Knowing What To Say When Someone Loses Their Husband
Last Updated: November 14, 2019
We all want to say the right thing when an elderly friend or loved one’s husband dies. We want to take care without causing more hurt. However, there are serious ramifications to a well-intended but poorly thought out a message of sympathy following a death.
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband to a sudden heart attack in 2015, she soon realized the clichè condolences she had said in the past to grieving people she knew were “all wrong.”
So, how do you know what to say to someone who has lost their husband? What is and isn’t appropriate when speaking to someone who’s lost a spouse?1 We spoke with widows and widowers who shared both the least and most helpful things said to them after their partners died.
The Dos and Don’ts of What To Say to Someone Who Just Lost Their Husband
DON’T—“How Are You?”
Don’t ask, “How are you?” It’s an innocuous question used in everyday greetings, but to a person in grief, “How are you?” can be an unbearable burden to answer. Do you give the rote answer, “Fine, thank you?” Most likely your friend is thinking, “I’m dying inside, I’m drowning in sorrow, I’m so scared I can’t sleep,” but they may feel obligated to give you a more comfortable answer by saying that they are just fine instead of discussing their grief and grieving with you.
“A lot of people come up and say, ‘How are you?’ — and what are you supposed to say? ‘I didn’t sleep for 14 hours. I drink too much. I’m not doing great, actually,’” says Abigail Carter, who lost her husband Arron Dack in the bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.2
DO – “How Are You Doing Today?”
A better phrase to use with a person in grief is, “How are you doing today?” writes Sandberg in her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.”3 Asking “How are you doing today?” acknowledges their loss while inviting them to share their true feelings. It may give them an opportunity to admit that, at this moment, they have lost hope or are feeling vulnerable, scared or lonely. You could also ask how their children are handling the loss of one of their parents.
DON’T—“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do for You”
Resist the urge to say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” This is a common condolence cliche that’s actually the opposite of helpful. Sandberg mentions that what grieving people want or need can feel like an imposition. Sandberg states that what your loved one may truly desire can be impossible. “Can you invent a time machine so my kids and I can go back and say goodbye to Dave?” is just one example that Sandberg uses in her book.
DO – Do Something For Them!
Instead of asking, just do. The widows and widowers we spoke with all talk fondly of those who visited them with food, mowed their lawn, and invited them out for events and meals.
Look around and observe what needs to be tended to. Does the lawn need to be mowed? If so, politely offer to assist them. For example, say “My son will have the mower out this afternoon – would you please allow him to mow your lawn?” Also, taking the trash out to the street or shoveling the snow are also great ways to offer a helping hand. You could offer food naturally by asking, “I am making roast chicken tonight. Could I bring you a plate?” or better yet, “Would you join us?”
Although a widow or widower may appreciate those who offer help throughout various stages of grief, it can be harder to accept if they feel it comes from pity rather than thoughtfulness during the initial period of mourning.
“I’m so grateful to the friends who have had me to dinner repeatedly… and those who invited me immediately to lunch and just let me cry or talk or whatever it was,” said Shannon Griscom, who lost her husband Andy to cancer in 2015.
DON’T—“He’s in a Better Place”
Never say, “He’s in a better place,” “God needed another angel,” “There’s a reason for everything,” “He’s with God now,” “He’s an angel watching over you,” or “He’s at peace now.” You may come off as insensitive to her grief, which may cause her more pain rather than finding peace or hope. Even a religious person may find no great comfort in these sayings, wondering instead how their spouse could possibly be in a better place than by their side or in their arms.
DO – “You Have My Deepest Sympathy”
What you can say instead: “You have my deepest sympathy,” “I’m so saddened to hear about your loss,” “My deepest condolences,” or “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Just let them know that you care about them and their grief instead of offering empty placations about losing the man they loved.
DON’T—“I Know How You Feel”
“I know how you feel” is one of those common phrases well-intentioned people say to others who have recently lost a loved one. But the widows and widowers we spoke with prefer it unspoken. Because even if you have the shared experience of losing someone, you can’t assume your experience is universal. “The process of grieving is as unique as every personality that exists,” says Snedeker.
DO – “I Can Only Imagine What You Are Going Through Right Now”
Since there is no way of knowing how they are feeling, instead say, “I can only imagine what you are going through right now.” Or, “I don’t know how you feel, but I know how sad I felt when I lost my husband, and I want you to know I am here for you if you want to talk.” Let your friend know that if at times their grief and pain get too heavy, you will be there for them. This is also a better approach when sending sympathy cards to someone whose spouse has passed away.
DON’T—“It Was His Time”
Saying, “It was his time” is one of those condolence clichès that are well-intended, but may backfire. The widows and widowers we talked to agreed that such a statement can seem like a slap in the face for a person experiencing the pain of grief to hear. To the person who is left behind, no time is the right time for their best friend or dearest love to die. This holds true even if he held on for years in spite of a lingering illness.
“He had a long life,” is one of those sentences that makes it sound like you should be okay with the fact he is gone now. Death, of course, is inevitable, so some well-intentioned people may judge a death late in life to be somewhat of an achievement. These are the sorts of thoughts to be kept to oneself, our widows and widowers report. Griscom recalls a friend who asked her how old her husband was when he passed. When she told him, “86,” her friend replied, “Well, he had a pretty good run.” That was not comforting to Griscom because, as she points out, “It’s never enough time for the person who’s left. I didn’t want to hear that.”
Avoid these similar condolence statements or those that draw attention back to yourself, such as, “You have your memories.” (As Griscom points out, “That’s not what I want. I want the person!”), or “At least he lived a long life, unlike my late husband.”
DO – “It Must be so Hard to Have Your Time Together Cut Short”
Express that “It must be so hard to have your time together cut short.” Whether the passing was from a lingering illness or a moment of sudden death, it was still too soon for them. Asking the person to share a story or memories of their time with her deceased husband may help relieve some pain and grief. Sharing a story with them of some way he touched your life or the life of your child may also be comforting for your loved one to hear.
DON’T —“You’re So Strong, I Don’t Know How You Do It”
Saying, “You’re so strong, I don’t know how you do it,” is hard to hear. They may be thinking, “I don’t want to hear, ‘you are so strong,’ because I’m just holding it together. It’s sort of like ‘well then, you can take this pain and we don’t have to worry about you,’” says Griscom.
DO – “I Know You are Holding Yourself Together, But it Must Feel Awful Inside”
It may be better to say, “I know you are holding yourself together, but it must feel awful inside.” Share your deepest sympathy with them, and allow the person the opportunity to share that they feel very alone and vulnerable since the loss of their spouse. Recognizing their pain may also allow them to share that the grief and sorrow of widowhood are overwhelming, no matter how long the grieving process takes.
DON’T —“You’ll Find Someone Again”
Telling a widow or widower, “You’ll find someone again,” not only fails to comfort but appears to lack sympathy and is incredibly painful to hear. Sometimes, we think we are comforting someone’s grief by telling them they’ll find a person to love again, but it is definitely not something to say in the days or weeks after someone’s partner has passed. Snedeker, for example, said she still felt married for quite some time after her husband’s death. As for Carter, her first thought when people said she’d find someone someday was, “But I don’t want to find someone. I want my old one back.”
It may take a widow or widower a year or more to even consider dating. Some never do. To make the assumption that someone is not whole unless she is in a relationship can be insensitive.
Knowing what to say to someone who lost their spouse takes sincere contemplation and genuine concern for their grief and pain. There are many ways, but you may do best by sincerely imagining what would be helpful or hurtful for you to hear if it was you who lost your spouse.
Do you have other condolences that you’d like added to this list? What would you like others to know about what to say or what not to say during this time? We’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments below.
1Larsen, D. (2018, August 14). Dealing with Grief Over the Holidays. Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/12-07-15-dealing-with-grief-over-the-holidays/.
2Their young world crumbled. Now the children of 9/11 look back. (2016, September 11). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-911-anniversary-montclair-snap-story.html.
3Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. M. (2019). Option B: facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy. London: WH Allen.
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