One thing that has been a natural yet fascinating thing about my situation is seeing firsthand how other people treat me. I know that people don't know what to say or do around me or how to treat me. This is getting better with the passage of time, but I still see a difference.
For example, some people didn't want to call me or contact me any more than they did before Brian died, thinking it best to treat me "like normal." While well-intentioned, a person who is grieving and going through the worst time of her life needs a little extra TLC to get through the hard times, even though she might not tell anyone that. Getting phone calls from aunts and uncles that didn't really call for no reason before was a GOOD thing; it helped me so much to know that people were thinking about me, praying for me, cared enough to call and check in, and that they were there if I needed anything. I might not respond all the time, but keep calling, keep sending cards, keep visiting. This is not specific to my situation, really, but just general advice. Knowing there is a great support system surrounding you -- whether or not you actually use it -- can make all the difference in one's attitude and levels of energy and optimism. And believe me -- I might not have randomly called my family members back, but I sure appreciated their phone calls a LOT during the early months. Now, I don't need that same level of support, but the first few months were pretty tough and those extra calls, cards, e-mails, etc. made a big difference in getting me through.
Another thing I've noticed, and that is present to this day, is that people often feel guilty for complaining around me. I've had friends who describe hating their jobs, feeling overwhelmed by financial or family pressures, and who have marital problems or other challenges who will start to open up and then -- either directly or by a sudden change of topic -- tell me that they shouldn't be complaining. In some ways, I am glad if my experience can serve to change one's perspective on life and make them think, "Hey, you know, I don't have it too bad after all." On the other hand, suckiness in life comes in degrees and is not a zero-sum gain. Just because my situation might suck more than yours, doesn't mean your life is a rose garden. If you are facing a crappy situation or a difficult dilemma, I can still appreciate that, even if it doesn't "equal" the sudden death of a spouse. Let's face it: not very many things do. But people catch themselves and say, "I shouldn't complain." Wait -- you basically just told me you hate your life....why shouldn't you complain? Just because I got a shitty hand dealt to me this year, doesn't mean your cards will win any poker game anytime soon. Brian's death doesn't make your lemon of a car any less sour, or it doesn't negate the fact that you hate your job. I can still empathize with you and can still, objectively and honestly, say, "Yeah, that sucks. I'm sorry you're in that situation." That being said, you might not complain about your nasty hangnail to a widow at her husband's funeral...you won't get any pity points there. (No, that didn't actually happen! Just trying to point out that there is a time and a place for everything.)
The other side of this coin is when people totally let their guard down or don't have any sort of filter in talking to me. I don't want anyone to feel bad for a verbal slip or thoughtless, offhand remark, but I do also know I am able to brush such things aside better than most, so what I can ignore or dismiss as a careless remark might really upset another, perhaps to the point of poisoning a relationship. I like to think that when someone says something particularly thoughtless that they at least realize it later, if only because what I could brush off could be enough for another person to hold a grudge.
For example, when I announced that I was planning to spend the summer in Austin, people were excited for me and I was excited about it too, despite the fact that I was only going because I needed the time and space to help me deal. I had a couple of people say they were "jealous" and even one that said, "I want your life for the next few months." I wanted to say, "Really? I want your life for a few months. I'd rather be going to work every day and coming home to my house and my husband. You know what? I'll trade you. You can suddenly have your life fall apart, and I'll take the 'same old, same old,' complete with a living husband, please." Don't get me wrong -- I had a lot of fun in Austin, but it was a healing journey. I went there to do some serious soul-searching and to put in some hard work on the grieving process. I know people meant well with these comments, but it did -- and sometimes still does -- sting when someone says something that thoughtless. Life is getting good again, but it isn't enviable, and it most certainly wasn't this spring when these things were being said to me.
Finally, there is the issue of social plans. I'm no longer part of a couple. This is the first time in my life that's been true (well, at least since I've been old enough to be in control of my own social life). Just because I don't have Brian anymore, though, doesn't mean I don't want to do things we used to do together. It doesn't mean I don't want to see our old friends. Please don't stop asking me to do things. Don't punish me by taking away social opportunities because my husband died and I'm no longer part of a couple. Here's the thing -- I might not always accept the invitations, because there will be some things that are too hard or certain situations when I anticipate that I would feel too much like a fifth wheel. But I still want to be asked. Let that be MY decision; don't decide for me what you think I will or won't want to do. But remember that I'm only one person, so if you have two extra tickets to a concert or game, only invite me if you know another single person to take the other. Please don't make my ability to go dependent on my ability to fill the other spot. I don't want to put my ability to have fun and participate into the hands of others. I'm not part of a couple anymore; I don't have that person to automatically fill that slot. I'd sure hate to have to pass on that concert, play, fundraiser, etc. because I can't find a friend to take the other spot. Doing that only reminds me that I am single, that it was not my choice to be single, and that I became single under the worst possible circumstances.
In short, my advice to anyone on how to deal with someone in my situation is:
Treat us like normal people going through a tough time. Give us extra care and support, but you don't have to walk on eggshells. Be understanding and patient, and understand that we might need some alone time, but that doesn't mean we don't need you anymore. Please don't drop off the face of our earth, and please keep inviting us to social functions. Treat us the same as you would any other single friends (though don't assume we want to be set up with anyone!). And, when in doubt, just ASK. Ask if we want company or need time alone, ask if we want you to call more (or less), ask if we want one ticket or two. If you make assumptions without asking, we have no say in the matter and we feel robbed of our social lives on top of having lost a spouse.
Finally, I want to say that I hope this post didn't come across as too much of a gripe or downer. It's just come to my attention that a lot people don't know how to deal with a widow (or any grieving person, really). I've had people tell me that directly. I simply thought sharing this would help for the time you are in this situation. The funny (odd, not ha-ha) thing is, I've never been in that situation either -- I don't know anyone who's lost a spouse before age 70, and no one really close to me, either. I can only speak from my perspective as the widow. My friend Wilson says, "We all look through different windows." Most of us has never seen this on the horizon when we look out the window, though. This is a weird situation, a unique position -- and I'm in the weirdest place of all. We're all learning together, and I just wanted to show you what I see when I look out my own window.
Please, don't ignore me when we make eye contact through the window. Open the window, talk to me, and go ahead and gripe about your obnoxious boss or your overbearing relatives.