Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dates to Remember

Should you ignore significant dates to your widowed friend because mentioning them will only make her re-live her pain? The answer is simple.  NO! Especially on significant dates, you want to let her know you are thinking of her.  From her point of view, she already feels alone and when people don't remember specific dates, it only makes her feel more alone.  Make sure to put these dates in your calendar and to reach out to her before or on these dates:

1) A week after the funeral - When many of the "to do's" are checked off, your widowed friend is going to be very aware of her husband's absence and is going to feel extremely alone even if there are multiple family members and friends physically around her.  We hear many widows say that when everyone moves back to their normal daily functions in the weeks after the funeral, they are still in a traumatic fog re-living the moment of his death. Everyone else moves on yet they can't because the moment they heard about his death, or they saw him die is constantly hovering in the forefront of their thoughts.
2) The one month anniversary of his death - this may seem weird to you but it won't be to the widow.  At this point, if the husband died on a Friday, they will be counting every Friday that has passed since his death. The one month milestone is one of the first realizations of dates continuing to happen while they are still frozen in grief.
3) The one year anniversary of his death - they will now have experienced all of their "first" everything without him and the one year mark is just the first of many years without him.
4) His birthday - She will still be remembering him on his birthday and will be glad someone else did too.
5) Her birthday - Everyone always wants to be remembered on their birthday but especially after they are spending their birthday without their loved one.
6) Their anniversary - Another hard date without him.
7) The holidays - Holidays are about creating memories. The first holiday without their husband is very tough because many widows are scared to create memories without him.  They will have many memories arise of wrapping presents together, holiday parties they attended, the children's responses to the excitement, etc and struggle through those bittersweet memories.

As a reminder, you may do these things and she may not respond.  Regardless, make sure to continue to remember her and these dates where she will struggle more than usual.   It will be appreciated regardless of response.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why Your Widowed Friend Loses Focus in the Middle of Her Sentences....Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

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

Over the last year, I've had the honor of meeting thousands of widows, and striking differences started to appear between widows who lost their husbands at a young age, and those whose husbands passed away in their later years.  As  I have been interacting with many widows, I started noticing similar patterns began to emerge. Many of these women were strong, business-minded women who had the world at their fingertips before their spouse passed.  Since then, they struggle to do simple life tasks of cleaning, laundry, paying bills, or signing their child up for an event.
My first experience with this came as a good friend entered her widowhood.  As a friend, I couldn't understand how she'd deteriorated so quickly from the capable woman I knew, and some days, I wanted to shake her and tell her to just sit down and do the task before her.  It became very frustrating for me when I saw things she needed to do that I couldn’t do for her, and she would say she would do them and then wouldn’t follow through.  It was procrastination to the Nth degree and could not understand why she wouldn’t do things that were very important for her and her children. 
Now that I've had the chance to interact with so many other widows, my friend's story is no longer unique. 
The second thing I've noticed is that many of these women wonder if they will ever get over the constant flashbacks of either the moment their husband died or when they received the news of his death.  One woman’s story sticks in my mind.  She wondered if she would ever get the taste of her husband’s blood out of her mouth from when doing CPR on her husband while trying to save his life.  She wondered if she would ever stop feeling the burn of her muscles from the constant chest compressions, hoping one more compression would bring him back to life.  She wondered if she would ever forget the feeling of sweat dripping down her face as she screamed at the phone, asking 911 how much longer until the ambulance arrived.  She wondered if she would ever forget the look of horror on her children’s face as they watched, mimicking her screams begging the 911 operator to save their dad. 
The amazing thing about this story is that I know 5 women who have almost this exact same story.
Most people's worry for a widow is, “What a sad situation. I hope she had life insurance. Hopefully she will remarry soon.”  What doesn't occur is the psychological impact.  For these women, their hopes and dreams of their future are intertwined with the existence of their husband.  Once he's gone, they don’t know how to move forward and will never, “get over it.”  Add that to the flashbacks of his death, the repeated nightmares when they close their eyes of attending their child’s sporting event and seeing their child melt down because their dad is not there or the big celebration they planned to have for their 20th wedding anniversary and he never shows up, and there you start to see the pattern of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Most people, when they think of the diagnosis of PTSD, they associate the term with military personnel, but it is very clear that this is happening with widows as well. 
A good example of PTSD triggers and how it can be explained in a short comparison to an experience most of us can relate to is when you ask someone about their “first love.” Immediately their demeanor changes to slight euphoria of the “memories” of their puppy love.  They will admit that when they hear specific songs on the radio, smell their old cologne/perfume, or pass a favorite spot, their thoughts bring them back to that era in their life where a feeling of sweetness and tenderness exists.  Well, those songs, smells, foods, and places are also triggers for widows.  Sadly, those triggers bring sweet memories but the trigger takes them to the future: dreams of vacations, events for their children, things they were going to do to the house, the leaky faucet they were going to fix, moments that are never going to play with their beloved husband now because their future has been torn away without an easy answer of replacement. 
Because of the PTSD association with the military, it is easy to sympathize with a military person who may never overcome the flashbacks and anxiety associated with what they saw while they were serving our country, yet we wonder why a widow hasn’t “moved on” after a short period of time, like 6 months.  Occasionally, people even go as far to say that once a widow remarries, she should “get over” the loss of her husband.  That logic would be similar to the comparison that if a parent experiences the loss of a child, having another child could replace the loss of that child's smile, laugh, or fun eccentricities and sweet hugs.  Many widows admit to their excellent acting skills.  To their family members and friends, they look like they are doing fine, yet inside they are seriously struggling. 
As a widow supporter, you can’t try to fix them.  You can support them and recommend they go to a therapist that specializes in grief and PTSD.  Even if children don’t witness the death, they are probably suffering from PTSD as well.  Children's suffering may be compounded because the surviving parent is in a black hole of grief, making them feel they've lost both parents and are silently suffering. 
Hopefully this has generated new insight into what emotionally is happening to a widowed friend and that this will be a catalyst to do more research on PTSD, and to increase sensitivy to what they are experience.

Here is additional information from an article on PTSD from
§         A normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when you become stuck.

§         While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms:
1.       Re-experiencing the traumatic event
o        Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
o        Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
o        Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
o        Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
o        Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

2.       Avoiding reminders of the trauma
o        Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
o        Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
o        Loss of interest in activities and life in general
o        Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
o        Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

3.       Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
o        Difficulty falling or staying asleep
o        Irritability or outbursts of anger
o        Difficulty concentrating
o        Hyper-vigilance (on constant “red alert”)
o        Feeling jumpy and easily startled

§         Symptoms of PTSD in children and adolescents
In children—especially those who are very young—the symptoms of PTSD can be different than the symptoms in adults. Symptoms in children include:
o        Fear of being separated from parent
o        Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
o        Sleep problems and nightmares without recognizable content
o        Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
o        New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
o        Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
o        Aches and pains with no apparent cause
o        Irritability and aggression

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional of any type.  I am merely a friend of a widow who wished that more information had been readily available to me when my friend’s husband died to better understand what she was going through