5 Unique Ways to Start a Conversation With a Widow

Because calling my mother to ask questions about me is not the same as conversing with me.

*originally published online 9.27.16

Seems my family and friends are having great difficulty talking to me since my hubby’s death five and a half months ago. In that time, exactly a dozen people (excluding my teaching colleagues, whom I see daily) have been in touch with me the person, not me the widow.

In an immature fit of anger, I wanted to list them here. My cheering section, the few people who realize I’m still a person under all the shit life has dumped in my lap, the people who know I still need a connection to humanity, quite honestly now more than ever, the people who aren’t afraid of death, aren’t afraid I’m contagious, aren’t afraid of the bullshit in their own minds telling them not to talk to me. I decided against it, but let that number settle for a second before I move on.

Twelve (plus two extra you’ll meet here, who were not previously a part of my universe, so I don’t count them.) Twelve people in five months. Nearly five hundred people came to his memorial service, and at least a hundred more sent their condolences on not being able to attend.

Twelve. That’s fewer than two people per month. About one-third are family, another third his friends (our friends), and the remainder my friends. And no, calling me because you need something from me is not considered ‘talking’ to me.

Because I’m a person who likes offer solutions if I complain about a problem, I’m here to help. Do you have a widow somewhere in the circle of your universe? Someone suffering through grief, forging ahead after a devastating loss? Doesn’t have to be the death of a spouse, just someone close to them, yet you don’t know what to do? If you’re courageous enough to venture out of yourself and connect with them, the human still under all the pain, start with one of these fresh, new methods to help start a conversation that just might improve their day, their attitude or even their life.

  1. Text. Don’t text about the death, text about life. Ask a question, share a memory, send a joke, a picture, a grocery list. Do not ask ‘how are you?’, (the worst fucking question in the history of the world), because you’ll get the bullshit ‘fine’, if anything at all. Make us laugh, smile, feel cared for and remembered for the person we are, not the label death has assigned to us. We’re still alive even if our spouse is not. Send long messages or short texts. Talk to us. Remind us that our number is still in your phone.
  2. Call. If we don’t answer, leave a voicemail. Sometimes seeing your number show up on our caller ID after you’ve neglected us for so long is shocking, and we aren’t sure if we want to take your call because we don’t know if you can talk and not burst into a ball of tears — which is not our job to counsel you through. Don’t cry in the voicemail. And if you know we aren’t big talkers on the phone, try #1. Forcing a widow to talk to you in the way you prefer (when you know them better than that) and disregard our personal preference is just plain selfish. If you can’t talk and keep your shit under control, don’t call.
  3. Send a letter. If you can’t text and don’t want to call, send a note. Besides weekly calls from my mom, the most meaningful piece of conversation in this five-month stretch is a letter from one of my husband’s students after she’d received her AP Chemistry test scores and wanted to share them with me, postmortem. Yes, it made me cry. Big, fat tears for about three days. Crying is good for us widows, and frankly, we don’t give a shit if you’re comfortable with it or not. That this lovely young lady wasn’t afraid to reach out to me, essentially a stranger, speaks volumes about her. I’ve received more from a person I’ve never met than from the majority of my extended family.
  4. Knock on our door. In the final four weeks of my husband’s life, my house was never empty. The night before hospice arrived, approximately 85 people came through the front door, up the stairs, drank beer in my garage, ate sandwiches made by my parents, sat in our bedroom on the cedar chest, the floor, the rocking chair and our bed with my slowly fading hubby and talked basketball, life, chemistry, memories and love. There were never fewer than three people in my house at all times, except in the quiet moments when it was just me and mom trying to manage around-the-clock hospice care between professional visits. Since everything subsided, one person has knocked on my door. One. Again, an at-the-time student (and his wonderful, thoughtful mom, so technically two), an incredible young man who wanted to hug me, cry, and invite me to his graduation party. One. Dropping off food or a memento and scurrying back to the safety of your car doesn’t qualify.
  5. Facebook (or social media). There are ways to communicate privately on every major social media platform. Commenting on and liking posts is not the same as connecting with the human. If you don’t know what to say, be creative and tell us that. Tell us we’re on your mind. Tell a funny story about our spouse, or something that brought our spouse to mind. We like to talk about them even if it freaks you out that we refer to them in the present tense. They’re still alive to us, in our minds. We’re not crazy. We don’t go to bed thinking we’ll wake up and they’ll magically appear, but we can’t just click delete and erase them from the hard drive of our minds and lives. You don’t need to blather out of your ass about things that don’t matter to us just to make yourself feel better. All we want is for you to remember that the connection back to life is what we need more than anything.

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