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What not to say: How to reach out to a young widow

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Michelle Eborn's husband died while she was pregnant with their fifth child in 2006. She's had to figure out a lot of things she never expected to deal with as a young widow.

Michelle Eborn’s husband died while she was pregnant with their fifth child in 2006. She’s had to figure out a lot of things she never expected to deal with as a young widow.

Kristin Brown

When Chris Eborn died in 2006, his wife Michelle was surrounded by great friends — neighborhood couples who’d traveled to St. George so the men could compete in a triathlon. Chris suffered a cardiac event while swimming and never finished the race.

The Eborns of Kaysville, Utah, were both 34 years old and had four kids. Michelle was pregnant with their fifth.

At the viewing, two young women — strangers — stood in front of her. You don’t know us, they said. But you will. We are young widows, too. And we will become great friends.

It was the birth of hope in a time of chaos and sorrow, Michelle Eborn remembers.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted 14.3 million Americans as widowed in 2010, the vast majority — 11.4 million — women. There’s a tendency to picture widowhood as a consequence of old age, yet about one-third of widows lose their spouse before age 45. Widowhood is not something young women are prepared for, and they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder to some degree, said Gwen Peterson, president of Hope for Widows Foundation. Their vision of their lives and plans for the future are shattered.

How to help — even just what to say — in the face of such loss is a challenge to those who love and long to comfort someone. Most people have no idea how to approach the topic of an untimely death.

“Who’s helping these women grieve?” asked Peterson, Michelle Eborn’s best friend. “Nobody. People don’t like to see people grieve.”

Peterson did everything she could think of to help Eborn, often even spending the night. But “those widows did for her what I could never do,” she said. “They kept her emotionally alive. She could call them at 4 a.m. and talk. She said she was in so much physical pain she did not know how she would survive.”

The two widows had survived that initial pain, and through them Eborn saw glimmers of a future. She could not yet see down the road to the remarriage that would come nearly eight years later, or to co-founding the support group Hope for Widows Foundation. But she dared to hope she’d make it through.

Just be there

Eborn is still stunned by the outpouring she felt and the ways people were willing to help her. But the biggest help was the simplest, she said. People showed up.

Friends brought meals and took her kids, including the newborn, so she could rest. They ran errands and they sat with her.

To really help, she said, don’t ask what you can do. Pick something and do it. “When your spouse dies, you don’t really know what you need. People worry about overstepping boundaries, so they don’t do anything. I probably would have said ‘nothing’ if you asked what you could do to help. But I needed help.”

Ellen Gerst of Phoenix, Arizona, was 39 when her husband took his life 19 years ago. They’d been together since they were teenagers and had sons who were 10 and 15. She believes he fell prey to a momentary panic, but it could not be undone.

She knew that “way off in the distance” she would be OK and made a decision to work toward that goal, but she worried about the boys. Someone from Survivors of Suicide told her children follow a parent’s lead: If she held in emotions, so would they. “If you show them it’s OK to express emotions, they will, too.”

She also took them to a children’s grief group, where they could explore their feelings and loss independent of her.

Gerst particularly appreciated concrete offers of help: the friend who took the initiative, instead of waiting to be asked, and said, “Make a shopping list, and I’ll go,” or the one who took her kids to school. Another helped her older son learn to drive, which Gerst was not up to right then.

Ryan Dunn, a doctoral candidate at Utah State University who is researching young widows for his dissertation, believes the best way to help is to meet the need you see. Widows may not know what they need or may feel uncomfortable asking for it. But those he interviewed were grateful for the people who mowed the lawn, shoveled driveways, or washed the dishes they saw in the sink. There is a special fondness for people who took young widows to the Social Security office or helped with taxes, Dunn said.

Now, if someone he knew became widowed, he said, he’d offer a hug and a “sorry.” For a handshake-type person, it would be a hand on the shoulder. He’d look around unobtrusively and try to figure out how to help. If people brought food, he’d swoop out and return with plates, napkins and forks, for instance. Or with permission he’d take the kids for a while.

“Mostly, I would sit and I would listen. Listening seems to be something that was wished for and fawned over. Another that came up over and over: bringing up the deceased by name and sharing stories of him. ‘You know what I loved about Steve? How he made the party come alive. Do you remember when he started his shirt on fire by lighting the sparklers?’ ”

A widow may not remember who brought or gave what. She never forgets that the Smiths came over and laughed with her and talked about him, Dunn said.

He emphasized the importance of inviting the widowed person to serve in church and school and other places. They can say no, but they may also welcome the opportunity.

What not to say

Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t, even if you also lost someone, Eborn said. She was also hurt by well-meaning church folks who said, “Aren’t you glad there’s a plan?” Her response: “I hate the plan.”

“Time heals” is another well-intentioned loser. Stick with “I’m sorry,” she and other widows agreed.

Gerst has her own list of what not to say, including “There are plenty of fish in the sea; you’ll find someone else.” And "God needed him more than you,” which she sincerely doubts.

The one that makes Alanna Mejias of Kempner, Texas, cringe is “It’s time to move on.” There is no moving on, said Mejias, widowed at 49. “There is moving forward and there is a new normal that everyone finds in time. I am still finding mine after 4½ years.”

She also warns that a widow needs to tell her story over and over “because it’s not real to us. People get tired of hearing it and they don’t want to listen.”

People think they must fill the silence, said Gerst, who writes books on caregiving and blogs about loss. “All you have to do is be there. I will sit with you while you cry. People also feel afraid to mention the person who died. The widow wants you to, wants him not to be forgotten.”

Most comments are well-intentioned, but sometimes one has to wonder, as in the case of one woman who offered: “If it makes you feel any better, I wish my ex was dead.”

Sitting together in silence is not a bad thing, Dunn said.

Continuing support

Dunn said many young widows have children to care for while they are at their most vulnerable and in need of care themselves. Often, they try to comfort their in-laws, who’ve suffered a huge loss, too.

“One thing that broke my heart to hear repeatedly was how at about two months people started to drop off. Support was gone," he said.

Experts say much of the advice on how to support young widows applies to any loss, but they also point to certain differences: For example, young widows are less likely than young widowers to remarry, and they take longer to do it. Though both sexes feel the death of a spouse deeply, they talk about it and possibly process it differently. Women are more apt to revisit the details of the loss repeatedly.

Hope for Widows Foundation was created primarily for women, Peterson said, precisely because research shows the genders grieve differently. The foundation will use the power of the Internet, which plays a significant role in widow support by bringing diverse women together, to offer online “how to cope with grief” webinars. They also plan on conferences.

Amber Sawaya, co-owner of Sawaya Consulting, watched a relative flail when her husband died; her company volunteered to create the widow-support site, donating hundreds of hours and raising money for it.

“When it happens,” Sawaya said, “no one knows what to say or do. We knew we could do a lot to help them.”

One of the most popular features of the site is the closed section, where users must be verified widows to participate in discussions. The women share tips and encourage each other. Blogs are written from different stages of the healing process.

Mejias’ husband of 28 years, Manuel, was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Because he lived 15 months, they “left nothing unsaid or undone. We had time to say goodbye and finish our life together. We were very blessed.”

Manny Mejias had the forethought to write a note for his son on the back of a favorite photograph. It became a treasured wedding present that mother and son cried over privately that morning with his best friend.

Both Manuel and Alanna Mejias were military; she said nearby Fort Hood has launched a project for military widows that includes helping them figure out practical steps to take care of themselves and their families.

Widows need online help and in-person help, too, Mejias said.

“Loss and grief are lessons for your entire life,” Gerst said. “When you reach a plateau, remember that’s a place where you can rest and decide in which direction you want to go.”

“Widows are vulnerable,” Dunn said. “Care for them and love them. At the other end, know they are strong and resilient and wonderful. ... Don’t exclude them and put them in Bubble Wrap.”

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