A Brief Grief Manual for Living, Dying and Dating

Recently an acquaintance of mine lost her husband. I suspect many of us struggle in this situation with what to say as well as how and when to say it. Call? Email? Text? Send a card? Visit? Take them out? Now? Later? Reach out? Let them be? There are two things I wanted to share with her. 1. I wanted her to consider that everyone grieves differently and moves on differently and that she will find her own way in her own time. 2. I wanted to prepare her that even with the best intentions, people will say things that are not helpful and maybe even painful. Remember they mean well. Often, they are dealing with their own emotions; this loss may trigger memories of other losses they’ve had, and frequently at this time, people fear their own mortality and say things to help soothe themselves.

#1. Everyone grieves differently and moves on differently

When people hear your husband died unexpectedly, it often triggers primal reactions such as pity, (you poor thing) or freeze (what do I say?). After the initial shock, opinions may be offered about your timetable and readiness to find a partner. People may remember hearing or reading that it takes one year of grieving for every year you were married. Let’s not generalize. True for some, not all. (BTW all divorces aren’t the same and divorced people move on differently, too). In answer to “Are you really ready?” Ready? For what? Heartbreak? Loss? Intimacy? Sharing? Caring? Exploring?  If you lost someone to death or even divorce you deeply understand there are no guarantees. And if you had a great marriage or partnership, you know what is possible.

I feel so lucky that my friends and family are guided by what I think is right for me and they cheer me on. (Maybe I’ve trained them well.) Here is what I know. You are ready for a new relationship when you can put yourself out there with an open heart and open mind with no expectation to replace or replicate your mate. I know I’m ready to share things that can best be shared only with an intimate partner. Bring it on. Enough said.

#2. People mean well and yet sometimes say things that are not so helpful.  At least to me.

Below are some of the things that I suspect are rather common bromides, said by well-meaning acquaintances, friends, and colleagues who want to reach out and ease the pain. I know they spoke from the heart.  Maybe it will help others who have the best intentions and struggle with what to say, to know how these words landed for me. One communication principle I teach is that the meaning of a communication is how it was RECEIVED not how it was INTENDED.

“He’s in a better place.” Really? A better place would be right here, right now.

“I sense his aura around you protecting you.” Yikes. I don’t, nor do I want to.

“If you talk to him it might help.” I don’t talk to dead people and they don’t talk to me.

“You will be reunited someday.” I don’t believe there’s some hotel in the sky that I will check into with my side of the bed waiting. Perhaps this comforts some. Not me.

From well-meaning widows:

“It’s 3 years later and I still cry every day.” That’s really sad. Too bad.

“I didn’t take my wedding ring off for 5 years.” Oh, what a hussy I am.

“There are no men out there for us.” Not my experience or belief.

“You’ll never find anyone as good as your husband again.” And this is helpful how?

“You were cheated. Robbed. You should have had many more years together.” Actually, I think I was blessed with the time that we did have together. People who didn’t experience the unconditional love I had are the ones who were cheated and robbed.

The feeling of being blessed for what I had and deeply knowing that phase of my life is over, is the driver that allows me to move on. I never felt like a victim and no one would be a louder cheerleader for my continued happiness than my husband. SO, BRING IT ON!

What was most helpful in the process was knowing that I was surrounded by people who cared about me and shared the loss. Just being there and telling stories that made me smile was the best medicine. And yes, cooking for me or bringing my favorite foods felt very nurturing. Most of us get through grief and go on quite nicely. My hero in this journey, Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband also died suddenly and unexpectedly, met a new great guy. She’s on the talk circuit with her recent book and I heard her speak passionately about resilience and moving on. YAY!  Good for her! Here’s to resilience, and with a little luck and timing thrown in I will have my own new story too.


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