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What not to say: How to reach out to a young widow

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 21 2014 1:25 p.m. MDT

Gerst particularly appreciated concrete offers of help: the friend who took the initiative, instead of waiting to be asked, and said, “Make a shopping list, and I’ll go,” or the one who took her kids to school. Another helped her older son learn to drive, which Gerst was not up to right then.

Ryan Dunn, a doctoral candidate at Utah State University who is researching young widows for his dissertation, believes the best way to help is to meet the need you see. Widows may not know what they need or may feel uncomfortable asking for it. But those he interviewed were grateful for the people who mowed the lawn, shoveled driveways, or washed the dishes they saw in the sink. There is a special fondness for people who took young widows to the Social Security office or helped with taxes, Dunn said.

Now, if someone he knew became widowed, he said, he’d offer a hug and a “sorry.” For a handshake-type person, it would be a hand on the shoulder. He’d look around unobtrusively and try to figure out how to help. If people brought food, he’d swoop out and return with plates, napkins and forks, for instance. Or with permission he’d take the kids for a while.

“Mostly, I would sit and I would listen. Listening seems to be something that was wished for and fawned over. Another that came up over and over: bringing up the deceased by name and sharing stories of him. ‘You know what I loved about Steve? How he made the party come alive. Do you remember when he started his shirt on fire by lighting the sparklers?’ ”

A widow may not remember who brought or gave what. She never forgets that the Smiths came over and laughed with her and talked about him, Dunn said.

He emphasized the importance of inviting the widowed person to serve in church and school and other places. They can say no, but they may also welcome the opportunity.

What not to say

Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t, even if you also lost someone, Eborn said. She was also hurt by well-meaning church folks who said, “Aren’t you glad there’s a plan?” Her response: “I hate the plan.”

“Time heals” is another well-intentioned loser. Stick with “I’m sorry,” she and other widows agreed.

Gerst has her own list of what not to say, including “There are plenty of fish in the sea; you’ll find someone else.” And "God needed him more than you,” which she sincerely doubts.

The one that makes Alanna Mejias of Kempner, Texas, cringe is “It’s time to move on.” There is no moving on, said Mejias, widowed at 49. “There is moving forward and there is a new normal that everyone finds in time. I am still finding mine after 4½ years.”

She also warns that a widow needs to tell her story over and over “because it’s not real to us. People get tired of hearing it and they don’t want to listen.”

People think they must fill the silence, said Gerst, who writes books on caregiving and blogs about loss. “All you have to do is be there. I will sit with you while you cry. People also feel afraid to mention the person who died. The widow wants you to, wants him not to be forgotten.”

Most comments are well-intentioned, but sometimes one has to wonder, as in the case of one woman who offered: “If it makes you feel any better, I wish my ex was dead.”

Sitting together in silence is not a bad thing, Dunn said.

Continuing support

Dunn said many young widows have children to care for while they are at their most vulnerable and in need of care themselves. Often, they try to comfort their in-laws, who’ve suffered a huge loss, too.

“One thing that broke my heart to hear repeatedly was how at about two months people started to drop off. Support was gone," he said.

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