What do you say and do when someone dies?

coffinOn Wednesday, February 27th my friend Shawn Holmesdale died at the age of 39. His death was sudden and completely unexpected. Everyone who knew him is in shock, none more so than his wife, my good friend Ruthanne. Several people have reached out to me for advice on what to do. They’ve likely done so because I’ve been through this awful process and I know what it’s like to face the death of a husband. I’ve been sharing my thoughts and ideas with those who have asked and now, thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I’m going to share them with you in the hope that it helps you and other widows.

You’d think that since death is such an integral part of being human we would be good at dealing with it and talking about it. We’re not. In fact, we don’t typically talk about death because it makes us feel uncomfortable, which is why we have such a hard time knowing what to say or do when someone we know, like and care about experiences a tragic loss. The following are ideas and suggestions based on my experience of loss. I’ve also interviewed several widows for this blog and the bottom line is that we have all experienced a variation of the points I raise below.

The widow’s view

To put this in context, here’s a sense of what it feels like to be a widow:  The first few days feel unreal. You’re in a state of profound shock and you begin to feel a kind of deep, visceral pain of loss which is unlike anything you can imagine unless you’ve been through it before. Everywhere you turn there are signs of your husband’s life: his clothes, his phone, his computer, his car, his notes around the house, the coffee cup he didn’t pick up, his text messages to you just days ago; the list goes on and on. It seems unfathomable that he is gone. It is impossible that you will never speak with him again. You look at your children and you simply cannot believe that they will never again see their father. Your brain shuts down because it can’t cope with the contradiction of today’s knowledge of his death with the ever-present evidence of his life. The grief is overwhelming. What the hell is going on? It doesn’t make any sense.

Then there are the facts of his death. How did it happen? If he died suddenly, you relive every moment asking yourself what you could have done differently that might have made a difference. You question every decision, every action taken or not taken. You beat yourself up and doubt yourself in ways that tear you apart even further. It is a soul-destroying time.

The first week or two you are surrounded by friends and family. The rush and crush of telling the world and making sudden decisions about his funeral carry you through the haze of the first week after his death. There is so much to do. Everyone wants to help but you have no idea what you need or how they can help. You can think of first-order necessities – the kids need to go to school and you have to plan the funeral – but beyond that it’s all an incomprehensible blur. You stop eating and sleeping; you run on sheer adrenaline and stress.

Keep it simple and genuine

That’s the reality for the widow. When you find out about the death you may find yourself wondering what to say or do. Where do you start? What should you avoid? What can you do to help?

First and foremost, be genuine, speak from the heart and keep it simple. I’ve been reading people’s reaction on Facebook to Shawn’s death and it’s deeply touching: expressions of shock, compassion, condolence, sympathy, of keeping Ruthanne and her family in their thoughts and prayers. It’s beautiful and it’s perfect. By reaching out initially you let the widow know that you have heard the news and that you are touched by her loss in a meaningful way. You’re also letting her know that she’s not alone in her grief and that her husband touched the lives of many people. I cannot emphasize how important that is.

I would also encourage you to send a card even if you’ve called or emailed or replied on social media. The effort to send something hand-written is always appreciated and shows an additional level of care. I kept all of the cards that I received when Malcolm died. (If you don’t know who Malcolm is you can read My Story.) I read them over and over again in the weeks following his death. It gave me a great deal of comfort to see how many people were mourning his loss and to hear about how he had touched their lives.

Food first, flowers later

The done thing following a death seems to be to send flowers. I would suggest that you forego flowers initially and consider giving food instead. The last thing a widow wants to think about following the trauma of her husband’s death is food. For the first week or so she will be surrounded by family and friends who will likely cook for her and the children. But once everyone leaves, and they always do at some point, she will have to face all of the tasks by herself. Consider filling her freezer with meals that she can cook or reheat at a moment’s notice. Of, if you prefer, drop by in two weeks or three weeks with a complete dinner in hand.

Here’s the thing about flowers under these circumstances: they reek of death. When you see flowers everywhere you immediately think wedding or funeral. I had a house full of flowers after Malcolm died and while I deeply appreciated the thought behind those gifts and expressions of sympathy, they also made me feel more depressed. They were constant reminders of death and just as everyone else was getting back to their normal lives, I was left with a heap of wilting, dying flowers. More unfortunate symbolism.

Don’t get me wrong, flowers are beautiful and sending them represents an act of caring. But how about sending them to the widow in three months or five months later with a note that says something like “We’re thinking of you and hope that these brighten your day.” She’s going to need a lot of brightening in six months time when everyone around has moved on and she’s still left to pick up the pieces. It would be an unexpected blessing and a splash of colour at a time when she needs it most.

Trust fund or donation

If you live at a distance and you nonetheless want to help, then ask if the widow is OK financially. I realize this is a delicate topic but my entire blog/book project exists because most women are not prepared for the death of their spouse. Far too many of them are left in a very difficult position financially when their spouse’s income disappears and there is no (or insufficient) insurance to ensure financial stability. It’s also not cheap to die. Just ask anyone who has had to pay for a casket and a funeral.

If the widow is in good shape financially, then you might consider making a donation to a charity that is meaningful to the deceased’s family. If you don’t know what would be appropriate, then ask. They’ll be touched by the gesture.

If the widow is likely facing financial hardship, then consider starting a trust fund to help her out. My friends Andrea and Jeff did that for me when Malcolm died and it made a significant difference in my life. They contacted the local newspaper, which ran a story about my situation and loss, and I found myself receiving donations from perfect strangers. It was deeply touching and helpful at a time when I faced a lot of difficulties.

Share your memories

As I mentioned earlier, a widow is usually very well supported for the first week or two following the death, but after that support wanes. This is not a judgment, it’s just a reflection of the reality that everyone gets pulled back into their lives and daily routines fairly quickly. It’s completely understandable, but the fact remains that the widow’s grief will not end a week or two after the funeral; in fact, it will intensify. This is when she will need your support the most.

One of the simplest ways to support her is to share your favourite stories and photos of her husband. One month after the death, send her a note sharing a favourite memory. A few months later perhaps send a photo of him that made you laugh or smile. Tell a story, your story of an event with the deceased.

For months after Malcolm died, I received cards and letters from people all over the world who wanted to share their memories of Malcolm. It was their way of honouring his memory and paying tribute to him while connecting with me. Many of these people were complete strangers; I had never even heard of them. And yet, here they were telling me about hilarious stories and escapades with Malcolm, the kind of stuff that would have had everyone’s eyes watering if told at a party. It had the same effect on me: it made me laugh, and yes it made me cry too but mostly it made me feel good to discover these fun, touching stories about the ways in which Malcolm had touched their lives. They were so important to me that I created an album with all of that correspondence.

One of the things that I noticed after Malcolm died is that some people avoided talking to me about him. It’s akin to ignoring the white elephant in the room. I suspect they did so because they didn’t want to upset me. Here’s the thing: We want to talk about the people we’ve lost, we need to talk about them. Don’t be afraid to keep mentioning the deceased’s name. If something reminds you of him, say so even if it makes the widow cry. Crying is a necessary part of grieving and healing, so instead of apologizing for making her cry, perhaps empathize with her.

I distinctly remember a conversation in which a good friend mentioned Malcolm’s name many months after his death and it set me off. Instead of looking uncomfortable, he gave me a hug and said, “I know, I miss him too.” I was so grateful to him for that moment. In that beautiful way, he allowed me to express my grief without feeling embarrassed while at the same time letting me know that he too was feeling Malcolm’s loss.

It’s all in the question

Roughly one week after Malcolm died I got a call from the funeral director: Malcolm’s ashes were ready to be picked up. When I showed up he handed me the urn and stared at me looking very uncomfortable. This from a funeral director. You know, if anyone is going to be comfortable dealing with death, you’d think it would be a funeral director. I guess not. Or maybe it’s that he was more accustomed to dealing with a more elderly clientele. In any case, as I turned to leave he said, “Are you OK?” I wish I could say that I said something gracious but I didn’t. Instead I replied, “I’m taking my husband home in an urn. No, I’m not OK.”

I know he meant well but I was so raw with grief that I could not find it in me to reply with a customary, trite phrase.

Here’s a suggestion I have about what to ask a widow: Don’t ask her how she’s doing. The majority of the time you can bet she’s doing terribly. If she says otherwise it’s probably a polite lie to make you feel better. Instead, consider asking, “How are you today?” Make it about today. Today is the only day that really matters for her because in the beginning it’s far too painful to think about tomorrow. If she’s really having a hard time that day, then ask her how you can help make her day better. Baby steps, one day at a time. Help her focus on making today a bit better. Then the next day a bit better, and so on.

The pain does eventually give way to acceptance but it is a long, hard process. There is no “getting over” the loss of a husband. Even when the trauma turns to healing there will always be a deep scar. Be patient with the widow and know that hers is a path that will be her own, one which you cannot understand. The best you can do is offer support, patience and acceptance as she makes her way through it.

I hope that you found the above helpful. Most of all I hope it makes a difference in a widow’s life. Please share your ideas on how best to support a widow . This is intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.

Rest in peace Shawn. You will be missed.

In Memory of Shawn Holmesdale, August 2, 1973 – February 27, 2013

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9 Responses

  1. I didn’t know Shawn, but the kind words I’ve seen people write about him speaks volumes.
    Your post above is honest and helpful for those of us (myself, at least) who simply don’t know the best approach when we want to help. Thank you for writing this.

  2. I received this comment from a friend who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect the identity of the person to whom she refers in her text. I think her comments might be helpful to you so I’m sharing them with you here:

    “Hi Doris, your post is excellent and thank you so much for sharing it. I wanted to share something a small group of us did when one of our dear friends dropped dead and left behind his wife who was a stay at home mum and 2 young daughters.

    I started a quiet campaign amongst a group of friends to gather money. The widow is a very private person and we all felt that if we’d set up a trust fund it would be too public for her comfort left. We then nominated the most gentle of our friends to present her with a cheque because we were worried it would be a hard gift for her to accept. The card that went with the cheque said something to the effect of “we want to help and hope this gift isn’t too hard to accept. Please use this money in a way that helps knowing none of us will ask or speak about it again”. For this particular friend we tried very hard to make it easy for her to accept it with dignity.”

  3. Doris, this post is brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective; it’s so helpful to think of this ahead of time – or after the fact – and focus on clear ways to be a friend to someone who has lost their partner. I appreciate your honestly and candour in telling of how to deal with this very difficult time.

  4. Doris,

    This is brilliantly written and excellent advice…I can’t possibly add anything, but would like to mention something that stretches the boundaries of the topic “Food first, flowers later”… When our first was born, about a month premature, we spent nearly a month spending 20 hour days at the Civic, praying that we’d get through a week without an apnea spell so we could all go home. One gift we received that we will never forget was a cooler, filled with a pork tenderloin, potatoes and vegetables, plates, glassware, and cutlery and the simple instructions: Reheat..Eat…Place dirty dishes back in cooler and return to us whenever you have the time.

    1. Greg, I’m so glad you shared your story with us. What an inspired and clever idea – kudos to your friends. Along the same lines, I can remember when Malcolm was in hospital during the last weeks of his life. I was either at work or at the hospital with him. On one occasion, when I returned home to have a shower and grab some fresh clothes, I noticed that my lawn was mowed. I had a 2 acre property at the time so this was no small feat. It turns out that a friend had dropped by to do it for me. It’s these kinds of gestures that make all the difference during difficult times.

  5. I received some great feedback from a friend of mine, Charlynne, who is a grief counselor. She offers some valuable insights. Here are her comments:

    “As you mentioned Doris, at first when you are grieving there are a lot of people offering support. It means so much when someone reaches out to you months later to let you know they are thinking of you. Making a phone call or sending a card on days that are especially difficult – loved one’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Wedding Anniversary and other special occasions.

    As friends, it’s to remember to reach out even when you don’t get a response. It brings comfort to the person grieving to get messages and to know that you are thinking of them. We want to avoid saying “How are you?” or “I hope you are doing o.k.” even months after the loss because the person might feel pressure to say “Yes, I’m fine.” Some of my clients have said that it doesn’t give them the space to be open and honest about their grief.

    Helping with practical matters tends to be very much appreciated. Try to be specific when offering to help “I’m going to the store – Do you need bread, milk or other groceries? I’ll get them and drop them off for you.” It’s not as helpful to say “Call me if there is anything I can do” because when people are grieving they are already dealing with so many emotions and tasks that they won’t necessarily reach out. Many of my grieving clients are afraid of imposing on their friends and family and worry that they will burden them if they ask for help.

    Charlynne MacCharles MSW, RSW
    Kanata Counselling Services”

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