exhausting and overwhelming but set yourself a reminder in your phone or diary to call regularly. If the calls don’t get answered, don’t be offended. Text instead, or email. If there’s no response, keep trying anyway until the widowed person is ready (or until you’re asked to stop. Then set a reminder in your diary to try again in a few months’ time).

"When my husband died, one of his closest friends texted me or called every week for almost two years – just to let me talk about him, cry, vent or listen to the stories from someone else who cared about him too. It was the greatest support and something I’ll never forget," Rebecca, President of First Light Widowed Association.

Know your place

Equally important to the item above is to look for the boundaries and don’t overstep them. Some widowed people talk about how they felt like they lost control after a death. You may think that by emptying the garbage bin or removing their loved one’s tooth brush so they don’t have to see it is a helpful thing to do but it can be very confronting and way too soon. Even well-meaning visitors who are trying to help can make a widowed person feel suffocated or useless. Never offer unsolicited advice. And even if you’re asked, never push it. Avoid the word ‘should’ at all costs! It only makes us feel like we’re failing.

Be polite!

Usual common decency can be forgotten for some reason, and people often feel like it’s ok to ask about our financial situation or give advice on our plans for the future. I remember thinking, no one would be brazen enough ask how I plan to pay my mortgage or how much life insurance I have if my husband were alive! Also, avoid asking for the details around how their person died, you will appear to be nosy and they might find this to be an upsetting and confronting topic of discussion. If a widowed person wants to share with you and offers the information, then that’s great and can be very therapeutic for them, but otherwise, don’t ask.

Say their loved one’s name

Don’t be afraid to mention their loved one. It’s not as if the widowed person has forgotten, in fact, most likely they’re quietly remembering and missing them. So by saying you miss them too, it gives the widowed person permission to include their person in the conversation or event. When we hear things like ‘he would have loved that movie’ or ‘I remember how she used to laugh at things like this’, we know their memory is living on and nothing warms our hearts more.

Also think of ways to include their loved one in special occasions (and check to see if the widowed person is comfortable with that rather than catching them by surprise).  For example, at Christmas,  place a framed photo of their loved one on the dining table. If you are planning a special event, like a wedding or christening, that their loved one would have otherwise been a part of, consider including a reading from their favourite book or playing a song they loved. 

Don’t be scared

We know there’s nothing you can say or do to take away our pain. That feeling of helplessness is hard but we appreciate your courage and strength by being there anyway. As difficult as it may be, don't avoid your widowed friend because of your own fears and insecurities. Believe us, people are treating them differently and it's isolating and cruel so try to act normal. It's ok to admit that you are nervous or you don't know how to help, in fact, your honesty will be a breath of fresh air.  Don't assume they don't want to participate in an activity just because it will remind them of their loss.  They may decline social invitations for a range of reasons but don't let that stop you from inviting them from future events. Eventually they will feel ready to take small steps and try new things again. 

Let them cry

One of the greatest (and hardest!) things you can do for a widowed person is allowing them to cry. It’s a natural reaction, when you see someone crying, to want to comfort them and make them stop. However, all you’re really doing is telling us to hold the pain in and push it back down inside. By letting us break down and share our tears, you are validating our pain and giving us a release. Crying is healthy and an important part of the grieving process. So pass the tissues, offer a hug, tell them it's good to let it out and cry along with them if you need to.