What to say

In A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates shows how she was driven slightly demented by “the sympathy siege”. Most of us experience a version of this so here are a few ideas on how to push back.


In the days after her husband’s death, Joyce Carol Oates describes how her house fills with gifts of large floral arrangements and baskets of gourmet food. She is constantly running back and forth to answer the door to delivery men who are not quite sure what to say. She feels guilty for not writing thank you notes, not feeling grateful and furious at her husband for putting her in this situation. She rips the cellophane and the contents and stands in freezing rain trying to cram the gifts into a rubbish bin.


When a bad thing happens people want to help. Those on the receiving end of a bad thing could usually use some kind of special treatment. But too often the help given makes the situation worse and the social pressure of not saying so, adds to the misery of the person in need. How did we arrive at such a big disconnect?


While pondering that, here are some simple things to say, so that at least you can stop puzzling over whether you’re saying the right thing. And a heads up: for some people, nothing you say will be the right thing. Everyone’s upset and frankly acting a bit weird; trying to control this is like trying to stop rain from falling so save your energy for you.


Thank you cards:


Thank you so much for your thoughtful card


Thank you for your kind words at the funeral. Your support on such a tough day means a great deal to me


Thank you for the beautiful flowers. I appreciate the kind thought and will be in touch soon.


Thank you for organising the donation to the collection at the funeral. Your generosity means more than I can say and my whole family was very moved



In response to “Is there anything I can do?”:


If you need someone to go with you to an appointment or to move a heavy box in the garage, say so.


If you really can’t think of anything and just want to divert attention, try:


Could you write any stories of times you spent with him/her and send them to me? And copies of any photos


Would you be my IT support person? Not today but just on call if I need to ask anything?


In a few months time, when I want to go to the cinema or theatre or for a coffee, will you join me then?


Could you get me a jar-opener, a spider catcher and a big sack of gritting salt?


To let a group of people do something helpful while giving you breathing space, suggest they do some fundraising for a local charity or service that has helped you or your loved one. If they need help in starting, ask one person to take the lead.


And if you do find yourself cramming unwanted gifts into your rubbish bin in the middle of the night, don’t feel guilty. Widows around the world are doing exactly the same thing and some day we’ll all work out a better way of showing we care.


Image by iStock.com / Ridofranz

First published in Widows and Widowers magazine, Issue 13



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