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How to Support Someone Who Has Lost a Spouse

March 19th, 2024

Losing a spouse is one of life’s most devastating experiences. Not only is the surviving partner left feeling overwhelmed and alone, but they are also faced with making significant life adjustments. The transition from having a daily companion to a being alone can be overwhelming. Learning to be a single parent, navigate socially in couples’ friend groups or coming to terms with crumbled retirement plans are just a few ways the loss of a life partner is especially traumatic.

In fact, many grief experts believe that it can take at least three years for surviving spouses to truly begin to heal. Here are some meaningful ways you can help a friend, family member or colleague who has lost a spouse, keeping the unique nature of their grief and the necessity of human connection in mind.

Acknowledge the Loss

It’s the question everyone asks themselves: when you see them, should you acknowledge their loss or direct the conversation elsewhere? No one wants to cause further pain, but it’s also important to validate what a widow or widower is going through. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. The best advice is simply to take your cues from them. The simple fact that you are reaching out to them, and willing to listen and engage --wherever the conversation may go -- is one of most powerful ways to support someone deep in grief. Offer a listening ear without judgment, allow them to express their feelings and share memories, and avoid rushing the conversation or providing unsolicited advice. It’s even OK to simply sit together in comforting silence.

Offer Practical Support

Grieving spouses have lost more than a loved one: they have lost someone who was by their side morning and night, tearing apart the “I do this, you do that” balance that is often the cornerstone of a life spent together. Add overwhelming feelings of sadness, despair, depression and even anger to the mix, and it’s no wonder that many surviving spouses find it especially challenging to manage daily tasks after their loss. This makes offers of practical support especially helpful. Offer to drop off homemade meals, run errands or complete simple home repairs. By taking even a few everyday responsibilities off their plate, you can allow them time and space to focus on their emotional well-being while also helping ensure they won’t be faced with other big issues – like a leaky faucet that turns into a major home repair – down the road.

Respect Their Grieving Process

Grief is a deeply personal journey, and everyone experiences it differently. Some may need solitude, while others find comfort in the company of friends. Respect the grieving person's process and avoid imposing your expectations on them. Be patient, understanding that healing takes time, and offer support in a way that aligns with their needs. Offer to take them out for a meal, for example. But if they’re not ready to be around so many people just yet, suggest a quiet meal together at home. Or you can deliver a homemade meal for them to enjoy whenever they’re ready.

Remember Important Dates

Anniversaries, birthdays and other significant dates can be especially challenging for someone who has lost a spouse. Remembering and acknowledging these dates can provide tremendous comfort and support. Send a thoughtful message, make a phone call or even plan a small gathering to commemorate the life of the departed. Your acknowledgment can help the grieving person feel less alone during these difficult times, and they’ll take comfort in knowing that someone they loved is so dearly remembered by others.

Be Mindful of Triggers

Certain places, activities or specific conversations may act as triggers for grief. Be aware of these potential triggers and approach them with sensitivity. Allow the grieving person to set the pace and boundaries for activities, ensuring that they feel comfortable and in control of their emotional well-being. For example, if you frequently engaged in activities as a couple with them and their departed spouse, set aside some one-on-one time so that they won’t feel so alone in a “couple” situation. Offer to accompany them to a favorite restaurant if they are hesitant to dine alone or offer to help them decorate for the holidays as they face their first year of building new traditions.

Share Happy Memories

While it's good to acknowledge the pain of loss, it's equally important to celebrate the positive memories of times spent together. Share memories, photos or videos that highlight the joy and love that defined their relationship. This not only honors the memory of the departed, but also reminds the grieving person of happy times they’ll always carry with them.

Offer Continued Support

Grief doesn't have a set timeline, and the pain may resurface at unexpected moments. Stay connected with the grieving person over the long term, offering your support and companionship beyond the initial stages of mourning. Regular check-ins, whether through calls, messages or visits, convey that your support is unwavering and enduring. And as always, encourage them to seek professional grief counseling should you become concerned about their mental or physical well-being.

Finally, remember that grief can be devastating, but it’s the price we pay for love. By showing them that they’re not alone, that love can come in many different shapes and forms, from many different places and people, you can help anchor and support a grieving friend or family member through this especially difficult time.

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