This is a term we fun, life of the party, grief-stricken people use to describe those on the outside-who are in our circle, either trying to support us, ignore us, or give us well-meaning advice. They are grief-adjacent. Lucky them. I miss being grief-adjacent. I was on that side of it quite a few times. So ignorant to my friends or families pain.
Everyone is different but I would imagine most of us who have lost our spouse are on the same page with our grief and most of us do not appreciate some well meaning things. They are outdated and almost insulting as it shows little to no work or thought has been put into what was said. I assure you, if you Google it quickly, your phrase is a big no no. This list will be more akin to widows- but I am sure there are similarities throughout for other types of losses.
Here is a small list of things that are not helpful and better alternatives to help your grieving person:
1. “Stay strong.” “Time will heal.”
Strength has no place here. I hope if you are meaning “hey don’t kill yourself,” just be candid and say that rather than the strong thing. There is nothing strong about survival.
Imagine someone stranded in the wilderness. Their plane has crashed and they are the only survivor. They are shocked it happened. They are so cold, wet, tired, and nearly starving. They have severe physical injuries. Would it be appropriate to find them in the woods, tell them “hey you’re strong!” Then just walk away? No. They are merely surviving, the most basic of human instincts.
So don’t do it to your grieving person. Their plane of life has crashed also. They feel alone like they are the only one. They are likely not taking care of themselves like they used too. They have mental injuries so significant they would probably rather have physical ones. They also have physical ones, like panic attacks or even worse “broken heart syndrome” look it up.
If they end up finding their way out of the wilderness- they will likely have trauma or PTSD that last a life time. Hopefully with therapy or something of a like they can find a way to navigate themselves, but if they don’t you need to deal with it. Some people just don’t recover just like some people don’t live until there 80. Accept this shitty fact to reality. Listen to what your grieving person is saying and not try to spin it with some toxic positivity. Some things just are not positive. It says more about you when you fight it then it does your grieving person.
As for time, it is irrelevant here. My person left earth and they won’t be back next year. They won’t be back in five years. So how could you say “time will heal” or something of the like? If time heals me, then let time be the master. You do not speak for me or time- so just don’t say it. You are not the predictor of my future. You have no idea. Your person may not even be dead. I want time to heal me too but after speaking to a lot of younger widows, the consensus seems to be time doesn’t heal anything. It just becomes different at best. You just adapt in some weird way. I also know many grieving people years out that haven’t adapted at all. They are worse than they were the day it happened. It’s not that they didn’t try, it’s that the pain engulfed them. This has nothing to do with choice. We all have different brains. Our brains work differently. Some relationships are more intense- and I truly believe that impacts how badly they hurt.
2. “They are in heaven.” “Heaven/God needed him.” “I had a dream and they wanted me to tell you…” “things happen for a reason.”
Tread. Very. Lightly. Friend. Make sure our religious beliefs are the same or this will cause many problems. If your grieving person believes in the monotheistic God and you know them that way- then go right ahead. If you aren’t sure. Don’t say a word. It is NOT ABOUT YOU or where you think they are. It is likely what comforts you will not work for them.
Jesse and I had a friend, Brett, who passed a few years ago. It brought Jesse and I *a little* comfort to know Brett was *at peace* (he suffered with severe depression and his last few years on earth he had a rough time). We dare did not say this to his family, just each other. We were grief adjacent. Yes he was our friend, but we didn’t live with him, pay bills with him, sleep with him- and as vulgar as it sounds- we didn’t have sex with him, kiss him, have kids… you get the idea. Sometimes vulgarity is required to stress a point.
If you have another religion where you are a medium or something of the like- also tread lightly. We knew our person better than you did so you better be careful what you tell us. If you suggest they have come to you first or another family member they didn’t care too much for and not their grieving wife and children the bullshit radar is going to go off. If you are going to make an attempt make sure there is a more legitimate connection.
As for things happening for a reason, again, unless you are deeply in-tuned with our religious beliefs you have no standing to say this. You are a regular person, how could you know anything about why our loved one left? You don’t have authority to speak on it, you are a regular human, so stop.
3. “You can remarry.” “You are young.” “You have a lot of life left.” “Didn’t you enjoy things before you knew (insert dead person).”
These statements are akin to: If you have more than two children, pick the one you want to die, then just have another child. Would you feel better? Would that work? If you answered no then there you go. Our new spouse or whoever cannot replace our old one. They are different people. If you answered yes you either do not have children or you need to seek out a psychiatrist.
It is also likely we had a life before our spouse, that doesn’t mean anything to us when discussing our grief. We are in pain and likely depressed every second of our life. Anything that was “mine,” before meeting meshed into “ours,” at some point.
Example: Yoga was “my” thing. I went to it alone. I practiced it alone at the studio. I should still enjoy that right? Wrong.
I invited my spouse to yoga once and I remember how he was great at it (like he could do tons of variations of crow pose which require decent upper body strength and balance). I called my spouse after yoga and told him how it went. I would show him new moves when I got back home that I learned and he would be so impressed. If I wasn’t good at a move- he would help me get positioned into it. When I went, we had to make sure together he was off in time so he could watch our kids while I went. He paid for me to go to yoga. He listened to my new yoga music in the car when we drove. He made dumb jokes about some more provocative yoga poses I put myself in.
So was yoga just MY thing? No. It turned into our thing. Like every other single thing in my life. We enjoyed things TOGETHER.
Personally, for me, I am extremely depressed. Things that used to make me happy are not working (no shit). My energy is depleted. I had a full life outside of my spouse. I painted, obsessed over my career, decorated my house. These things I still enjoy somewhere- but it’s hard to be happy about them because they seem pointless. Why am I doing them? I am just going to die anyhow. My outlook on life is a bit tarnished and hopefully I am me again one day. But again, from what I have seen, a lot of widows feel the need to reinvent themselves and I also see that being a possibility for myself (which I don’t like).
4. “Let’s go here! That’s fun and will get you in a better mood!”
Nothing is going to put us in a better mood. It may at minimum be a distraction for a small second. Invite us to where ever it is and don’t add that you may have a cure for us. Because you don’t.
Just validate our feelings. Sadness, anger, darkness, whatever- it’s best to just go with it. We don’t like being on this emotional roller coaster either. If anyone wants off this horrible ride it’s your grief-stricken friend.
If we thought a fun place would help us, we would probably go. We won’t feel the same about normal places anymore like you will.
Example: I used to like going to Hobby Lobby and looking at home decor. I decided to go the other day because I remembered I felt happy there. My perspective has changed. It’s not the place, it’s my mind. No one can go in my brain and fix my mind.
Instead of seeing ideas for my patio, all I could see were their signs: “our love story is my favorite,” “so I can kiss you whenever I want,” “this is us,” “dance with me in the kitchen,” “home is where I am with you.”
I felt like I was being attacked in there and nothing had actually changed at their store- it was just me. The signs were so overwhelming. I went from someone who would be on the phone with their husband in Hobby Lobby, telling him “these signs are so cringe babe guess what this one says…” to being in there for five minutes and losing my shit. I started crying hysterically and had to rush out. My body felt like it was going to explode… Over a sign I used to roll my eyes at.
5. “Let me know if you need anything!”
Just text me. Even if I have ignored you the last three times. I am reading it. When you texted me I was in a certain emotion. Sometimes I respond. Sometimes I’ve handled a grieving child all day and I can’t move another finger. I see the message. It helps me not feel isolated.
When you put the ball in my court- it doesn’t help because it’s likely I am struggling to leave my bed, let alone dribble a ball and pass it back to you.
6. “How are you?” “Seems like you had a good time!”
There really isn’t something to replace a good old fashion how are you, but you can acknowledge that. My friends will often say “how are you doing- I know thats silly.” They say something to acknowledge they aren’t being insensitive until I don’t need it anymore.
As for the good time…My smile fooled you. Impressive maybe I will become an actress. I will never be okay or happy like I was. Maybe I won’t seem as wrecked some days and I cannot wait for those. It’s likely the minute I got in the car I cried my eyes out. Call me at 1am and see how I am then.
7. “At least you have your kids.” “At least you have your parents.” “At least you have your pet.”
Yes, and I don’t have marital relations with any of them. I don’t have intimacy with any of them. Does that make you uncomfortable? It should because that’s how you sound to us. I don’t tell my 6 year old my adult problems. I also don’t want to share them with my dad. There is a reason for marriage. There is a reason in scripture it says one flesh. There is a reason for people being described as soul mates with a spouse but not their mother.
As open as I am and as my spouse was- there were things we did NOT tell people, even those close to us. We just told each other.
Ask yourself if you walked by someone with one leg, if you would say “hey at least you have another one.” No you wouldn’t and if you would there is something wrong with you. You have no business telling someone “at least,” anything when you didn’t suffer the loss.
8. “Put on your boot straps.” “Put on your big girl panties.” “Do it for the kids.” “Pull up your knickers.”
Will you be here every morning at 7am putting my panties on for me? Will you be strapping my shoes up for me right after? If you answered no. Then this is not helpful. I assure you we know “hey don’t let your kids die!” Is something that needs to be at the forefront of our mind. I assure you it is. No one wants to get their life back to normal more than a grieving widow. Our brains can’t be normal though because half of us is missing.
9. When you do help, make sure it’s how we want it done.
Respect how I or the children want things done. At first this sounds ungrateful, but remember it’s not about you its about us. Our brains are not working right anymore. Those gross leftovers in the fridge? To a person who isn’t grief-stricken..- yes toss them! That’s gross. To the grief-stricken? That could be the last piece of food our person took a bite of. It’s a shred of proof that they existed and we didn’t make it up. Unless you are our doctor, you don’t get to decide when we move it. We do. So don’t touch it. You will only figure these things out by asking and listening.
10. You can invite us to your engagement, wedding, baby shower, etc, but proceed with caution.
I can talk about this one pretty well! Because I had to tackle inviting my mother in law to my baby shower. Sounds fine. But this is the last piece of her son. A piece she will get to see but her son will not. I assure you if something can mess with someone it’s delivering your grandchild your own son will never meet/delivering your husbands child he will never see.
So my friend who set it up treaded as lightly as possible. Giving the option if it was too much it was okay. If a grieving widow can arrange this- surely a normal minded person can too.
If you are getting engaged and want to invite us, do so, but do it with a disclaimer. “Hey I am having this party, don’t feel obligated to go-but if you are able to feel free, love you.” If we don’t respond, don’t take it personally. Move forward. We are grieving and cannot handle much of anything- especially something like that. Anything that shows less than understanding makes you look like a narcissist.
11. Being cute with your spouse or telling your grieving friend/family members your plans with your spouse. Complaining about your spouse.
Again this is up to the individual but I know most of the widows I know scowl at this. If you are busy and we don’t ask what your doing don’t volunteer “ugh I haven’t seen my husband in 3 days! We are going on a date tonight.” Literally the most insensitive thing you could say. Don’t complain about your husband to us, you have other people you can discuss his issues with. We don’t want to hear about his dirty shorts on the ground. We would kill someone to see them there again.
12. Comparing the loss of (insert whoever) to your grieving widow friend. Comparing the widows loss to that of a divorce. Saying you know how you would respond if it happened to you.
While there is no standardized order. It HAS been said the worst lost is 1. Losing a child 2. Losing your spouse 3. Losing a parent/sibling. This is pretty agreed upon by society but definitely doesn’t account for other factors. Such as age or intensity of the relationship.
As for comparing it to divorce or a break up, unless you are trying to say we are dealing with both (the death and them not being here) do not say it is like it or it’s “easier.” I assure you I’ve broken up with someone and while it was hard, it didn’t ruin my life.
If you divorce on decent terms, like your spouse isn’t a total POS- this is no way like death. You likely have 50/50 over the kids. You likely have some sort of income or a chance to make income. At worst, you may have to see them with another person and that will hurt. There always remains the possibility that you two could find your way back to each other, even if that sounds grim and unlikely. You have a chance. There is hope for something. Death destroys even the tiniest unlikely glimmer- something humans desperately need.
If you never got back together with your ex-spouse; alternatively you could “be free,” to do as you please. You two agreed, however reluctantly, to not be together. When your spouse dies- you didn’t agree to that. You agreed “through sickness and health.” You agreed to continue to work on problems. The phrase “until death do us part,” is in there sure- but does anyone look at that and honestly think “ahh yes death at 32.” No. Or some widows that think they have eternity and were married for 7 months. Thats not what we take that for.
If you divorce on horrible terms, like your spouse is a total POS-this is still no way like death. Maybe you have full custody of the kids. Maybe your spouse moved to another state and said screw all of you. I assure you this isn’t like him dying because you still have choices. Your son, who is confused why daddy left, COULD call him. He would likely be ignored, but he has a phone number. He has something tangible. When your child is an adult they could choose to angrily knock on their father’s door demanding to know why they were ignored. There is a door to knock on. They may get no answer but that person is alive.
They have the possibility of hearing how shitty their dad is through others. That sounds stupid right? At least they can shake their head at it. They can check their dad’s Facebook and see he has a new girlfriend. Something. Anything.
With death, there is absolutely nothing. No good. No bad. Just nothing.
13. “It’s been 6 months.” “It’s been 3 years.” “It’s been 20 years.”
Wow yes and they STILL ARE DEAD AND NOT HERE. If anything, the longer time goes on the more things we can add to our shit list of “all the things they missed.”
My husband missed out on the birth of his last daughter. Which means every single thing about her he will never know. He will miss it all. It will sting every second. He missed 4 of his kids getting married- or he missed 4 of them saying marriage is stupid. Or maybe 2 get married and 2 dont. It doesn’t matter because every decision is missed. He has no idea who his kids became or if he had grandchildren. Absolutely nothing. So as time goes on, it just means more is missed. That is it.
14. Inspirational messages that are for mediocre problems not those grieving.
There ARE inspiring messages for widows but these are often confused with feel good quotes that are more directly correlated for staying with a diet or working towards a career. These messages are not the same.
15. Silver-lining bullshit. “At least they are not suffering.” “Look at all the good they did-they accomplished their goal early.” “You wouldn’t have (insert whatever) without them.” “At least you know love.”
All of that may be true, but I want both. I want my person to be alive and not suffering. I want to enjoy the good WITH them not alone. I want to have our things TOGETHER not by myself. I do know what it’s like to be loved! Where did I sell my soul to Satan for it and have to return it at age 30!? I didn’t!
16. He can see you.” “He’s here.”
Maybe this is true. Maybe he sees me. Or maybe this is kind of odd if we think about it.
If I am with someone new, if we kiss, is he seeing all of that? Does he hover over me and watch me make 3 meals a day for 4 kids all alone? He’s just sitting there at night watching me cry for 2 hours and not doing anything?
That’s not Jesse. Jesse wouldn’t dare.
That sounds like its own form of torture- If Jesse had to “watch us,” he would be in more pain than what the kids and I were experiencing. So this seems strange.
If he is watching us, again, its really not your place to make such an observation. It kind of diminishes my pain. Because ultimately he is not physically here.
I am sure there are more things I could add to this list but for now this is what I have come up.
When I sound like a broken record, when I still look sad, see how I see the world and show me empathy. It’s the least you could do.