What To Say To People
Telling people is hard. I sat with an address book on the night of Wednesday April 8th and I went through it, calling all the people who loved Charlie to tell them that he had died at 5.30 that afternoon.
It was hard as hell, but it had to be done.
Breaking the news to people who have known your husband for longer than you have is something that takes a lot of courage, but if you value your husband’s friends as I did, then you will do it for them. It should ideally be done as soon as you feel up to it, preferably on the same day, but if you are too upset to speak to anybody, then try to find somebody close who can do it for you. The last thing you want to happen is for your late husband’s close friends and family to find out via another person, because once the news gets out you will be amazed by how fast it spreads.
You should not expect people to be able to talk to you for long, because they are likely to be stunned by the news. Just tell them the basic details and ask them to call you when they can.
Telling close friends and family is never easy, but it does have its advantages. Hopefully, once the initially difficult ‘phone call is out of the way, you will receive offers of help and support, both of which are vital to you at this time. If you’re lucky and have friends that truly care about you, then they should know the right things to say to you. They should know when to speak and when to be silent.
It is not your friends that you have to worry about – it is your acquaintances.
In an ideal world, when a widow goes to collect her late husband’s death certificate she will also be given a minder, bearing a wad of leaflets.
The minder would be employed to walk in front of the widow when she appeared in public, distributing the leaflets to anyone who looked likely to approach her.
On the leaflets would be the following statement:
‘Her husband has just died.
No, she didn’t expect it.
This was as much a shock for her as it is for you.
If you feel too paralysed with embarrassment to talk to her about it, then please pretend you haven’t seen her; walk past and think about what you would like to say to her when you next meet.
If you do want to speak to her then please think very carefully about what you want to say. I would suggest asking how she is, listening for a minute or so, and then saying goodbye.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to talk to you, it’s just that she can’t. She can’t talk to anybody at the moment without breaking down.
Thank you for your co-operation.’
Of course it would be impractical, but it would save an awful lot of distress.
It is sad but true that some of the most painful words you are likely to hear will come from well-meaning people who feel that saying something totally inappropriate is better than saying nothing at all. Glib statements are painful at the best of times, but in the first few days after your husband’s death they will be unbearable. Ill-chosen words have the ability to penetrate the numbed-out world that you inhabit like tiny darts of consciousness. They wake you up; they remind you of what you are and where you are. They hurt.
C.S. Lewis compared the feeling of having to appear in public soon after being widowed as a kind of leprosy. People will avoid you, not because they are afraid of coming away from a handshake with more fingers than they started with, but because they find it too difficult to know what to say. But sometimes it is impossible to avoid people. You cannot hide away forever and when you do go out there will be nothing about your demeanour that suggests anything other than total normality. You will have to tell all sorts of people news that will shock them into silence. You will have to say it in shops, at school, on the bus and at work. You will have to make yourself say words that wound you with every syllable. You will have to repeat those words over and over again through your own tears and the wide-eyed disbelief of the person you are telling.
And somewhere along the line there will be an un-thinking person who listens to those words and then says, ‘There are so many people worse off than you.’ Or ‘So, how are you managing without a husband?’ Or, ‘You’ll find each day will be a little easier.’ Or some other rubbish that they have picked up in a supermarket self-help book and which they feel qualifies them to tell you how you should be feeling right now.
You can’t escape them – all you can do is pity them, turn your back and walk away.
People use platitudes as a replacement for personal experience, substituting insensitivity for insight.
If in doubt, don’t say it.