Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood--#4

When a family member has died, especially when it’s your spouse, it’s heartening that many people reach out in an attempt to console you. When I lost my beloved husband, Ralph, cards and calls arrived regularly, along with numerous posts on social media. These were much appreciated and some were very helpful.
What I hadn’t anticipated were numerous encounters with strangers whom I had to inform about my husband’s death--bank tellers, utilities, insurance company representatives, etc.--whom I needed to make appropriate changes to what had been our joint accounts. These generally started with my saying something along the lines of: “I’m Patty Howell, and I’m here because my husband recently died and I need to change the name on our account.” Receiving this information seemed to plunge the staff person into a panic situation where their sense of being appropriate called upon them to acknowledge in some special way the personal tragedy I was dealing with. And, they tried to do this. 
But what ensued were attempts at consolation that ranged from caring and meaningful to simply ludicrous. 
Examining Consolation
Let’s examine what they were trying to do: offer consolation to me. First used in the 14th century, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, consolation is the attempt to offer comfort—saying or doing something that lessens disappointment, misery or grief.  This is certainly needed when you’ve just lost your spouse. 
But not all words of consolation actually work, and during the first months of my widowhood, I heard some doozies that missed the mark. Here are three of my favorite doozies along with my responses to them in parentheses, followed by my unspoken thoughts:
Bank teller: “How long were you guys married for?” (41 years.) “I’m sure it was a beautiful wedding.” (Yes.)
My sarcastic unspoken thought: “Am I supposed to be happy about that today?”
Auto Club staffer: “Ooh, I’m sorry. Did you get the chance to take some nice trips together?  (Yes.)  Did you get to go to the Grand Canyon? (Yes). That’s nice. I figured you might as it’s not too far away from you. Where else did you get to go?”  
My sarcastic unspoken thought: “Do I actually need to tell you our travel history right now?”
Senior bank executive during the week before Thanksgiving:  "I’m so sorry. I bet he's having Thanksgiving right now with God. I envy him that." (Patty had no response; I was actually speechless.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                My sarcastic unspoken thought: “Do you suppose cranberry sauce is included?”
These attempts at consolation did nothing for me except trigger my sarcasm, and the last example reveals the risk of attempting to console from a religious perspective unless you know for a fact that you and the grieving person share a similar one.
I realized quickly that corporate training for frontline business staff needs to include a brief module on how to offer consolation to clients. A complaint from my diary during my first month of widowhood speaks to this: “Today I coined the phrase ‘ludicrous attempts to console’ because some of them are really crazy... but, even the flimsy rote condolences of receptionists, etc. are pretty hard to take.” My quickie version of the training module needed would be: “Just say I’m so sorry.”  If the employee wants to venture into deeper waters, add I’m sure this is a difficult time for you.  AND, they need to mean it. Beyond just saying the words “I’m sorry”, and to further benefit clients as well as ease the discomfort of frontline employees in these situations, personnel should take a moment to grasp what this loss must mean for their client and be genuinely caring in the way they respond. Grievers are especially sensitive to whether a response is genuine or not.
So much for corporate training: what about consolation from friends? Friends mean well, and they actually care, but it’s easy for them to run afoul. The rubric for what doesn’t work well is called Me, too. A “me, too” situation occurs when someone attempts to offer consolation and then jumps immediately into when their own spouse/parent/relative/friend died. A typical example of this is: “I know how you feel… When my husband died, it took me five years to get over it… in fact, I’m still not really over it....”  This can quickly devolve into the other person telling you the whole story of when their loved one died, and you and your grief are left hanging. The “me, too” dynamic pushes aside the person with the acute grief while the supposed care-giver talks about their earlier, similar situation. That never does the acute griever much good.  Losing Ralph doesn’t get easier just because I’ve learned that you lost (X).
A cousin of this is an unavoidable situation when a close friend or relative reaches out to make contact about your loved one's death and they’re visibly upset about this person’s death themselves, sometimes to the point of crying. That’s a rough one because the acute griever isn’t in much shape to offer consolation: I was so wrung out from my grief in those first few weeks that I didn’t have much emotional reserve available for anyone else who was suffering because of Ralph’s death. Yet, these relatives or friends also deserve caring about their loss of this valued person in their life. It’s just that I as the grieving widow didn’t have the capacity to offer them very much. The best I could do in that situation was to moan or cry together and say something like: It’s really a big loss for both of us.
What Does Work
Special Gestures: What does the job in the special gestures category varies for everyone, but a male friend from out of state hit the bull’s eye for me with his gift, which was a sympathy card along with a box of chocolates and a box of tissues. I absolutely adored this unexpected and unconventional gift and I’ll never forget it.
Another male friend sent me a book of his poetry including a meditation on death, and included a personal inscription about his caring for Ralph and for me.
Typical gestures: Commonplace gestures can do a lot of good. These include sympathy cards with brief notes of caring; email and Facebook messages; attending the memorial service; phone calls where the caller gave me the opportunity to talk. 
Gifts of flowers, casseroles, banana bread, a neighbor bringing in the garbage barrels. 
One typical gesture that meant a lot to me was being invited for coffee or lunch by a friend. In these cases, the time together started with a simple How are you doing? which gave me the opportunity to tell them what I wanted to about what I was dealing with. As I talked, they listened, very often just silently, or adding a few appropriate non-verbal grunts such as, OhGeeWow… all of which gave me the unimpeded chance to say whatever it was that I wanted to say within a context of feeling cared about. I appreciated those invitations very much. A friend of mine who lost his wife more than a decade ago recalled with tears in his eyes how much it had meant to be invited to dinner with friends when his wife died. 
Bottom line: You don’t have to be super skilled at giving consolation in order to do the person you care about some good. When I was dealing with the staggering loss of my beloved husband, what I appreciated was any sincere gesture of caring. Regardless of style or substance, these valued people reached out in a genuinely caring way and gave me the space to talk, cry, or simply have companionship over a good cup of coffee. 


Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught Relationship Skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. A prolific author and developer of Psychosocial Education programs, she co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have with her late husband, Ralph Jones. Together they have trained in 15 countries around the world. His death in October 2017 brought tremendous grief as well as an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons that she shares with her readers.

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