top of page

Successful Aging: How to help when someone’s spouse dies

Dear readers,

I have been asked several times to republish a column I wrote 13 years ago, which was shortly after my husband passed away. At that time, I was part of a bereavement group called Gathering Place sponsored by Trinity Care Hospice and funded by Beach Cities Health District. We were about a dozen folks who had lost their mates.

At our last session, I suggested we make broader use of what we had learned and share that with the community. As a result we wrote a group column on what to say – and not to say – to those who lost their spouse.

This column includes the wisdom of my wonderful bereavement group members and recent information from HEALTHbeat published by the Harvard Medical School.

First a little background – David A. Crenshaw, author of “Bereavement: Counseling the Grieving throughout the Life Cycle” writes, “The death of a spouse at any age or stage in life is one of the most emotionally difficult and taxing experiences of anyone’s lifetime.”

Most widows and widowers would agree.

Each person goes through the grieving process differently. There also are documented differences between how men and women go through this process.

Therese A. Rando, author of “How to go on Living When Someone You Love Dies,” finds that men in general have a faster social recovery and slower emotional recovery compared to women. As one man in our group stated, “My wife was my confidant. With the sole confidant gone, who does a man talk to?”

On the positive side, research has documented that older persons are resilient and adaptable in dealing with loss. In some cases, a tragic loss can be turned into an opportunity for growth. One woman in our group was a business owner. After her husband passed away she enrolled in a program to fulfill a life-long dream – to become a veterinarian’s assistant.

People generally don’t know what to say to the survivor. We go through the rituals of funerals, extending condolences, sending flowers, making a charitable contribution and sending a card. There are no rituals after the funeral. Additionally, we cannot fix the problem of such a profound loss, making many of us feel powerless.

Given these circumstances, our group members provided suggestions to those who want to express their love and caring:

Stay in touch: Send e-mails, make telephone calls and send greeting cards for different holidays. “Just thinking of you” goes a long way.

Be the planner: Instead of asking, “What do you want to do,” say, “I’ll pick you up at 5:00 and we’ll go to dinner at Joe’s Café.”

Be honest: Say, “I cannot know exactly how your feel. I just want you to know that I will always be here for you.” And then make sure you are of “there” for the person.

Share dinners: Suggest a potluck so the bereaved has company for dinner. Days can become very long.

Give a hug: A warm and caring embrace provides a wonderful “feel good” moment.

Give permission: Tell your friends it is OK to talk about your husband or wife. In fact, it is good as long as they don’t mind a tear or two.

Suggest overnight company: Ask your friend if he or she would like a house guest for the night. This helps fill a void…at least for an evening.

And then there are the few well-intended phrases that should be avoided:

“I really know how you feel.”

“He (or she) is better off.”

“Are you dating yet?”

“You’ll get over it.”

“You just need to keep busy.”

“With such a big house, you really should move.”

“You’re young” (implying you always can remarry).

The Harvard publication adds a few more:

Don’t be afraid to mention the name of deceased: Saying how much you will miss the person is better than saying a perfunctory “I am sorry for your loss.”

Offer hope: Say something like, “You are a strong person and I know you will find your way through this period of time.”

Just listen: Try to avoid telling your story.

I hope that you dear readers will have little use for these suggestions. However, if we live long enough, over time we likely will lose a loved one – a mate or someone else we deeply care for. This column is dedicated to those men and women who have the courage to continue to pursue life and to their loving spouses who are gone. May their memories be a blessing.

bottom of page