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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Widowhood in America Part One: Surviving Emotionally

Every widow wakes one morning, perhaps after years of pure and unwavering grieving, to realize she slept a good night's sleep, and will be able to eat breakfast, and doesn't hear her husband's ghost all the time, but only some of the time. Her grief is replaced with a useful sadness. Every parent who loses a child finds a way to laugh again. The timbre begins to fade. The edge dulls. The hurt lessens. Every love is carved from loss. Mine was. Yours is. Your great-great-great-grandchildren's will be. But we learn to live in that love.

—Jonathan Safran Foer

Few things in life are more stressful than the loss of a spouse. Becoming a widow or widower can lead to depression and chronic stress that shortens lifespans. Loneliness can be particularly strong in bereaved seniors, activating depressive symptoms, according to a recent study. This downward spiral can be hard to stop.

Loneliness and depression in seniors who have lost a spouse can lead to major health risks, including suicide. Risky behavior such as smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, failure to care for their-self or becoming inactive may increase. The risk of dementia also rises. 

How Professionals Can Help

Mental health professionals need to realize that loneliness and depression related to bereavement can have negative health consequences. Social support alone is often not enough to do the trick. Behavioral therapy can usually do more to curb negative thinking and help spouses cope.

Not everyone needs intervention. There are many differences in individual loss, such as whether it was sudden or occurred over many years. However, professionals may be able to predict the surviving spouse’s response based on the relationship the spouses had. Research shows that a widow who was highly dependent on her spouse is more likely to develop problems with anxiety after that person’s death. Strong closeness during a marriage often leads to greater loneliness for the surviving spouse. 

The depressive symptoms linked to grief can be misdiagnosed as severe depression. Anti-depressant medication may work for the initial distress, but it may be a less effective solution than counseling and therapy for coping long-term with grief.

How to Help a New Widow

Whether she is a neighbor, friend, family member or client, a new widow is going through an emotional upheaval that many of us don’t know how to react to, so we may do nothing at all. Here are 10 things that widows say they would find comforting.

  1. Send a card. Death may leave us without words, as anything we might say seems trivial or inadequate. A card is always appreciated and reminds the widow that she hasn’t been forgotten. If you don’t know what to write, a simple “I’m so sorry” is fine. Avoid saying “It’s God’s will” or “He’s in a better place.” You may believe that, but it’s not a comfort. It’s better to share a happy memory, such as “I’ll always remember when …” or “I loved how he …”
  2. It’s OK to talk about her spouse. Some people avoid mentioning the deceased. It may be awkward at first, but she wants to hear his name and remember something he loved to do or a funny memory. If this makes her cry, say you’re sorry and that you, too, miss him. Don’t let today’s tears keep you from talking about him the next time you see her. Every day is different.
  3. Keep important dates on your calendar. Birthdays and anniversaries will roll around, and a card, text or call lets her know you’re thinking about her. Sending a card on the anniversary of her husband’s death lets her know you remember and you care.
  4. Provide compassion but avoid pity. Share your deep sympathy the first time the two of you meet after her loss. Every subsequent conversation shouldn’t involve sad eyes and “Oh, you poor thing!” commentary, although there will be days when she and you may need to say how horrible, unfair, rotten and tragic this whole thing feels. Initiate normal conversations. Laughter, over time, really is the best medicine.
  5. Grief is different for everyone. If your friend declines invitations or offers of help, don’t pester her. Reach out again in a couple of weeks with new offers, or simply tell her you’d love to see her when she feels ready. Don’t forget about her because you’ve been rejected.
  6. Suggest ways to help. A new widow may refuse offers of help because she’s in denial, because of pride or because that’s her standard response. She may have no idea what she needs, so when you say, “What can I do to help?” she is at a loss. She may barely be able to get out of bed in the morning, much less organize tasks. Try saying something like “I’ll come over on Saturday and weed and water the garden, OK?” Putting it like that allows her to accept help more easily, while having the option to decline.
  7. Get handy. People who have lost a spouse can struggle with the most basic functions. You can offer to help her out by cleaning the house, cooking a meal, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or taking care of handyman tasks. Or, you could offer to arrange for a lawn service, handyman or local teenager to take care of maintenance jobs.
  8. Coordinate your help. It’s a relief to have food show up at the door, but not when it’s three tuna casseroles on the same day, and she hates fish. Use a web service such as, or to coordinate meals and services, as well as to list allergies or preferences.
  9. Invite her out. Ask her out to coffee, lunch, a movie or shopping. Becoming a widow can feel isolating and lonely. Some friends disappear because she’s not part of a couple anymore. Don’t let that be you. Continue to include her in activities.
  10. Take out her kids or grandkids. If the new widow has children or grandchildren at home, give her some alone time and provide a distraction for the children by taking them to your house or on an outing. Avoid making it sound like you’re putting yourself out to help her. Instead of “Let me take the kids off your hands for a day,” try phrasing it more like “We’re planning to go see a movie. Would your kids like to come?”

Forms of Loss

People who haven’t lost a spouse may never understand the depth or duration of the loss. They may try to cheer up the widow, or make it better. That’s completely normal, but widows say there are aspects to their loss they wish others could understand.

Socializing becomes more difficult. Going out to dinner, taking a vacation and seeing a movie were all things they used to do with their spouse. Some will adapt to doing these things on their own, but it’s not the same. Friends may invite a widow to a party, thinking the big group will be inviting, but if it’s mostly couples, the awkward feeling is still there. Worse yet, the widow may find herself shut out of social situations by friends who worry they will feel out of place.

The best social network can’t replace a partner with whom you shared an equal interest in the outcome of each other’s lives. Friends will be interested in a widow’s grandchildren, health and many aspects of her life, but they can’t share the weight of her concerns like a spouse. They simply don’t have the same investment. 

Every part of a widow’s day is changed from what it was, and the nighttime routine may be particularly missed. Household chores, making plans, sharing finances … all of these must be done alone. The weight of planning and organizing life alone can be nearly unbearable. Sleeping alone can feel strange. “Even with the lights out and my eyes closed, I can still feel the emptiness of the bed,” said one recent widow. Another said that going to bed without kissing her partner good-night felt like “leaving a period off a sentence.”

A partner filled many roles. Losing “just” one person who is close to you is hard enough, but a spouse was many things to his widow. Their death can feel like more than a single loss. The widow no longer has a lover, confidant, business partner, travel companion, best friend or date. 

Why should someone grieving their spouse categorize what they no longer have? One widow looked at all the reasons she was struggling and the many ways she missed her husband and had an epiphany. Underneath the grief, the sadness and the yearning for what they had shared was the realization of the blessings their time together had made. 

Six Tips for Widows

Author and speaker Carole Brody Fleet talks about widowhood from experience. She often receives complaints from other bereaved spouses along the lines of these actual quotes:

“Since my husband died, all of our friends have forgotten him and disappeared.”

“I haven’t changed, but everyone around me is treating me differently. And that doesn’t count the people who just left my life without a word.”

“I guess I’m not allowed to talk about my wife anymore. No one else wants to, that’s for sure. But she’s still in my heart and no one understands that.”

Fleet acknowledges that no one will feel the loss in the same way as the bereaved spouse, and other people are often uncomfortable with loss and won’t know what to do. Some may even choose to leave the life of the widow, for some of the same reasons newly divorced people can find themselves alone. Some people will feel uncomfortable around you now that you’re no longer part of a couple. Others will criticize how you handle your new status. 

How in the world can a widow handle these rejections with everything else she has to deal with? Fleet offers a six-step process. 

  1. Learn to let go. If people you thought of as friends are not being supportive now, let go. If they are not going to be part of your healing process, they don’t get the privilege of being a part of your life.
  2. Respect the different loss perspectives. Your true friends and family will always be there for you, but they’ll be able to move on with their lives a lot sooner than you. You can’t reasonably expect them to grieve as long as you do, or in the same way.
  3. Get proactive. People you love may want to give you space and time to begin healing. They may not want to “bother” you with phone calls and visits. If you’re ready for quiet socializing, pick up the phone and let others know.
  4. Fear not. Many people will be afraid to talk about your loss or fear upsetting you, just when you need to talk about it most. You may need to put them at ease. If you’re ready to talk about your spouse, bring their name into the conversation. Tell a funny story. People will take their cue from you.
  5. Embrace who you have become. The experience of widowhood changes you forever. While the circumstances are tragic, you’ve grown through it to find depths of strength and tenacity most people will never know. Take pride and comfort in that knowledge.
  6. Don’t simply reach out for help with your healing: Reach up. Reach up for help, to those who have gone before you; they are the people who will be only too happy to listen to your stories, your challenges and your fears. Reach up to those who will celebrate your triumphs, who will give you ideas and suggestions for a peaceful journey. Reach up to meet some of the greatest new friends you will ever know. They are each waiting to embrace you with open hearts.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors