How do you react when someone close to you loses their partner? What do you say when you don’t know what to say? Do you write a note? Make a phone call? Visit them personally? What do you do in the weeks and months afterward?
Have you considered what it must be like to find yourself single in a couple’s world?
If you’re like me, you’ve struggled with those questions too. I think there were times I did exactly the right thing… and times I stuck my foot in my mouth, trying to be comforting and instead saying exactly the wrong thing.
The truth is this: none of us is comfortable with death. It’s something we don’t like to think about and yet we’ve all heard what Ben Franklin said about a million years ago, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
We face our taxes every year. But death is something that happens to someone else . . . until it happens to us.
How Do You Cope When You Lose a Partner?
I recently met with several women who shared candidly and openly about their experience. I wanted to know how they coped after losing their husbands. I wanted to know what was most helpful to them. I wanted to know what they would say to those of us at a loss for words after it happens. I wanted to know things only people who have been through it can share with those of us yet to experience it.
There’s no cookie cutter explanation for what happened in each circumstance. It’s impossible to consider someone’s experience will be identical to another’s. It doesn’t work that way. But they did agree that there’s no one way . . . no right way . . . no how to guide . . . that gets you through this.
One woman explained,
“The only way to get through this is to go straight through it. There’s no hiding from the pain. So you take things one day at a time. And some days you take it an hour at a time. There’s no other way.”
Another woman said,
“I kept myself busy. Probably to a fault. Anything to stay distracted from the pain. I’m not recommending it but it was my way of facing each day and I’ve learned that people do whatever it takes to get through it. There’s no right way. No easy way. No formula for how to do this. I did what worked for me.”
Faith plays a huge part too.
“Prayer is the way I deal with life. It’s very real for me. People say I’m strong, but I know where that strength comes from.”
How You Can Help
Something else I considered. Those of us who haven’t experienced the death of a loved one often have our own ideas about what’s best for someone else. The truth is . . . we really don’t know, do we? What works for one person doesn’t for another.
There’s no designated time period set aside for sadness and tears and the lethargy and empty feeling that follows a funeral or memorial service. As friends we’re all very good at being there during those first few weeks, writing cards and making phone calls. Dropping off food. Extending invitations to lunch or dinner. Unfortunately many of us fall off the wagon afterward. And sometimes that’s when friends are needed the most.
“Initially people are there for you. But eventually I found I couldn’t wait for someone to call me. I had to be the one to initiate the contact or organize an evening. People forget. It’s easy to slip under the radar after those first few months and even though I didn’t always feel like being social I knew it was something I had to do.”
If you’re feeling guilty about not reaching out to someone as you read this, you can’t feel any more guilty than me. I’m afraid there are lots of us who forget how important it is to stay in touch. Perhaps it’s not so much that we forget but that we really don’t know what to say or how to act in those subsequent months.
Is it because we’re uncomfortable with the situation? Does it strike too close to home? Are we afraid we’ll say the wrong thing? Afraid there will be tears? Awkward silence? Probably some or all of those things.
“In the months after I had close friends who allowed me to cry and vent and just talk. Not everyone is comfortable with that but it’s part of the healing process. I could tell them anything and just share the sadness I felt.”
There will be tears. You will probably feel uncomfortable. You might stumble over your words as you search for the right thing to say. But be assured you’re doing something helpful.
One woman graciously expressed it this way,
‘If you say something wrong, I won’t think it that way because I know you mean well. You’re my friend. I was in shock at the time but I also remembered how hard it had been for me to call someone who had lost a loved one and I didn’t want to let that happen to my friends who were trying so hard.’
And another explained,
“Nothing you can say will take away the pain of loss. There are no words to make me feel better. “I’m so sorry.” “You are in my thoughts.” “I won’t ask how you’re doing because I know how you’re doing.” “You have my deepest sympathy.” It’s about all that can be said. And when there are no words a simple hug says what can’t be expressed.”
What Not to Say
Of course there are people who still manage to put their size 8’s squarely in their mouth. I know I’ve done it and I cringe at the memory. Be assured that people understand our good intentions but sometimes in our nervousness we get tangled up in the execution. Even in their saddest time, every woman I spoke with was understanding and forgiving for those comments.
Still . . . we can all learn something from a few they shared.
“Don’t ask me if I miss my life before this happened. Isn’t the answer obvious?”
“I could barely manage my own emotions and then I received a phone call from someone who spent the next hour sobbing on the phone to me. I found myself trying to comfort her and say things to make her feel better. It was exhausting.”
“I was left financially secure but when someone said, “At least you have money” I wanted to shout at them. Money doesn’t take away the pain.”
“Please don’t ask me for details. I will tell you if I want you to know.”
It Can Happen in A Flash
Remember what Ben Franklin said? The only things certain are death and taxes. You might get out of paying your taxes but none of us are going to escape death. One day all of will experience something similar to what these women have experienced.
And not one of us knows when that day will arrive.
A moment in time when you begin to refer to events as “before” and “after”.
I asked everyone what advice they could offer based on their own experience. Every single one of these women without exception said the same thing, “Be prepared.”
And they quickly added this: Being prepared means being smart about your finances at EVERY STAGE OF YOUR LIFE. Regardless of your marital status, your age, your financial situation, or your health. Life is unpredictable. Murphy’s Law happens. Plan for the what if’s.
“My husband was very young when he died. Who thinks they’re going to lose someone so young? He’d always say, “Here—-let me show you what I’m doing and why we’re doing this.” I’d always say, “You just do it. You’re better at it than I am.” When you’re young you don’t think your husband’s going to die —— you think it’s a long way off—— but fate has a way of dealing you a different hand.”
Take time to organize your documents, power of attorney, computer and account passwords. Create an I.C.E. File. Establish a relationship with a trusted advisor. Understand the business of running your personal business. What and where are your assets? Your expenses? If you don’t understand something, make a point to learn it. Educate yourself.
“It’s so important to have good friends whose opinions and judgement you trust. They weren’t necessarily involved in my business but I could ask them things about legal issues or money issues. They were like my own personal board of directors.”
Words of Wisdom to Remember
Every woman I spoke with has become a friend to me in a new, brighter light. I have deep respect for them and a better understanding for what they’ve been through. They kindly . . . and not easily . . . shared their stories with the hope that their experience might help someone else some day and help all of us today.
Whenever I talk to people about any life experience I always ask them to share a Life Lesson with me. I knew these women would have Lessons we all needed to hear. And they did.
- Never take good health for granted.
- Enjoy the moment and cherish each day because life changes in an instant.
- Appreciate each other.
- Don’t complain.
- Be grateful for what you have because it’s not going to be there forever. Nothing is forever.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to remind us of the simplest things. Or we think those words are meant for someone else.
They’re meant for all of us.
Enjoy the moment. Cherish each day. Because nothing is forever.