Annie says, "If you are a friend, associate or relative of a new widow*...
pour yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable.
We need to talk."
We need to talk about how you can better understand, accept and help a new widow. It can be difficult to maintain a smooth relationship with a widow when she is in the throes of grief...unless you have walked in her shoes, either as a widow or as a parent who has lost a child. But your friend has never needed you more.
I learned this soon after my husband died several years ago. Suddenly there was this disjunct in my life. There were those who knew what I was going through, and those who didn't. A few of my friends and relatives had either "been there," or were particularly empathic. These friends understood the new grieving me. A few other relationships crumbled in ignorance, and have never really regained previous closeness. From what I hear, from hundreds of other widows, we nearly all suffer the loss of close friends just when we most need someone to lean on.
I know there might be all kinds of reasons that our friends quit calling:
the pain for them of dealing with grief they see in us
hurts or insults we might have unknowingly hurled in early raw grief
the discomfort of couples trying to include a newly single woman in their plans
a little jealousy here...
a little self-protection there and
a lot of ignorance everywhere about the nature of grief.
Although I didn't like it, I understood, all too well. Before I was widowed I admit that I shied away from closeness with widowed friends. It can be awkward. I even opted not to invite two widow friends for a dinner party, because it would "upset the boy-girl balance." Then, as a new widow, I found this happening to me. I confess that I didn't always make friendship easy. I suddenly felt wiser than most of my friends. I knew all about what's really important in life, and I knew that most of my non-widowed friends did not. I was impatient with their talk of trivial problems. You might say that as a new widow I lost a few friends because I sometimes was irrational, insulting, impatient or hyper-sensitive; I'm afraid you'd be right.
Lesson #1: New widows may be irrational, insulting, impatient or hypersensitive at times.
It is most important for friends and relatives to know, and understand, that grievers in general are totally consumed with themselves: their own feelings, their needs, their memories, their safety, their finances, their fears, their marriage, their pain, their loneliness, their survival. They need to talk and think about all these things for hours on end, for days on end, maybe weeks on end. It is very difficult for them to focus on subjects outside their own realm. They probably can't worry about the PTA bake sale or about Suzie and Joe's marital problems, or the price of gasoline, or politics, or how to keep rabbits out of the garden. These "problems" seem trivial, silly, compared with their problems about how they will survive their loss. Unfortunately, they have no extra resources to spend helping confused friends and relatives learn to understand them..
Lesson #2: Grieving widows are almost totally self-involved; it's the nature of grief.
In addition to my own experiences with difficult relationships in widowhood, I was continually reminded of the fragile bonds of friendship and family when I interviewed more than 80 widows of all ages and all stages for my widows' guidebook.** I still hear complaints from dozens of other widows when I speak to groups about my book and/or widowhood. I also receive daily reminders of the problem from the more than 270 widows who send each other "messages" on this widows' support site.*** Most often I read the lament, "Nobody but the widows on this site really understand what I am going through."
Lesson #3: Nobody but other widows really DO know exactly what widows go through.
These widows complain that you, their friends and families, often abandon them after a few weeks. From your point of view, you may stop visiting her so often because you feel helpless and frustrated, nothing you say seems to help her. Maybe you have become tired of hearing the same sad stories of his death. Maybe you think her husband wasn't quite as wonderful as she now thinks he was. Maybe you think she is just acting crazy and isn't responding to grief as maturely and sensibly as (you think) you would. Or, maybe her low moods and tears are keeping you from feeling completely well and happy in your own life.
Regardless of why you don't see her more often, from her point of view it probably feels a lot like you have abandoned her. This isn't helped by the fact that most widows already feel they have been abandoned by their deceased mates. I remember that feeling of abandonment. I remember that I sometimes felt like toddler whose mother has just dropped her at a complete stranger's house and left without a word. Nothing feels familiar, like your world has just ended.
Lesson #4: Widows feel abandoned by their mates and by their impatient friends
As I've said, only widows really know what other widows got through. But anyone can learn a bit about what they go through. Take some time studying pages on this site. That will be a good start. Then compare your own life patterns with what she may be going through. You can't begin to understand her without recognizing how different her life is, and how different she is, now that she is a widow. Once you realize that, you will have fewer problems learning to be her friend. . Begin by reading pages on this website. However, the MESSAGES pages are for widows only. These are very personal thoughts, from one widow to another, so I hope you will respect their privacy and refrain from butting in there. Maybe a few will grant permission for me to print some of their messages out here for you to read. They can be heart-rending and tear-provoking, and would certainly give you a flavor of the widow's pain that you aren't likely to get elsewhere. What you would learn, is what they all learn: Almost every seemingly crazy or horrible or scary thing they feel and do is perfectly "normal"...for a widow, which is a different kind of "normal" than you and her other friends might know.
Lesson #5: Widows experience a wide variety of emotions and peculiar symptoms.
Each person grieves differently. The path of grief is totally unpredictable, except that most people will go through some or all of the accepted stages, and erratic symptoms often appear without respect for those stages. Some stay in deep grief for years, but most show remarkable adjustment during the first months, and especially after a year or two. Depression, often the most difficult stage, also sometimes signals the beginning of real healing. According to recent studies, grief generally lasts from four to seven years. This does not mean widows will remain that long in daily agony, like the first few months. Most widows begin to function more normally and experience brief bouts of optimism after several months.Those bouts of normality usually become more frequent and longer lasting, but it can take four to seven years before all semblance of grief disappears.
Lesson #6: Widows often seem to be "over it" and "in charge." Don't relax; it might just be a vacation from grief. Be wary; one doesn't just get over grief, like measles.
Know that this natural, and...be patient with your friend.
Word of Wisdom: "Never judge a widow's progress by your own or anyone else's experience. Grief does not come in 'One size fits all.' Now that you better understand widowhood, know that if you wish to be more help to your widowed friend, working associate or relative, you can learn how. You needn't wait to be widowed yourself to understand her better and help her work through her grief. In addition to learning what you can about widowhood, you need only brush up on a few special interrelationship tools.
We each are unique; and so is our grief." Annie
For more detailed help on these four topics, click here or on "Helping a Widow" in Site Contents on the left.
* Although I use feminine pronouns and the word "widow," I mean to include all who have lost a mate in death.
** For Widows Only! is the title of my new guidebook for widows, which became available in early 2004. See: http://forwidowsonly.com for more information about this book.
*** For Widows Only is also the title of this widows' support website. It's a good place to learn more about what your friend may be going through. Write it down: http://groups.msn.com/forwidowsonly </o:p>