Each of us knows someone whose husband has died. What do you say? What can you do? I often felt inadequate when trying to express my sympathy, and would usually avoid the viewing and funeral.
But now, having been a widow, I know from experience those words and deeds that comforted and strengthened me. Some of the following suggestions may help you when someone you know experiences the death of a loved one.
Do not say, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” It is a noble and generous thought, but many widows will not ask for help. They probably do not even know what they need done or may be too proud to admit that they need help. Instead, try saying something like this: “I’ve got some extra tulip bulbs that I’d like to plant around your yard. Is today or tomorrow most convenient?” A friend did this for me. When the tulips bloomed the next spring, I was reassured of the reality of the resurrection as well as reminded of this friend’s love for me.
Volunteer to put up a TV antenna, to fix that ripped screen, to plow the garden, to prune the trees. Yard work can seem overwhelming to a new widow. The day before my husband’s funeral, the Young Men in our ward were busy mowing my lawn, washing my car, moving heavy objects into the shed, and setting up tables and chairs for those who would visit after the funeral. I was in such a state of shock that I never would have thought of all the things that needed to be done.
For priesthood leaders: Be cautious and seek the Spirit’s guidance as you consider calling a new widow to certain positions in the Church. Being asked to serve as ward Single Adult representative, for example, may only enhance and emphasize a grief-stricken widow’s loss, her change of status, the fact that she is now “special.”
Try to keep things as near normal as possible for her. Let her keep the same visiting teaching district, the same calling, the same home teachers. My husband was a seventy at the time of his death, and the seventies quorum included me in their activities for a time and continued to home teach me, although technically another quorum was responsible for me. I felt more secure in my recently-turned-upside-down world because at least some things stayed the same.
For friends: The new widow, especially if young, finds that talk about husbands, pregnancies, and new babies are rather sensitive subjects during the first year or more of single life. Try to keep conversations in areas of more general interest so she can feel included.
Invite the newly single person to Institute or other classes where she can share interests with people not in the traditional “couple” arrangement.
Invite her to go to the temple with you. It may be hard for her to go alone, especially at first.
A widow appreciates it when a man—a home teacher, a relative—can provide her children with a father image. Her children need extra love and attention. But come on Saturday or during the early evening hours. It is hard enough to settle children down for bed without the distraction of a visitor. Offer to take the children to father-son or father-daughter activities.
Offer to take the children for an hour (or more!) and give the single parent time to “regroup,” either by getting out of the house or by getting into some project at home. “Time out” from the demands of single parenthood is vital to mental and emotional health.
Listen with your heart. When you ask a widow, “How are you?” she just may not reply with the traditional (and expected) “Fine!” If you see the ache in her eyes or hear the falter in her voice, offer to come and visit her that day; better yet, invite her over to your home. A change of scenery will brighten her day and lift her spirits.
Ponder carefully and compassionately what it must be like to live without a companion and second parent in the home. Do not judge too quickly when you see her making seeming “mistakes” in child-rearing or other decisions. She may still be working through her grief and reevaluating her life. As William George Jordan has beautifully written, “We know nothing of the trials, sorrows and temptations of those around us, of pillows wet with sobs, of the life-tragedy that may be hidden behind a smile, of the secret cares, struggles and worries that shorten life and leave their mark in hair prematurely whitened, and in character changed and almost re-created in a few days.
“Let us not dare to add to the burden of another the pain of our judgment.” (The Kingship of Self-control, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970, p. 31.)
The prophet Alma taught his people near the waters of Mormon that those who desired to be called the people of God must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light [and be] willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:8–9.) When death occurs, we have a perfect opportunity to practice Christlike charity, to bring peace, comfort, and strength into the lives of those who suffer from the loss of a loved one. The words, the deeds, the caring will mean much.