It’s been awhile since I’ve been active here. I wanted my next blog post to be centered on something other than grief and loss, because there is so much more to me and my life than the very worst thing that has ever happened to me. But in the past couple months I’ve had three different people reach out to me asking what they can do for their recently widowed friends, and all of these thoughts have been floating around in my head, so I figured I might as well put them together into something that might be able to help someone else.
I also know how important it is to have a good support system. I have a solid group of friends who have had my back and a family who has done everything they can to help me adjust to my new normal. Life took away my person, but it strengthened old relationships as well as gave me new meaningful ones, and I wouldn’t have made it through the past year and a half without all of them..and for that I am so grateful.
My heart breaks a little each time I get a call or message telling me someone new has been added to this club that no one wants to be a part of. It’s such an awful feeling knowing the pain that someone else is about to endure, and the harsh reality of it all is that this isn’t something that can be fixed or undone. I also can only offer advice based on my own experience, which in retrospect isn’t much, because there are as many ways to grieve as there are people living in this world. But hopefully, if anything, by giving you my perspective I can help you to put yourself in their shoes, even just a little bit, and offer yourself from a place of grace instead of judgement.
First and foremost, understand that grief is like a fingerprint, completely unique to the person navigating it. There is no timeline for it, no way around it, and no right or wrong way to do it. It is also incredibly unpredictable and way more complicated than you could ever even begin to imagine. You assume that the big “firsts” like holidays and anniversaries are going to suck for them, and you’re probably right, but sometimes it’s the little things, like having half the amount of laundry to do and twice the amount of leftovers that will have them bursting into tears in the middle of the day. This is why right off the bat I’m going to tell you to let go of any assumptions or expectations you have on how these first few months or even years are going to go. Maybe they had a picture perfect marriage and are filled mainly with sadness, or maybe their marriage was hard and toxic and they have been hit with a great deal of anger and confusion. There will be good days and bad days and in between days and all of this is OK because their one and only job is to survive each day ahead.
Our society is super uncomfortable with discomfort, and we tend to prefer sad stories that end with some huge triumph vs sad stories that are just…well..sad. I am no exception to this. In fact I used to genuinely believe that any bad day could be fixed with the perfect inspirational quote. Your boss is being a jerk? “Everything happens for a reason.” Car took a shit? “God has a plan.” Oh your Husband just died? “Believe you can and your halfway there!” This is why right after Jesse passed I was determined to stay strong and keep my emotions in check. Those closest to me would tell me it was ok to cry and to feel whatever I needed to feel, but I thought no way, not me. Don’t you remember who I am?? I am Amanda, queen of positivity and professional inspirational quote sharer. I will somehow grab these lemons that are full on beating me in the face from every direction, turn them into lemonade, and become the very BEST at grief. After all, I’m already fine! I feel nothing!
Which was not completely false. I did indeed feel nothing. But I was not at all fine. Good God was I not. Which leads me to my next topic..
It’s probably going to be weeks or even months from now, after everyone else has backed off and gone back to their normal everyday lives, because your friend has convinced them they are fine, that they will need you the most.
When we experience trauma, our minds and our bodies have this way of enabling us to numb and detach ourselves from the world around us. It’s like our brains just instinctively know we are not ready for the intense emotions that follow a significant loss. This was me for about the first 4-5 months after Jesse’s suicide, and while everyone around me viewed it as “strength,” I felt almost inhuman, like my house could literally be burning down around me and I would just sit in the middle of it thinking to myself “oh cool, this is what we’re doing today.”
And even worse than that was the fact that this detachment did not discriminate, and often times it would even include the most important humans in my life…my kids. It’s painful to even think back on it, and there will be some who read this and think I’m a terrible person, but the hard things that no one wants to talk about seem to have become my forte, and honestly the parent who needs to hear that they’re not alone in this is more important to me than the opinion of the person who has no idea what any of this is like.
It was during this season that I really needed the people who loved my kids like their own to step up, and they DID. They showed them those nurturing emotions that kids need, when I didn’t have a drop of any kind of emotion left in me, and for that I can never repay them. Your friend might need this too, but chances are they won’t even realize what’s happening until after the fog starts to lift, so if you’re ever questioning whether or not you should show their kids a little more love..the answer is always yes.
And then when this fog does start to lift like I just mentioned, buckle up because you might be in for a hell of a ride. My first grief counselor actually told me when I was about 6 months out, Amanda grief will make you crazy so you need to be careful about the choices you’re making. I was honestly offended because I didn’t sign up for insults, but she was right, I was crazy at times. I don’t want you to become anyone’s emotional punching bag, but I do hope you can offer grace when grace is needed, even if it’s from afar. When we’re hurting we pretty much become professionals at hurting others. So don’t take anything personally and trust that somewhere under that half sad, half angry, lonely, bitter, ugly crying, snot dripping, hasn’t showered in days demon, is your friend. This is when they are going to need you the most.
Something else they are probably going to really need, is someone who is ok with talking about their spouse’s life AND maybe even their death. I always laugh when someone says something that makes me think aloud of Jesse, and they respond with “sorry for bringing it up.” Piece of advice # whatever we are on…you cannot “bring it up,” because they haven’t forgotten. Even in moments of genuine fun and happiness, somewhere in the back of their mind sits their person. Happiness can exist alongside of sadness because one does not negate the other, and this duality will eventually become their new reality as they learn how to give themselves permission to live again. I know in your eyes this might seem like such a tragedy that we will spend the rest of our lives this way, but in our world this is a bittersweet thing. Grief is the ultimate price we pay for deeply loving another human being, and the permanent scar that we will always carry on our hearts is proof that what we had was real and significant and it mattered. And honestly once you learn to accept this, it becomes a little easier to stand back up when life brings you to your knees. So don’t be afraid to bring them up and speak their name. We don’t want them to be forgotten.
Speaking of duality, can we just talk about the #1 thing that everyone wants to ask but is too afraid to ask…When is it ok for your widowed friend to start dating?? I feel like I could actually cover this part with one simple statement—This area of their life is NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS, but what fun would it be if we didn’t address how awkward and straight up terrifying it is to unexpectedly find yourself single and a part of the ridiculous world of dating.
I will never forget the first time I entered a bar and realized I was technically “available.” I was completely taken aback by the first male who approached me..didn’t he know I was married?!!! Oh wait. I’m not. Holy hell. How did I get here? Two months ago my Friday nights were spent on the couch next to the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I never in a million years thought I’d ever be “single” again EVER, and now here I am in this bar making awkward eye contact with a stranger. And I kind of like it, but also my brain has decided this would be a good time to be reminded of every insecurity I’ve ever had, and honestly are you sure this isn’t adultery BECAUSE IT FEELS LIKE IT. Do I even try to flirt? I don’t know how to flirt! How much eye contact is too much eye contact? Are we still doing the playful punching thing in our thirties?? WHAT DO I DO WITH MY HANDS?!
It is all so weird and uncomfortable and believe me when I say, you do not have to convince them to feel guilt and shame when they start to navigate this uncharted territory. They will do plenty of that all on their own. I also completely get where the hesitation on accepting this comes from, I really do! We are constantly questioning our worth, and often when someone finds new love after loss it is viewed as a replacement. This causes some to wonder well jeepers am I as irreplaceable as I thought?? The answer is absolutely YES, we all are. Because it’s not a replacement and it IS possible to miss what you had while still loving what you have.
Whether someone waits a few months or a few years has nothing to do with the value they place on their past. They might be looking to simply feel the touch of someone’s hand again or yes, they might actually be seeking a new love. Either way, it takes a lot of fucking guts to open up your heart again knowing that you’re also opening up to the possibility of experiencing that same unbearable pain once more. So instead of judging or putting in your two cents, get the bottle of wine ready for the first time they need to spill the beans about the cute guy at the bar that made them realize they are still actually capable of feeling something other than heartache.
Choosing life after death has closed a chapter is the hardest thing your friend will ever have to do. The way that they view life and the world around them will never be the same. The days ahead are going to be extremely painful. But I promise, it does get better, and you simply being there through it all is going to be enough.