As many know, I am part of a private widow/widower support group founded by a fellow widow who’s now remarried and changing the world’s outlook on spousal grief. Well, all kinds of grief really. She’s been around the “grief block,” too.
The group is loaded with young widows and widowers, and since we’re usually pitied by society, or deemed pathetic, (or both, though the latter is highly inaccurate) we flock together like a bunch of flightless birds talking about our losses, experiences and lives in general. We all “get” each other, because we’re going though this shitty life lesson together. And it’s shitty. It’s ultra shitty. No sugar coating here.
That’s not to say people are not sympathetic. LOTS of people are sympathetic…overly sympathetic. They’ll make dinner, even though we sometimes feel we’d rather join our lost person by choking on our dinner; or they’ll hug us, even though we can’t find energy to shower and the same individuals point it out as if we don’t know; or we have to endure the endless “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” mindless chatter.
Trust me, they can imagine…they just don’t want to, because the emotions they feel when they do so makes them super uncomfortable and super sad. That is empathy, not sympathy…and that’s where most non-grievers (and well-intentioned supporters) stop dead in their tracks and hop the first metaphorical bus to “I’m Outta Here.” And hey, I get it. This is some uncomfortable shit we’re going through. Why would anyone want to imagine losing someone they care about? It’s horrifying.
But that mindset needs to change. If non-grievers would take off their metaphorical shoes, and put on those of the person going through the worst hell imaginable, understanding a grieving person becomes SO. MUCH. EASIER. Empathy is instant transportation to “This is unbearable” land, first-class fare included. When a non-griever examines how they may feel if their person was suddenly gone, their perspective changes.
Almost instantly, they understand the complete and total mind-fuck it is to realize they’re the only parent and breadwinner; or why the old, ratty stuffed animal their spouse loved so much now has new meaning; or why they may no longer have a desire to go to their favorite restaurant; or why bathing and eating was suddenly optional.
Being around grieving people IS uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable isn’t contagious, and neither is grief. Don’t avoid us, try to become okay with being uncomfortable, because you can’t catch sadness. One of the wids in the group labeled this avoidance phenomenon best, calling it “The Widow Cooties.” I couldn’t have coined a better term if my life depended on it, and I am a marketer by trade.
While non-grievers understandably get the heebie-jeebies being around us and unpredictable crying, try just sitting with us, and just listen. Cry with us, that’s okay too. It’s important to remember you cannot fix our pain, so don’t try to. Just sit and be with us in those moments. We cannot control them though, so don’t question why we have them, or say really dumb things like “You’re still sad?” or “They’d want you to move on.”
We KNOW. Telling us silly shit like above isn’t going to help us to move forward. What does helps us continue moving forward is when you sit down and allow us to share our pain with you so it’s not so damn heavy for us. Help us carry it, even for a few moments. You may also find you have a new respect for your own mortality and have become a more emotionally available, awesome human being too.
Be present with us as tears roll down, hold our hand even tighter on the hard days, and help us consider a new future when we finally accept the one we envisioned is gone.Support our new goals, new ambitions, new dreams. And please remember time has ZERO relevance in grief — whether it’s been six months or six years. Grief isn’t linear. We can have concurrent great weeks, months or even years. And a smell, song, sound, or memory can trigger us and bring us right back to that dark and lonely place, even when we’re secure in our new lives, or in a new relationship.
Remembering that grief never “stops” does help make those awkward silences easier, and should help you better prepare for the uncomfortable sadness that generally follows. We are not okay, and that is okay. You can’t (and don’t have to) fix us, or fix our pain, even though we sense you desperately want too. While we are so grateful for that, we actually do like to remember our person, and talk about them. Doing so helps keep their memory, their legacy, their impact on us…which remains very much alive.
And that’s really a win-win for all. Reflection matters. Perspective matters. Empathy matters.