Last week on The Huffington Post, I submitted a piece entitled "Five Things Not to Say to a New Widow," and I received an overwhelming response. Widows, friends and family of widows, and people who work with widows all wrote to me about how they felt this piece hit home for them. What was interesting is that there also seemed to be a "golden thread" if you will in their comments. Many readers were troubled by the insensitive things that their health care provider told them. And I knew exactly what they meant.
Less than a week after my husband's funeral I found myself in an urgent care center. What I thought was a sinus infection turned out to be a double ear infection, strep throat and bronchitis. About 30 minutes prior to the strep test, I found myself in a small waiting room and checked the box "widowed" on the intake paperwork. While this may seem insignificant to some, it was the first time that I actually selected this new marital status. I had no one to write down as my emergency contact, and the receptionist noticed that this was left empty. She looked at me, and said, "Honey, are you here alone?" These words stung. The grim reality is that I was alone and sick.
Once I was led back to the examination room, the doctor asked if I had been exposed to strep. I told her I wasn't sure because there were several people at my husband's funeral. She looked at me with horror in her eyes, and asked what happened. I provided her a very brief synopsis that he had adrenal cancer and less than eight weeks later he died.
Without missing a beat, she offered, "You're young. Just give it time. You will move on." These words and my illness nearly sent me into a complete meltdown. Tears filled my eyes and my throat was raw. I thought I was near death myself. While these words from the doctor may have meant no foul, it caused within me a firestorm of stress.
For my forthcoming book, A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years, my co-author, psychologist James Windell and I spent over three years interviewing widows about their experiences. We listened while these widows shared some of their most intimate fears and concerns. Unfortunately, several widows felt depressed and physically ill.
Many of the widows sought medical attention from a general health care provider for a plethora of reasons. While some providers are adept and highly sensitive, others clearly lack some appropriate bedside manners. The follow are five things that health care providers should avoid saying to a new widow.
Five Things That Health Care Providers Should Avoid Saying To a New Widow -- In No Particular Order.
1. "Don't worry, you're not going to die from a broken heart." Actually, medical research (see link below) has shown that a person's heart can be damaged after suffering a loss, and it is not usual for a widow to feel like they have difficulty breathing. And that panic attack? To some of the widows we spoke with they thought that they were going to go into cardiac arrest. The physical pain is real and should not be ignored.
2. "Time heals. You will be fine." This by far is one of the most common things widows reported hearing from their health care providers. Widows found it to be insulting and filled with sarcasm. Truth be told, time doesn't heal. Time is a magazine. If time did heal, the doctor would be able to provide the widow with an exact time frame to expect no evidence of grief. And no such time frame exists. Widows are not healed within a year. Getting through their first set of holidays alone is more about survival than overcoming grief.
3. "Go see a therapist." As a licensed clinical social worker, I understand the value in counseling, psychotherapy, and support groups; however, many widows suffer from clinical depression. They are currently suicidal. Waiting weeks to see a therapist is not the answer. They need immediate help. It came to a surprise to me in doing the research for my forthcoming book, how many widows said, "I've never told anyone this but I went to my doctor begging for meds because I was suicidal." And these were not just women who felt this way during their first year post-loss. Some widows said after years of being widowed they felt all others had moved on and they were completely alone. Please ask your patient if they are feeling so hopeless that they have thought about or are considering ending their life.
4. "You just need to think positive." The only thing widows who are seeing their doctors are positive about is that they are living on empty. They are not sleeping or eating healthy meals. Many widows have experienced secondary losses as a direct result of being widowed. This means that since their husband's death their income declined, their relationships changed, they may have lost their home and some are suddenly parenting alone. These additional changes are considered "secondary losses" and thinking positive thoughts provide little relief. Instead, be direct and offer, "I know that you must be under extraordinary stress. Tell me about everything that has changed."
5. "Everything will be okay." Unless you have a crystal ball and are 150 percent certain that they will fully recover from the trauma of losing their spouse please refrain from making this comment. Many widows were living out their lives with a sense of normalcy and suddenly their spouse died. Despite what you may think, they are not emotionally prepared for this death. Everything changes and it is an amputation for the widow. A new life does not grow back. Their ability to make sense out of this tragedy is often clouded with anxiety and depression.
New widows are alone and filled with fear. Many have lost confidence in their abilities to make even simple decisions and they have difficulty expressing all they have lost. Be gentle with a widow and listen. You may be the only person who has the opportunity to hear her pain.
Kristin Meekhof is a licensed clinical social worker author of the forthcoming book, A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years which can be found here http://www.amazon.com/Widows-Guide-Healing-Gentle-Support/dp/1492620599/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428689430&sr=1-1&keywords=A+widow%27s+guide+to+healing
In 2007 she was widowed and in 1979 her mother was widowed after her father died from cancer. She graduated from Kalamazoo College with a major in psychology and completed the Master in Social Work program at the University of Michigan. In 2014, she traveled to Nairobi, Kenya and met with widows who live in a slum called Kibera. You can follow Kristin at http://www.kristinmeekhof.com/
You can learn more about broken heart syndrome here http://abcnews.go.com/WN/broken-heart-syndrome-emotional-stress-heart-problem-middle/story?id=9798271
Kristin Meekhof's piece, "Five Things Not To Say To A New Widow" can be found here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-meekhof/5-things-not-to-say-widow_b_7209138.html.