Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me
Whoever said that words don’t hurt is a liar. Perhaps you shouldn’t let them hurt you but anyone who’s been made fun of or insulted knows that they hurt nonetheless. Our society doesn’t talk about death and as a result people genuinely don’t know what to say when your 30 year old husband dies suddenly. At all. Most have said such kind, supportive words, but in the eight months since my husband died I have been hurt by several well-meaning comments and sadly other widows that I’ve spoken with have been, too. To be honest, I don’t know what I would have said to a friend who lost their husband were I still happily married to Terry; I likely would have said something similarly well-meaning and potentially hurtful. These comments were not meant to hurt, but they hurt nonetheless and so I am writing this in the hopes that should anyone you know find yourself in my situation (and I genuinely hope they do not) those of you who have not been bereaved might have a better idea of what to say. This is not the ultimate guide for talking to widows, it is merely my thoughts on a recurring issue.
You’re young, you’ll find someone else. You’re right, I am young. Too young to be a widow, that’s for damn sure and yet here I am. I know that Terry doesn’t want me to spend the rest of my life alone and I hope to have a family someday, but when I hear this it feels like you’re implying that Terry is replaceable, like a broken toothbrush. My Terry is not replaceable and should I be so lucky as to find someone else it could never be a replacement, merely a new chapter in a story that has thus far been quite tragic.
Did you have children? No? That’s good then. Those of you that know me best know that the hardest part of Terry dying has been the loss of the family that we planned on having. It is like a knife in my soul when I think about the fact that I will never be able to have his children. We really wanted children and he would have been the best father. To imply that my loss is any easier without having children to look after is wrong and extremely hurtful. If you know any widows with children you may be aware that it is not any easier than being widowed without; it is only a different kind of pain. Please don’t imply that my inability to have my late husband’s children is a blessing in any way. It’s not. Should I ever be able to have children they will never be Terry’s and that, too, is incredibly difficult to deal with.
So when are you moving back to America? Most people assume that now that my husband has died I will have to move back in with my parents in Nashville. Actually, I have Indefinite Leave to Remain (the UK equivalent of a Green Card) meaning I can live in the UK for the rest of my life if I so wish. I’ve lived in the UK for three and half years now and most every memory that I have with Terry is here. I understand when people ask if I plan on moving back to America, but to just assume that I will go ‘home’ belittles the fact that this, too, is my home. And it is in the UK that I built my home with Terry. I very well might move back to the States at some point, but I am giving myself enough time in the UK to make an informed decision as to what’s best for me and one that I will not regret.
I don’t know how you do it – I couldn’t possibly (do what you’re doing) if my husband died. You may be right, but I didn’t spend my happily married years planning an emergency survival plan for when Terry died. I had never considered my husband dying a possibility, even while holding his hand in the ICU hours before the doctors told us that he had passed away. If I wasn’t surviving without Terry, I wouldn’t have believed myself capable either (although I still have my doubts about surviving this). Please don’t tell me that were you in my shoes you couldn’t do what I am being forced to do. I know you mean to imply that I am strong, but you have no idea what you would do if your husband died, and you are so lucky. On that note:
If my husband died I’d…. I’m going to stop you right there: has your husband died? If not, please keep these opinions to yourself. This sentence is usually ended with a decision opposite to the one that I’ve just made. Do I know what I’m doing in life? Not really. I feel like I’ve been drifting since Terry died. Have I made perfect decisions? Probably not, but I have made careful decisions and even the smallest of them has been very difficult to make without being able to consult with Terry, with whom I used to discuss everything. It’s hard making decisions on my own, please don’t minimise them by imagining that you would do something different were you in my position. If you’d asked me what I would have done if Terry died while he was still alive, I could never have imagined the past eight months. Truly you cannot possibly imagine until you find yourself in my situation.
You didn’t change your maiden name? Oh that’s good, now you don’t have to change it back! I’m a lover, not a fighter, but I almost physically attacked the person who said this to me. Then I realized it wasn’t appropriate to hit people who obviously have a mental deficiency and went on with my life. 1) I didn’t keep my maiden name in the off-chance that my husband would drop dead and 2) if I had changed my maiden name I wouldn’t have changed it back just because my husband died.
So what can I say to you, you madwoman? I know, I’m making it seem like there are a million things not to say to widows and you may well feel that it’s best to say nothing at all to avoid hurting us. We’re already hurting, but just as words can cut, they can also bring incredible comfort to a broken heart. Here’s what I would recommend saying to someone in my situation:
I don’t know what to say. Genuinely, most people don’t but saying this is such a simple, true statement that lets us know that if you could say something to help, you would.
I’m so very sorry for your loss. This is the most simple way of expressing your condolences and one that I really appreciate.
Share your memories of Terry with me. It means so much when people take the time to share a beloved memory with my husband. Terry brought a smile to the face of everyone he met and I miss that so much, Your memories help to keep that gorgeous smile alive. Don’t be afraid that mentioning Terry will cause me pain; I’m already in pain. Although they may be bittersweet, I cherish each and every memory that I have left of my gorgeous man.
If you don’t know what to say call me or spend time with me and listen to me talk about Terry. It’s been eight months and my husband is still my favourite topic of conversation. Talking about and remembering the nine amazing years that I spent with Terry is the most natural thing in the world to me. Please don’t think that I shouldn’t be talking about him after eight months, a year, eight years, a lifetime. I should talk about him as often as I feel up for it and a listening ear is much appreciated.
Please keep in mind that all widows are different, but we are all in a nightmare of a situation and doing the best we can. Please don’t be afraid to talk to us (it hurts when you avoid us) but please just think about how the words you’ve chosen to help us heal might have the opposite affect. I do not mean to sound ungrateful for the kind words I have received from so many: I will never be able to thank you all enough for the support I have received, but I hope that this post helps to shed some light on what we all find to be a very complicated issue.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss this post with me, please do get in touch.