Thursday, July 28, 2011

Supporting a widow: it's a journey not a destination

By Vi - Friends of Widows Co-Founder

Being an emotional supporter for a widow is not easy. Our widowed friends don’t come with instruction manuals about how to handle their bouts of crying, their bitterness, anger, silent treatments, and everything in between.

If you have chosen to be an emotional supporter to your widowed friend try to remember that she is on a journey. She does not know her destination, or what her “new normal” will be… and neither do you. You may feel that you know best how she should be progressing through grief. You may feel that she should be “past” this or that by now, but as her supporter and friend, it is not your job to tell her where she should be or what she should be doing. It is your job to support her where she is, not where she isn’t.  

Supporting a person who has lost their significant other is completely different than any other type of emotional support you could give some one. In a normal friendship, most tough situations that your friend might be faced with come and go relatively quickly. If you help a regular friend through her break up, you are quickly helping her back onto her feet. She can “get over it” in a few weeks/months and will usually be back to normal. Supporting a widow is completely different. Her life is FOREVER changed. Acknowledge that. Respect that. Don’t try to change it. Her life and future plans have been completely altered and affected by her widowhood, and they can’t be “put back on track” in a few months, or even

I think often times we begin supporting our widowed friends the same way we would support any one else through any other crisis big or small. We then wonder why our witty sayings, our profound things we believe will be “her answer,” or our fruit baskets don’t make it all better. It is important for us to understand that supporting a widow is completely different than any other supportive relationship you may or ever will participate. One of the most helpful things for me to hear was the phrase (spoken to me by another widow) “you cannot fix her”. That took awhile to sink in, because I am naturally a “fixer”, and I think a lot of the struggles in my relationship with Rachel were coming from me feeling like I was a failure of a friend because I was not doing a good job “fixing” her by having the right answer how to alleviate her grief.

Do not go into your relationship with her expecting to be the “one” who says the magical right words that get her “back on track” and allow her to embrace life with a smile again. Those magic words do not exist. Nothing you say or do will “fix” her. Allow that to sink in….Nothing you say or do will fix her. Just as nothing can bring her significant other back. You can give her all the love you have in your heart, and it will still wont be enough because it is not be the love of her beloved.

This may sound depressing, and for a go-getter/problem solver like myself, it would almost make me want to give up. “If I can’t fix it, then why bother?” The answer is because you can offer love. You can offer support at whatever stage of the journey she is in. She has been abandoned by her best friend, lover, and the one she was committed to spending the rest of her life with. The future that was once bright and filled with wonder, now seems dull, cold and gray, and filled with nothing but lonely tears. She may be at the point where she can not see light and not feel love. What she needs is some one to come along side her to be a little warmth, light and love.

Choosing to be that friend, that warmth and the little light of love is a selfless act. She probably does not have the same personality that you have known and loved for so many years. She probably cries more that she laughs, and may speak many a harsh word to you when you are trying to help. Don’t regret choosing to help. She may not have the strength to thank you today, or even this year, but continue sharing love with her. Continue walking down the path with her. Don’t choose her destination for her. Don’t tell her that she has to have any specific destination. Sit with her when she does not have the strength to walk and remind her it’s ok to cry. Show her she is not abandoned and forgotten. Take your cues from her. Figure out her needs and minister to them. Each widow receives and responds to the love of a friend in different ways, so you have to discover for yourself the best, specific, ways to support and love your friend. Just know that being there on the journey with her is a good place to start.

Be willing to be the friend that she needs. Be willing to be the one that loves her through her tears. Be willing to be the one that may never be publicly recognized, but is slowly, step by step, helping her find herself again.

It is a heart wrenching, delicate journey of recovery and love. Don’t be afraid to step on the road beside her and be a hand to hold, and a shoulder to cry on. She will travel this road at her own pace and in her own way. Don’t tell her how to travel it, just tell her you will be with her along the way.

Keep in mind that when supporting a widow you will not get the physical encouragement of watching her “recover” in a week, as you would when supporting some one through a small hardship. But you will know that you are helping her life have a little bit of light, and sharing love with a person who may be wondering if there is any love left in the world for her.

There will also be times that you receive the silent treatment or receive bitter, harsh words from her.  It is easy for a supporter to say, “I would never treat anyone this way if my spouse died.” Here is the truth: We do not know how we would be functioning if the roles were reversed. Do not compare how you “believe” you would grieve to her grieving process.  Try not to take her anger that is being displaced toward you personally.  This is not easy. I know. Just know that she probably doesn’t realize how she is acting.  There is a fine line that you will need to determine regarding supporting her through her anger and maybe needing to take a break, and let her know that no matter how much she is grieving, it isn’t ok for her to treat you this way. This is a very touchy subject, something that needs to be handled carefully and with much grace.

Don’t give up hope supporters. Remember the beautiful heart of your friend, even as it is broken, is hidden under much grief. Remember her, and remind her through love, who she is. <3

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Supporting a widow: after the funeral

*This post is the first in a series we will be doing called “supporting a widow:” Each post will give ideas and/or resources for supporting a widow through different stages of grief and in different walks of life. But because each person grieves differently there isn't a "5 step" easy process to helping your friend through her grief. These posts are just to be used as guidelines or starting points for you to use as you figure out how you can best support your friend. Each widow is unique just as each person is, so part of your job as a supporter is to “custom build” a plan about how you can best show your support to your friend. We offer you support, and a place to begin. *

The time between your friend losing their spouse and the funeral seems to pass in the blink of an eye.  There are so many to-do’s that everyone stays busy and adrenaline keeps everyone moving.  Once the funeral is over, we as supporters often ask ourselves, “Now what?”. The first question you should ask yourself is:

Are you a physical or emotional supporter?

I (Gwen) am a “doer” which makes me a physical supporter. After Michelle’s husband died, I immediately jumped in doing the dishes, laundry, shopping, etc. Of course, I was a emotional supporter also but, many of the lengthy cries with Michelle, were filled by other friends while I was in the background doing the dishes! I am not sure why I seem to leave the dishes in the sink at my own house though!

I (Violet) am also a doer by nature. So since Rachel and I live in different states after her husband’s funeral I assumed that because of our circumstances, there was nothing I could really do to support her. But now, I have become an emotional supporter for Rachel, I call her every few days, check up her via email, send her cards in the mail on important days etc. I do these things to make sure she knows she is not forgotten. Even if you are a ‘doer’ by nature you may find that because of circumstances in your own life or family emotional support may be how you need to show your love for your friend.

In this article, I (Gwen again) will mainly address the physical supporter with some resources that cover the emotional supporter.  I realize that there is a fine line between supporting and enabling your widowed friend.  I have heard many widows’ supporters ask how to define this line.  (blog post on this very topic coming soon!) Unfortunately there isn’t a specific answer that fits every relationship. My suggestion is to imagine the time when the widow will be able to start reengaging in life an how that transition is going to affect them.  In my situation, many of us supporters jumped in and fulfilled every duty of Michelle’s life for many months.  She literally sat on her couch and cried for months while everyone not only was fulfilling the physical needs of her house but, people were stepping in to discipline her children, get them bathed, etc. because she had ‘shut down’. I now know this "shut down is 100% normal and to be expected. I personally believe doing EVERYTHING for the widow is a disservice.  She was continually saying she was afraid people would forget about her and continue living their lives when her life was never going to be the same again.  Because everyone was performing every function of her household and child rearing, when people finally did need to get back to their lives, it added to her feelings of abandonment and loneliness and it took a lot for her to reengage since everyone had been doing everything for her. 

I AM NOT SAYING that supporters should sit back and let your widowed friend figure life out on their own. I am saying to assist them into learning how to single parent and run a household on their own and don’t take over their life like I did.  Ask them what they think they can do and what they would like you to do. I know all of us "well doers" caused Michelle’s transition back into life a lot harder.

There may be some things or decisions that your friend cannot handle at first, that is okay. But instead of doing the grocery shopping for her every time, offer to do it with her instead. Same goes for laundry and cooking. You can do it for her some, but oftentimes offer to do it with her.

Something else you can do to help your friend is to connect her with other widows. A great avenue for this is the Hope for Widows Facebook Page - a closed group for widowed women. There, she can find people to emotionally support that really understand what she is going through, because they are going through it too.

There are so many resources that weren’t available 4 years ago when Michelle’s husband died.  I have recently found the resources listed below.  People gave Theresa quite a few books but Theresa was not ready to read a book for many months after her husband died.  After a few months, I started reading the books people had given her and that when I felt I finally started to gain some understanding. Chances are, your widowed friend won’t be ready to read a book either so you will probably need to read the book yourself to know how to help your widowed friend.  Here are a few resources I wish had been available after the funeral:

1. For the immediate household organization, financial things to figure out, and just figuring out how to help her get her ducks in a row, I like the book “SOLO-Getting It All Together When You Find Yourself Alone” by Roslyn Reynolds, you can buy it here.  She is LDS which is a Christian faith so a few of the things on her to do list are related to the LDS faith.  Most of those items can be substituted for any religion.  Her to-do list is the most thorough I have read thus far regardless what religion you choose to believe. 

2. For learning how to single parent, How Tough Mom’s Succeed In Tough Times by Tiffany Berg and can be purchased here.  It is my understanding that her website is being reworked so if you don’t find the actual place to purchase the book, you can email her at tiffany (at) tiffanyberg(dot)com and she will give you the correct information.  This book is EXCELLENT for any parent either single or married.  I laughed and cried through this book because I was able to look at my parenting skills and apply a few things.  (I use the word few loosely!)

3. The basics for a widow to quickly learn how to function immediately after the funeral through the next 90 days, I really like an article written by Linda Della Donna called For the New Widow: Ten Tips To Help Her Survive…After the Funeral.  She has an entire series of articles, they are great resources for a new widow. She has written many articles for friends of widows as well. These articles will be in your best interest to read to know what the widow is thinking and feeling. You can find these articles and more great resources on Linda’s website.

For those of you offering emotional support, we could write an entire novel on what to do.  Ellen Gerst has the perfect saying to describe the decisions ahead for a widow.  She says, “You will either DECIDE to just SURVIVE by going through the motions of life without the emotions, OR you will DECIDE to THRIVE. THE DECISION IS YOURS. You can make a conscious decision to move forward through your grief journey in order to find a place of peace, acceptance, and personal renewal, or you can decide to stay stuck in sadness forever. Over time, you must learn to put your grief in perspective and let it work for you, rather than be its slave. It is not possible to go back in time before your loss. Your ultimate power lies in how you respond to the new circumstances of your life.” This is a very touchy subject for a non-widow to discuss with a widow because we have not walked in their shoes.  If the widow you are supporting is choosing to survive, Ellen’s website has a great article called, “101 Tips and Thoughts on Coping with Grief”. 

Remember that has the friend of a widow, it is not your job to tell her how to grieve or when she should be doing or not doing things. Your job is to support her as she grieves in her way. Offering emotional support to a widow can be a daunting task because she will not be “fixed” by you. All the support and love you can offer will not make it all better, but it can help her to know that she has not been abandoned by every one, and she is still loved. And something a simple of that is essential to a widow (and every one really).

I hope these resources and tips can assist you to gain a bit more insight into what a widow is feeling and how to best support her after the funeral.  As the supporter of a widow, I had many people judging me on if my actions were enabling, supporting, not enough, etc for Theresa.  What I know is that if you move forward with a prayer in your heart to have God and her soul mate both watching you from heaven and assisting you with her needs, that you will know how best to serve your widowed friend.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Family Balance

As a friend of a widow, people often come to me seeking advice about how to help their recently widowed friends. Normally, I find myself rattling off a million ideas but hadn’t really formulated a standard answer. As I have meditated and prayed for answers on how to assist others in their journey of supporting a widow, my answer has become very clear. The answer is simple.  It is to take a step back from the emotion of the situation and discuss with your spouse/significant other and/or children how you as a family would like the support for the widow to look like.  I will tell you my story first and then how I arrived at my answer.

When I received the call 4+ years ago that my best friend Michelle’s husband died, I jumped into overdrive. Unfortunately, I have seen two extremes of support.  First, people either jump into high gear like me or, they feel so overwhelmed by grief, they don’t do anything.  I believe most people immediately put themselves into the widow’s shoes and move forward with actions balancing between what they think they would want done for themselves if they were widowed, and what they think should be done. I too started doing the balancing act along with hearing Michelle saying over and over, “I don’t want people to forget about me,” and “I can’t believe I am doing this alone.” From the first night after her husband died, a few friends and I spent the night at her house for multiple months because she didn’t want to sleep alone and she had young children. We all spent many days at her house assisting her to just breathe. Understandably, it took a long time before she was ready to take back the cooking, cleaning, child rearing, etc from those of us who had stepped in. This is her story. What I didn’t stop to think about was, “What did my story look like during my role of supporter?”

Here is my story: I have an amazing husband and young children. I am so lucky that my husband didn’t leave me for abandoning him during Michelle’s time of grief. If asked, my husband says, “Our life became hers. When my wife wasn’t physically at her house, either Michelle or someone not knowing what to do for Michelle was calling my wife.” My husband married me for my drive and compassion, so my behavior was a bit expected. When the time came, I know it took a lot of courage for him to say, “I need you. I need you to be here when you are here. Chances are, there is a tomorrow and these phone calls from her and others can be answered tomorrow. Please let our time together be about us and our family, not about her and her grief.” What an amazing man I married. WOW.

I began to separate the times with Michelle and my family but because my Michelle had become so dependent on me, I wasn’t sure how to get my own life back when I had been at her house almost every weekday for 6 months. I started to crumble especially because “spectators” were happy to give me their opinions regarding the support everyone was giving
Michelle and if it was enabling her not allowing her to move forward or, if we weren’t doing enough for her. I went to a therapist that discussed boundaries and the immediate need for some in my relationship with Michelle. Of course the therapist also had to go through how to overcome the guilt of wanting my own life back and the fact that I still had my husband and she didn’t. The therapist said that I needed to put myself first because I wasn’t giving anyone including myself the energy everyone needed. I realized that I was carrying around so many feelings of anger thinking everyone wanted 110% of me without regard to what it was costing me personally. What I quickly learned is that I WAS CREATING THE SITUATION…. no one was forcing me to behave the way I had been behaving by putting myself last, my family second and my widowed friend and her situation first.
Long story short, I am still happily married and Michelle is still my best friend. After pondering the events of the first 6 months after Michelle’s husband’s death, I now know what the first piece of advice I will give anyone supporting a widow from this day forward. My answer is to immediately sit down with their family and determine what supporting their widowed friend is going to look like for their family. Every hour you support a friend, whether they are widowed, divorced or other, is an hour away from your family. Together, you need to create a plan of how serving the widow and their family this should look. A few of the suggestions that came from the therapist are: 

1) Discuss with your spouse/significant other what level of communication they would feel comfortable for you to be receiving/giving during their time with you.

2) Communicate to the widow that you are not available if/when she calls during family times so that she does not feel abandoned.  Explain that there are only so many hours in a day and the people you love deserve for you to give each of them individually, the one on one time they ought to have.

I received a call from a man asking my opinion on how his family could support his best friend’s wife after the best friend had just passed away. I asked him what had been going through his mind regarding what they could do to help. He stated that there were repairs that needed to be done around her home, yard work to be done, etc and that he was planning on getting to work on those things. I asked him how his wife was going to feel 3 months down the road when he is doing more repair work on his friend’s widow’s home than on his own, how he thought his wife would feel. He sat quiet for a few minutes and then said, “I hadn’t thought through that far, I was just thinking about her immediate needs and how I could help.”  Listening to him being ready to jump into his call to action, is when I got the answer to my first piece of advice to anyone supporting a widow, which is, create a plan as a family. I never stopped to think how my support was affecting others around me, especially my family. 

I am not a therapist, I am not a coach, and I am just a person who always strives to learn from my past. My answer to anyone asking for advice from this day forward is that their first step must be having a family meeting regarding how they best feel they can support the widow and move forward accordingly. When life is out of balance, there isn’t anything that is getting the full attention it deserves.  I realize that people do either too much or too little because often time, they did not discuss it with their family first.

~ Problems arise in that one has to find a balance between what people need from you and what you need for yourself. ~ Author Unknown

By Gwen - Co Founder of Friends of Widows & Hope for Widows