What do you say to a friend whose spouse has passed?

Supporting a Friend when a spouse dies

What do you say to a friend whose spouse has passed? What words of sympathy can you offer? Maybe you’ve been through a similar loss yourself, so “I know how you’re feeling” are the words that come to mind. Beware—those are the very words that might be the least helpful or comforting. Here’s the gist of a letter I recently sent to a friend, barely 50 years old, whose beloved husband died very suddenly. Perhaps it’ll give you some ideas:

Dear Jane,

A long time ago, I remember being quietly angry with people who would say things to me like, “He’s in a better place,” “You’re young, you’ll find someone else,” or “I know exactly how you feel, because my beloved [fill in the blank] passed away.” The truth is, the only place you want for your husband right now is right there beside you, you don’t want to think about finding anyone else, and nobody – not even someone else who lost her husband – knows how YOU feel.

I’ve been in your place, but I can’t know how you feel. I didn’t know your dear husband, but if you loved him, he must have been a spectacular man and worthy of praise. And now you are going to bed alone and probably waking up each morning with the stark realization that no, it wasn’t a bad dream, and you aren’t going to wake up from it. The memorial service was probably, in some ways, the second-worst day of your life. I do know that feeling. But things will get better, I promise.

I wish I had the perfect words to make it okay for you and your kids, but those of us on the outside of this tragedy and looking in just do the best we can, saying those awkward words with love, hugging and holding you, and praying for you. And being who you are, you will be strong for your kids, you will be gracious and smile and hide a lot of your hurt inside because, well, you probably think that’s what people expect.

Go ahead and be sad, scream and rail against God, ask him why, be miserable for a while, or even get mad at him. He can take it. And don’t let anyone else’s expectations about how you should be acting or reacting or feeling or thinking have anything to do with the reality of what you are doing or how you’re feeling. Just be who God made you to be in this situation.

You may feel like talking about those final days or hours with your husband over and over. It’s been almost 10 years, but until very recently, I still felt that need like a hammer. It can help to talk it out, go over the details one more time or a dozen more times, and just tell what happened to someone who will simply listen. That’s normal, but you can’t always find someone to do the listening part.

Here’s what I would like to offer – may I take you to lunch or dinner or coffee and just listen, or share, or talk about whatever strikes your fancy at the time? And laugh a little, because that’s healing too. I’m not wanting to tell you my story, because this is your time, not mine, and another thing that really annoyed me was people who intruded on my grief by telling me all about their own loss. I just wasn’t ready for it, and I resented it. That’s also normal.

I don’t know how long it will take you to “heal,” if that’s even possible when you lose a spouse. Nobody can rush you into healing or fix what’s wrong. Take your time. Whether it’s tomorrow or next week or six months from now, if and when you are ready, please get in touch.

With love,
J.M.

2 thoughts on “What do you say to a friend whose spouse has passed?”

  1. angelica

    Excellent approach. I am now adopting and adapting it to a situation I have at hand. Thank you.

  2. Lolo

    I lost my husband when I was 41. This letter seems all about the writer, not about the woman who lost her spouse. I would not presume to bring up my experience so many times to someone who is in the raw moments of just having lost a spouse. I would offer so many fewer words and just genuine emotion: My heart is with you. I hope knowing how much I care for you is of some small comfort. I wish for you peace. I am here for you. And then do something without asking: take a chicken, gift card for take out, muffins. But do it after a week or two when people start disappearing back into the woodwork.

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