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


  1. Thank you so very much....

  2. I'm so glad I run across this article. I lost my husband at
    48. Lost a child 6 yrs. later and then another one a year after this one. I have felt so many of the things that were said. I has been 20 yrs. since all of this and I'm still feeling some of these things. I have been to counceling and it helped for awhile. I just keep thinking, I'm not a wife, mother, grandma, what I'm I? Thank you for writing and putting this out.

  3. Cherie, you are welcome!

    Anonymous, you are STILL all of those things. We are so sorry for both of your losses. This is Gwen responding and I wrote the article. A year after my friend's husband died, my sister's son died at the age of 15 years old. Even though I have never experienced either of these things personally, I would never question if Michelle is a wife or if Colleen is still his mother. A few resources that might benefit you is:

    1) Hope For Widows - you can find their page on Facebook and they have a closed group on Facebook called "Hope for Widows 501c3 CLOSED GROUP for Widowed Women" that has over 500 women sharing their experiences to realize that EVERYTHING they are feeling is normal and that they are not alone.
    2) Compassionate Friends - it is a peer to peer support group for people who have lost children. They have 560 chapters nationwide.
    3)PTSD therapist in your area - we see many widows mention that they have been to counseling but they don't feel it has moved them forward very far. Many counselors focus on anxiety and depression but they don't work on the specifics of PTSD helping you figure out your triggers, how to work through them and figure out how to lessen the grief.

    I hope these help a bit. Thank you for the feedback!

  4. There is another great group you can find online, founded by a fried of mine who lost her husband at a young age. It has evolved from a website of widows communicating with each other to a foundation that puts on a workshop / gathering called Camp Widow. Take a look at . I'm a therapist and I'm going to be speaking there on PTSD (August 2012).

  5. Hello. I am not a widow but my very dear friend became widowed a year ago as a result of a car accident. I have tried to be a support for her but I believe I've failed miserably. It seems she wants no help from me. I may have tried too hard to be there for her but am beginning to feel rejection from her. I don't want to desert her but at the same time I don't want to smother her with my caring. I've been told that widowhood is something one will not understand until it's experienced. I understand that. What I don't understand is that grief hits so hard for the friends of the widow too yet we are not suppose to express it with the widow. What am I to do? I've tried suggesting we spend time together and that has been done on occasion but it seems harder now to have it happen. Even phone conversations are becoming short and cut off within a certain time limit. She only talks when she is in her car it seems and time is very limited. My husband and I as well as our children care deeply for her since we've all been friends for over 30 years. We've done dinner together several times since her husband's death but the signs are all out there that our friendship is going by the wayside and its her choice to have it happen. The grief of losing a friend to accidental death is hard to handle but the grief of losing a friend because she is now in a different lifestyle is even harder to accept. It's her choice, not an accident. I love her dearly but am at a total loss in how to respond to her. Any advice is appreciated.

    1. Dear Anonymous, Reading your comments, I would say that your friend is not rejecting you, and your relationship is not going by the wayside. It has simply changed, and your friend has changed. He life as she knew it has been torn apart; and she is picking up remnants of it, trying to figure out what to do with them.
      Your relationship and hers has changed against her will, because SHE has changed. She is not the same person she was and never will be.
      I would say that the best thing you can do for her and for your relationship is to wait patiently and practice PRESENCE. Stay available, keep your listening ear open, and your compassionate heart on. As she heals, she will start realizing how faithful you've been and your friendship will blossom into a newer, richer one.

  6. Now I finally can begin to understand what the hell I've been going through for the past year and a half. Thank goodness I am not the only one who feel defective and caught up in drastically reduced capabiities.

  7. A widow is a woman whose spouse has died, while a widower is a man in that situation. The state of having lost one's spouse to death is termed widowhood. These terms are not applied to a person after he or she becomes divorced from their former spouse.