Archive / Just Widowed – The Book

RSS feed for this section

5 Things Not to Say to a New Widow

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” — C. S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”

Death is a topic that can clear out a room of even the most kindhearted people. Just mention any of the following words — passing, mortality, funeral, burial, death — and people get nervous. Very few individuals are comfortable with holding an honest conversation about death, and even fewer know what to say to a new widow.

In 2007, I was just 33 when my husband, Roy, was diagnosed with adrenal cancer. About eight weeks later he died. Although I knew that his death from advanced cancer was inevitable, once he died, my entire being became depleted. I learned that death is like an amputation, and new life does not just grow back. Death does damage and at times for a widow, the grief is unspeakable.

Over three years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book for widows of all ages so that they would feel less alone. However, I didn’t want this to be a typical book about grief and loss. Instead, I wanted to learn first-hand from other widows from all different backgrounds about their experiences. I along with my co-author psychologist James Windell spent over three years talking with widows about their initial moments of grief and then their long-term emotions accompanied with loss.

Although each widow’s experience at her husband’s funeral or memorial service is unique, there were common things that I, along with other widows experienced. One of the common threads that all widows experienced were having to bear witness to uncomfortable comments. Sometimes, people do say the wrong things, and it stings.

5 Things Not to Say to A New Widow — These Are Not In A Particular Order

1. “Your husband is no longer in pain.” This is a case of stating the obvious. No matter what disease a widow’s husband may have endured, the fact of the matter is that a widow is well aware that he is not in pain. However, she is in unrelenting pain. A type of pain that pushes her to the outermost limits of her being and keeps her there with no immediate relief. She is in a very dark passage of hell. The emotional pain is that intense.

2. “You are not alone.” In so many ways a widow is alone. There can be a room full of family and close friends and yet not one person is experiencing exactly what she feeling at that moment. My late husband was my best friend and my main emotional support. We were a couple, and then I was alone. In my case, two minus one equaled one thousand. Those days and weeks following his funeral felt like an emotional ground zero. The loss was that deep. I felt that I was in a distant world far removed from all others. It is not a world that once a widow enters she can’t easily exit.

3. “I know what you are going through, Joan.” I’m making up this name, so you can go ahead and replace it with any widow’s name. Unless you have been widowed and even then each circumstance by which a woman is widowed is so unique, please refrain from this comment. If you have said this and the widow give you a blank stare, it is not because she agrees with you it is because she is using every ounce of restraint she has not to give you a piece of her mind. And for the common good of all concerned, please under no circumstance try to one up her with some loosely related story of a widow you once knew.

4. “He is in a better place.” I heard this over and over again. And I know other widows heard similar things. All religious beliefs set aside, the only place a widow knows is the one she is presently in. And it is without her husband. This place that a husband’s death has taken a widow is to one of vast isolation where the sounds of loneliness are inaudible.

5. “Give it time and you will feel better.” I’ve learned from widows that grief doesn’t have a finish line. The husband’s death will always be a part of her. I’ve found in talking with widows that many professionals and non-widows believe that grief is over in one year. However, I’ve found in doing research that quite the opposite is true. During the first year, widows are just trying to survive their first sets of holidays and cope with the daily stressors of widowhood. The second year, widows are deeply assessing all that is lost. They realize that it is so much more than their husband that they lost. They lost their emotional security, many friendships, perhaps even a home. These secondary losses, as many call them, are painful and compound the grief process.

There are few words to adequately describe the grief a new widows endures. If you must say something, be honest and offer, “I don’t know what to say. I am so very sorry. I am here for you.” And then for the widow’s good be there. Sit next to her. Hold her hand. Hug her. Bring her whatever she wants and don’t judge. Put your arms around her and listen to her. Don’t be afraid of her tears or silence. Sometimes the deepest laments are silent.

Kristin Meekhof is a Licensed Master’s Level Clinical Social Worker. She graduated from the M.S.W. program at the University of Michigan. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in psychology from Kalamazoo College. Her forthcoming book, “A Widow’s Guide To Healing: Gentle Support And Advice For The First Five Years” can be found here

A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years

An inspiring, accessible, and empowering guide for how to navigate the unique stresses and challenges of widowhood and create a hopeful future. When Kristin Meekhof lost her husband to cancer, she discovered what all widows learn: the moment you lose your partner, you must make crucial decisions that will impact the rest of your life. But where do you begin? This inspiring book shows grieving widows what to expect and how to deal with the challenges of losing a life partner. From immediate issues like finances, estates and medical bills to long-term hurdles such as single parenthood, being a widow in the workplace and navigating social situations by yourself, this book guides widows through the tumultuous and painful first five years to a more hopeful future.

Buy The Book

A Widow’s Grief

In the process of writing my book, I’ve interviewed dozens of widows about their grief and loss. Eventually, I started getting emails and phone calls from others who experienced a different type of loss. The thing about grief is that others can relate to this universal feeling of despair because nearly everyone has experienced a significant loss. Others shared with me a lament for their child, sister, mother or close friend. When it was possible, I would meet someone for coffee and would intently listen to their story. They would share their story, and then ask about my late husband.

Over time, I noticed in talking with others that I met, that many posed a similar question. It didn’t matter the age of the person I was talking with, when they experienced their loss, what type of circumstances the loss happened under, or their current marital status. The question that I am most frequently asked was this: How do you trust in God after your husband died? I don’t think anyone was looking for a sophisticated theological explanation, but more of a wondering of how it is possible to believe in something. My answer is always hesitant because there are days when I’m not sure how or why I continue to believe. Sometimes, I stumble and people catch my awkward pause. This is how I explain my faith. I believe despite great suffering and darkness that love, coming from God, is what transcends death.

I am aware that this answer is not satisfactory to most people. Some people have shared with me a story about their spouse’s suicide or child’s accidental overdose. I know that they feel abandoned by God and cheated by life. I have no answers.

I continue to believe in God despite hearing these horrible and tragic stories. I believe that compassion comes from finding love among our deepest wounds. It is this compassion, which allows all of us to console each other. I know that it is in this place where we communicate our deepest love.

Shortly after my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I talked with my husband about my disappointment in God. I was fragile and vulnerable. There always seemed to be a lump in my throat and a tear in the corner of my eye. I told my husband, “I just don’t get it. Why?” My husband, without missing a beat, answered, “You are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, ‘why us’, you should be asking, ‘why not us’?”

My Trip to Kenya

As many of you read in my newsletter, I am heading to Kenya. I will be traveling with a few other widows, and we will be visiting an organization that services widows. International Widows Day is June 23, 2014. This day brings to light the significant issues widows and children face. These problems include poverty, illiteracy, HIV/ AIDS, and social oppression. Please stay tuned for the photos and articles I’ll be honored to share with you as a result of my experiences in Africa.

You can find more information about International Widow’s Day here, at the Loomba Foundation.


Excerpt From Book

The Moment I Knew-

When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.

It’s October and pitch black outside. The birds are not even awake, and I’m rumbling through my purse, going to turn on the car, to make sure the seat warmer on the passenger side is on because my husband’s frail and skinny body gets cold easily. I’m going through a mental checklist: grab snacks, bottle of water, cash. I go back into the kitchen. My husband Roy is up and ready. I see the clothes are loose fitting, kind of hanging on him, but he still looks healthy in so many ways. I grab his favorite jacket, and we walk downstairs to the car. He mumbles, “Grateful I can still walk short distances like this.” I ignore it. I’m more focused on driving to Ann Arbor.

At this time of the morning, there is no traffic. During the car ride, we make small talk. I pull into the University of Michigan Cancer Center parking lot. I remark that I’ve never seen it so empty. We don’t have a handicap sticker yet because the cancer diagnosis happened about 3 weeks ago, and we’re still in crisis mode. I park in the closest non-handicap parking spot. Getting out of the car, I notice a cluster of wheelchairs together, like you’d find a bunch of shopping carts all together at the grocery store parking lot. I try to find the best one. I realize they’re all in the same condition, and I push it over. Like it is an old habit, we do the transfer from car to wheelchair.

We wonder aloud if we can get into the building this early. No one seems to be around, but we enter. As I push the elevator arrow button, a woman walks towards us, with her husband. He is pushing a wheelchair with an IV station (also on wheels) and a very young bald male child is sitting in it, no hospital gown, reading a book. I notice his backpack is securely fastened to the back of the wheelchair. I don’t want to stare, even if we weren’t in the Cancer Center, I know I shouldn’t give them a second look. I’m not sure where to look. I catch the mom’s eyes, and she gives me a glance of understanding. The elevator doors open. I’m uncomfortable so I look away at the dad who’s been tasked with managing the IV and pushing his son’s wheelchair into the elevator. I tell my husband, “we’ll wait.” They overhear me and say, “No, there’s plenty of room.” The mother extends her arm to make sure the doors stay open. Now the five of us ride in this elevator. Silence. We all exit, and I see them wander off in another direction. Now, I’m actually staring because their backs are to me. I wonder, “what type of cancer does this child have, is it treatable, how long have they been coming to the cancer center, what grade is he in?”

I feel my chest slightly tighten with a lump in my throat. I tell Roy, I need to use the bathroom. I push his wheelchair off to the side. I can’t get into the bathroom stall fast enough. My heart is racing, and there are tears coming down my face. I’m crying for this family, for this child, complete strangers and yet, it also is giving me permission to cry for Roy and myself. I try the deep breathing. I panic, wondering how long I’ve been in this stall. I go to the sink, and begin to assess the damage. “Will he be able to tell I’m crying?” I don’t recognize this face staring back at me. Then I look at my hair; it’s a rat’s nest. I wonder, “did I forget to brush it?” I tell myself, “Pull it together. No one is looking at your hair.”

I walk out of the bathroom, trying not to make eye contact with Roy, pretending to look for directive signage. He can’t see me now because I’m pushing him down the hall, yet, somehow he knows I had a meltdown. He says, “Seeing that little guy reminds me how much we have to be grateful for, doesn’t it?” I want to stop the wheelchair and just lay face down somewhere and cry. I can’t allow myself that moment here. I need to get him to this appointment. I keep pushing the wheelchair, trying to take deep breaths without being obvious. He repeats, “We have so much to be grateful for, don’t we?” This time, the tone is more declarative, using his middle school teacher voice, not really asking a question.

I’m choking back tears, searching for words. I’m actually speechless. Impulsively, I blurt this out, “What do you mean?” Now, I actually stop the wheelchair, pushing it up to a round table, and I sit down. There are more people around, but it still feels like time stopped. I’m thinking about the pain, the disappointment that the cancer diagnosis is terminal, and it feels like my heart is literally breaking open. Roy doesn’t miss a beat, and begins to make a list: “Look at this great place we are at. They (the staff) got us in before everyone else this morning, you’ve really learned how to navigate your way around this place.” He grabs my hand and adds, “We have each other.”

That was in October 2007, and when I think back to this moment, my eyes still fill with tears. In less then eight weeks, Roy underwent numerous medical procedures, consultations and then we made the decision for hospice. He died at home in November 2007, about eight weeks after the initial cancer diagnosis.

My life changed because of his death and because of my husband’s beautiful acceptance of his death. I’m now co-writing a book, with psychologist James Windell, for other widows. We’re talking with widows of all ages about their experiences. Some widows lost their husbands to suicide, the war, substance abuse, heart attacks and sudden tragic accidents. When I listen to them, I often, can’t help thinking back to those brutal months in 2007. I felt isolation, even around others, and loneliness aside from grief — the kind of sorrow widows share. James and I are writing this book with the hope that when other widows read it they will feel less alone.