At some point, death and grief will touch our lives. Losing a long-term partner may be too much to think about, and we might quickly stave off the sinking feeling in our stomachs or grip on our hearts by setting those thoughts aside. But what happens when someone we love loses someone they love? What does it feel like, and how can we help ease the pain? What should we say? What should we avoid saying? Widows and partners of those who have passed explain how it felt and how to really use our words to help.

GRIEF IS A WHIRLWIND

“One minute to the next is such a whirlwind of emotions,” describes April Schubert, from Port Alberni, British Columbia, on what it was like to lose her 49-year old fiancé Gareth unexpectedly late in 2014. “One second you wish you could talk about them, the next you are falling apart at the mere smell of something that reminds you of them.” Cassie from Ontario lost her long-term partner Matt, in 2005 and describes her grief after his death in a similar way. “It surprised me how quickly a good day can turn when something small reminds you of the person you lost..the most random things would suddenly conjure a memory and I would breakdown on the spot.” Even though it has been ten years since he passed on, Cassie says she’s come to realize grief is not a short-living emotion. “Once you’ve experienced a great loss, you realize that there’s no timeline for the healing process. Ten years later, I’m married with two small kids and I still think about him and tear up.” It can be difficult to understand the range of emotions that can happen within moments, even years later if you don’t have personal experience with the death of a spouse. “Being widowed is a lifelong experience,” says Michele Neff Hernandez, Founder and Executive Director of Soaring Spirits International, an organization dedicated to connecting widowed people to each other to aid in the process of rebuilding. She adds, “The pain changes over time, but the person we loved will always be a part of our life.”

GRIEF IS MESSY AND EMOTIONAL

When it comes to grief, leaning on family and friends to give emotional support can go a long way in healing, but it’s not always easy. “We often expect more support and understanding from friends and family than they are able to give,” says Mary Francis, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, Certified Law of Attraction Facilitator, Author and Founder of The Sisterhood of Widows. “When we grieve we are messy and emotionally not with it. Foolish comments and actions by others can cause us a lot of extra pain.” She suggests that many blanket statements offered as a way to give comfort can be interpreted as hurtful for widows.”We can become very bitter, angry and touchy about things that normally we would let pass,” she says. Francis says the following typical statements said to a widow can often be interpreted as hurtful:

  • At least he’s no longer suffering.”
  • “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
  • “He wouldn’t want you to cry or be sad.”
  • “You really need to move on (or) get over this.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.”

Schubert revealed that unsolicited “advice” can be very hurtful”. “I just want to move forward and have people stop telling me what I need to do, feel, say, enjoy or let go of.” And as for the “time heals all wounds” adage, Francis underlines, “It just teaches us to act like we are okay for other people.” Cassie said she found the cliché statements made her angrier than comforted. “The phrases like, ‘everything happens for a reason” or ‘God has another angel now’, and other things of that nature made me angry, raging, ready to punch people angry because the loss you feel isn’t justifiable or quantifiable.” While intentions might be kind, she warns, “No matter what you say, you can’t take their pain away so don’t try.”

LISTENING AND SHARING STORIES CAN BE POWERFUL

“The best way to support someone who is grieving is to first be able to allow them to express their feelings without fear of judgment, without someone trying to fix them, without offering platitudes – in short, just listen,” suggests Hernandez. Cassie agrees, saying that just listening can be a powerful support for someone grieving the loss of the partner. “Make it known that you are available to them 24/7 for anything, especially listening when they need to vent or break down.” She adds that friends shouldn’t put a timeline on that support.”The grieving period isn’t set in stone so don’t disappear even when you think they’re doing better and don’t judge them for needing help even years after their loss.” If silence or sitting still isn’t something you can offer, sharing happy stories and memories of their spouse can be equally powerful. “Honestly, just listening and sharing their favorite memories and not looking at me with pity when I shed a tear,” said Schubert when asked what her advice is for offering her support and comfort. Hernandez adds that sharing stories can provide real support. “Every story is a gift, and knowing that other people will remember your spouse or partner matters so much to the widowed,” she says.

WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY?

  • I wish I had the right words, just know that I care.”
  • You are constantly in my thoughts and prayers.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.”
  • “My favorite memory is… “
  • “I am usually up early or late if you need anything.”
  • “I miss them too.”
  • “I care about you.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about you.”
  • “I am here for you, for the long haul.”
  • “Would you like a hug?”
  • “I’ll bring dinner next Monday.”
SHARING IS CARING
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Uju is a writer, freelance blogger and content developer. She is passionate about helping you become the best you can be. She also loves to write, sing, hang out and meditate. If you need to talk or know someone who needs a listening ear, have them reach out to me on uju@realitieswithuj.com. I am also open to content development and freelance writing opputunities. Join me on Facebook at Nwokedi Chinny Uju.

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