WELLNESS
05/03/2017 11:02 am ET Updated May 03, 2017

6 Things About Loss That This Widow Wishes You Knew

It's National Widows Day, so here's what I really want.
The author and her family in Hong Kong.
Courtesy of Ann Brenoff
The author and her family in Hong Kong.

While it doesn’t make headlines like some awareness days, May 3 has been proclaimed National Widows Day.

A faith-based Kansas City nonprofit called Wednesday Widows is behind the day, which began in 2014. The rest of the year, each Wednesday, this group sends people to the homes of grieving widows and widowers to offer handyman services and emotional support.

It’s great that so many people have adopted widows like me as a cause, but if a well-intentioned do-gooder called me up with an offer to repair my screens or fix my leaky toilet, I’d likely hang up on them. 

Why? Because that’s not what I need from the world right now. 

I lost my husband to a chronic illness four months ago. The average length of time U.S. widows have been alone is 14 years, according to Census data, so I’m a relative newbie to the club. But as I tell people, after more than a year of intense caregiving in which I lost my husband in small bits, I feel like I’ve been without him for a whole lot longer

Still, I’m all for supporting those who need and want support ― with a few caveats.

1. Widows are not monolithic.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to losing a loved one. All losses are not the same, nor do we all grieve the same way. Some of us shun grief counseling and others gravitate to it and hang on for dear life. 

So don’t assume you know how we are feeling. Trust me, half the time we don’t even know how we feel. Or even how we are supposed to feel. I keep meaning to read Grieving for Dummies, or really, any manual that would establish some order to this new universe I inhabit.

And there’s another thing: I love my husband and miss him horribly. But for me, his passing has been much easier to process than his caregiving needs were. His death is final; his caregiving was relentlessly awful and at times seemed endless ― until it ended.

Don’t ask me to explain it. Just understand that death, like life, isn’t always black and white.

2. Grieving isn’t a competition.

Please don’t compare my loss with your neighbor’s or your sister’s or even your own. As writer and widow Laurie Burrows Grad says, “Comparing grief is a totally useless cause. This is not a competition. The grief we feel has its own voice and should not be compromised by comparisons.”

Comparing grief is something you bump into a lot at grief groups. Who hurts the most: The widow who spent 50 years with her childhood sweetheart or the young widow left with three kids to raise on her own?

Why even go there? What’s the prize?

3. Widowhood can be deadly, but it isn’t contagious.

Yes, the “widowhood effect” is real. When a husband or wife dies, the chance of the surviving spouse dying over the next few months increases, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The effect is reportedly strongest in the first three months after a spouse dies, when survivors’ chances of dying increase by 66 percent. The study followed 12,316 participants.

Researchers still don’t know what exactly causes the widowhood effect. Speaking as a former family caregiver, let me offer this hypothesis: When caregivers are busy taking care of their loved ones, there is no time to take care of themselves. They ― we ― ignore our own health. 

So while the widowhood effect is real, so is caregiver syndrome. In fact, a Stanford University study reported that 40 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers die from stress-related disorders before their patient dies. In the pecking order of caregivers, the ones who deal with dementia day in and day out are like what Special Forces are to Army privates. We all fight the good fight, but they deserve the nation’s highest medals of honor.

The Stanford study found that family caregivers had lower physical well-being, higher stress levels, higher rates of chronic disease, and greater risk for depression, social isolation and financial losses than their non-caregiving counterparts. 

Widowhood and what frequently leads up to it can be a killer, but grief and loss are not contagious. You won’t catch anything, so you don’t need to avoid those of us who are mourning. In fact, we wish you wouldn’t.

Please don’t assume I don’t want to go out for dinner, or that if I drink wine, I’ll dissolve into a blubbering mess. 

4. There is no timetable for recovery.

Grief doesn’t run on a reliable schedule. Nobody can tell a grieving widow when she will feel better. The best I’ve been able to glean is that at some point, most of us realize that the good days are outnumbering the bad and that lives, including ours, march on.

Those five steps of grieving attributed to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross ― denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance? She wasn’t studying survivors who were grieving. Her research was with terminally ill cancer patients and how they faced their diagnoses. Those five steps were never meant to be taken as grief gospel, and frankly, they have birthed a cottage industry based on the premise that there is only one way to grieve. There’s not.

For each of us, it’s different. So try not to judge us if we don’t dispose of our loved one’s clothes in six months or a year or even six years. And when we decide to date again is between us and ourselves, with maybe a nod to any children who would be affected ― not you. 

5. Don’t be the ugly relative.

With every death comes possessions to be disposed of and people who will stake claim to them. Does a daughter-in-law get the same pick of mom’s jewelry as a daughter? Is it the biology or the emotional relationship that matters more?

Caregiving often brings out the worst in family relationships. Siblings quarrel over who carries the heaviest care burden. But then, along comes death ― and the vultures descend. 

Don’t be a vulture. Grief deserves respect. And respect shown begets respect given.

A friend’s grandmother passed away about two years ago at age 95. Grandma was able to live in her house until nearly the end of her life because one of her sons and his family moved in and took care of her. From the start of the arrangement, the rest of the family disputed the quality of the care she was getting and advocated selling the house and using the proceeds to pay for nursing home care. She died before that happened. Now the family members are totally estranged and only speak to each other through lawyers.

Can you envision piling that on top of grieving?

6. Maybe I need your help, or maybe I just need your kindness.

On behalf of all those widows in the Kansas City area who want someone to come and fix their leaky toilets, I salute the group that will be there on Wednesday to do that. 

My needs at the moment are not as simple as a plumbing repair. What I need is for the world to be a little softer and gentler when I’m around.

Every script-reading person at the Social Security Administration who has put me on hold for an hour, every IRS clerk who can’t understand that a taxpayer’s death in 2017 doesn’t have anything to do with a 2016 tax year filing, every condescending salesman who tries to get out of honoring a product warranty ― yeah, Mr. Outdoor Cushion Guy, I’m talking to you ― can’t you please try a little harder?

Every tweet that mocks someone, every hateful word that is leveled, every side-eye that’s thrown in my presence rocks me. 

Am I being realistic? No. But putting kindness out in the world might help more than you know ― even if you don’t know any widows.

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