Because couples function as a team, the death of a spouse can present a complicated set of difficulties for the bereaved person. These issues go beyond having to handle their grief since the surviving spouse may need immediate help handling basic day-to-day responsibilities.
Depending on how the couple divided their responsibilities, the surviving spouse may quickly need to learn about finances, home or automotive maintenance, or domestic chores. Transportation and child care may present immediate problems. Particularly if the couple was elderly, relocation may be required. In short, the loss of a spouse presents a host of issues that must be dealt with.
As with any other death, it is important that you be patient, compassionate, and understanding when helping someone grieve the death of a spouse. The person is not only handling all the things that two people used to take care of, but they have lost their life companion. For older spouses who have been together for a very long time, the opportunities for social interaction may be limited. This can lead to isolation and depression.
Regardless of age or the tenure of the relationship, each person grieves differently and on their own timetable. Your role is to offer support, lend an understanding ear, and be patient. You can help the bereaved fill their time, take over chores, or just be there to hear a story about their spouse one more time.
Helping Someone Grieving the Death of a Spouse: What NOT to do…
- Don’t vanish: In the time leading up to the funeral or memorial service, there will likely be many people around to keep the bereaved company and lend a hand. After the service, people will return to their day-to-day lives. It is during this time that your friend or loved one may need you the most. Remain available for as long as you can. You can also encourage friends to visit and call often.
- Don’t push for details: Let the bereaved talk about their loved one. Be a good listener. Elderly spouses, in particular, will likely want to talk and tell stories about the spouse. Encourage them to share their memories by putting them down on paper or on tape.
- Don’t take control of the situation: You may be tempted to take over all the planning activities. Depending on the situation, this may be appropriate but be sure to consider the feelings of the person who is grieving the death of a spouse. He or she may need to maintain control in order to work through grief.
- Don’t push a timetable: Everyone heals in their own time. You can’t expect things to be “back to normal” in a certain timeframe. If you are concerned that the bereaved is not healing or you are worried about their welfare, consult a professional.
- Don’t bring up other people’s losses: Let the spouse focus on his/her loss. Trying to relate what the person is going through to yourself or someone else is not helpful and may give the impression that you are minimizing the way the person is feeling.
- Don’t pressure the spouse to “move on”: Everyone’s grief is unique. The bereaved person will take off their wedding band or clean out the deceased’s belongings when they are ready. When that time comes, you should still be mindful of their feelings and avoid the “swoop and dispose of” approach.
- Don’t say:
- “You have to be strong now for your children (or business).”
- “Think about how lucky you are that you have children.”
- “Do you think you’ll get married again?”
- “Are you going to move?”
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
- “You look great. I’m sure you’ll find someone new.”
Helping Someone Grieving the Death of a Spouse: What to do…
- Be available: Often the best way to help someone grieving the death of a spouse is to just be there. Let to them talk about their feelings. Don’t worry about how you are going to respond, just try to be understanding. For the elderly, it is important that you spend as much time as possible with them without being intrusive.
- Be patient: It doesn’t matter if you’ve already heard a story, listen again. You can also expect fits and starts. You may have thought that your friend or loved one has turned a corner only to find they have taken a few steps back. This is natural.
- Refer to the deceased by name: While you may be tempted to avoid talking about the deceased, not mentioning the person may make it seem as if they never existed. Unless the bereaved is uncomfortable talking about the situation, don’t avoid the topic.
- Help make arrangements or do chores: If you know of a task that would be of help to the bereaved, do it. You can offer assistance but many times people will hesitate to take you up on the offer. Be proactive and take care of something that would be of help–yard work, cooking, cleaning, transportation. Let them know you’re willing to watch their children if they need some time alone or help in other ways.
- Send flowers with a note or offer a donation to an appropriate charity or research organization: Thoughtful acknowledgments are almost always appreciated. Below are samples of the types of sentiments you can include.
- “It’s too bad he/she died. I will always remember him/her.”
- “It’s so tragic. What you’re going through must be very difficult.”
- “I’m saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
- Keep in touch: Send cards frequently, remember birthdays and anniversaries. Continue to offer assistance. Invite the person out of the house often, but don’t expect every offer to be accepted. Being at home in familiar surroundings may be comforting.
Losing a life partner is one of the biggest losses one can experience. Your support and understanding will go a long way to helping them through the grieving process. You should also encourage the bereaved to seek appropriate therapy, even if he or she doesn’t think they need it. There are many networks for widows and widowers listed online. Support groups and professional counselors are widely available in nearly all communities.