Widowhood during COVID-19 Part Two
BY MARGUERITE OBERLE THOMAS
These columns are mostly about what other bereaved persons shared, plus my own personal experiences. I have co-authored this piece with several other mourners.
“I’m hungry for Annie’s potato salad,” said my long-time friend Ken. It was summer and not a surprising statement. His mother-in-law and my mother would have used the same homemade salad dressing recipe that made it so good. Had we lived closer, the mumsy in me could have bustled about and whipped up a batch of potato salad. But then, COVID-19 means that we don’t travel. More quickly, the nursy in me heard not just that potato salad would be a treat, but that it was code for, “I miss Annie. I miss the good times we had in the summer when potato salad was part of the menu and I want to talk about Annie”. So, we did.
During my years as a psychiatric nurse, we had a motto “Don’t just do something, sit there”. It is way easier – 1,000 times easier – to bustle about and whip up a batch of potato salad than it is to sit and share ourselves with someone who is experiencing pain. We generally tend to be uncomfortable when someone cries in front of us, or on the phone, and we feel an anxiety to move them past that obvious pain and to a less emotional conversation. Pain is such a part of the human condition, yet our skill at dealing with it in others is not something that we generally do well.
Thank you for reading that uncomfortable opening. When the first widowhood article was published in early December, we didn’t know what the response would be. I asked for readers to send feedback and I was amazed and gratified to see the huge outpouring that followed. There were approximately 200 Facebook likes, comments, e-mails and personal contacts that expressed just how many people are mourning, how they felt and how they would like others to treat them.
I asked readers to share what was annoying, horrible and helpful. The most repeated theme from those mourning was the inability of others to comfort or to comfort graciously. They despised, “he’s in a better place” when the only place they wanted him to be was right here. They really found it difficult how others were so uncomfortable with a tear or a choke in the voice. Often, mourners just wanted to be heard and didn’t need a response, just not a pulling away. So, do talk about the person lost if you sense that the mourner wants to do that. The lost love is always on the mind of mourners and great memories are greatly appreciated.
During these times, sometimes offering a virtual hug can be a strong thing to do. Losing a spouse is more than losing the person who hugged you. It is losing the future you thought you had and the daily routine that you did have.
It can be really hard to be told to have a wonderful day or a great day when your heart has just been ripped out. Almost eight months later, I am ready to have some wonderful parts in my days, but it sure didn’t feel right in the earlier days. Other annoyances others mentioned included the loss of being a couple, which meant not being invited to social functions by other couples. COVID-19 has dampened social functions for sure, but this comment also came from the era before the pandemic.
Along with that, widows miss all the little jobs that husbands used to do readily. The new reality is a reluctance to ask someone else’s husband to do a small job that needs to happen. The saving grace for me here in Brussels is that a community resident, Peter Jaycock, has taken over the role that my late husband Bob had in being a local handyman, lawn mower and snow shoveler. I have counted on my brothers-in-law, Murray and Kevin for car and home issues. I had other helpers, but, like many widows, I find it most comfortable to hire and pay someone who charges very reasonable rates. Handy helpers are heroes.
In the early days, it is difficult to make decisions. So, if you are a helper, please find ways so that choices are not onerous. It may be helpful to simply ask, “do you want to decide on a lunch menu or would you just like me to do it?” Mood varies by the minute and the bereaved may want favourite items or may simply not care. The pandemic precludes big gatherings, but even in the intimate bubble, people still do need to eat.
Other simple helpful communications are not to say, “I know exactly how you feel”, because you can’t. And please don’t follow it up with your own problems, whatever they may be. Early days just mean getting by, not being able to give back. And in that vein, just be forgiving if the bereaved says or does something that is repetitive or could be taken wrong. Early days are about surviving, not being high-functioning. Those left behind spoke about feeling a fuzziness and not being able to concentrate. It was hard to do even simple things like following a recipe.
Difficulty with being able to focus was a problem for many of the logistical items, such as decisions around the funeral, cancelling a cell phone or questioning car maintenance. It can be a true gift to ask to go along to help with those appointments, even when the pandemic complicates these interactions. Those newly bereaved have said, “my head just isn’t working right”, especially when it comes to remembering everything. Brain fog makes it hard to respond appropriately to sympathy and kindness from others. Don’t take it personally.
Although each loss is different, mourners shared some things that they liked to hear:
• I think of you – please accept my sincere condolence. I am so sorry for your loss
• I know it is difficult and I just wish you the best. My heart goes out to you
• I feel for you and know that you lost a wonderful person. He was so happy with you
• I know that it is tough, and I am here for you. Is there something that I can do for you today
• I brought you these groceries and a hot meal
• I can sit with you for a while if you wish. Please tell me how things are with you today
• I am just calling to see how you are doing. I think of you fondly and you are on my mind.
The last one is especially important. Don’t treat your relationship as if the widow died when the spouse did. Remember the most beautiful five words in the English language that you can say and mean, are “How can I help you?” And then do it.
As for those early day sad times – don’t be fooled. Ken and other mourners will tell you that those sad times visit often and unexpectedly even much later: sometimes strong, sometimes bittersweet and sometimes with tenderness or humour, but they never really go away. We learn to live with loss, but we don’t get over it. As singer/songwriter Jann Arden recently posted, “you have to have had a vast love in order to miss somebody. Grief is the lingering gift of love”. It is also the loss of love. Please - just be present, just be a friend.
Want to contribute to the next column? The topic will be how the bereaved can help themselves. To contribute to these columns, please e-mail me at email@example.com or contact Citizen Editor Shawn Loughlin at 519-523-4792 to leave your phone number. I promise to call you back. Advice can be shared anonymously with full confidentiality.