Six ways to help those grieving loss of spouse

I looked at the dozen men and women sitting around the table, slowly shook my head, and said, “I don’t want to be one of you people.”

They laughed.

By now, most of them knew me well enough to recognize that I was kidding. And telling the truth.

By now, I knew most of them well enough to recognize that they felt the same.

Each of us was so glad we had “found” this room, this table, these people: a monthly support group for widows and widowers. Each of us wanted to not fit in. To not need ... this.

Widowhood is an exclusive club that no one wants to join because the price of admission is way too high. We’re a cliquish, secretive bunch who are tight-lipped about our new lives and latest challenges when we’re around “nonmembers.”

That’s so whether the gathering is formal (such as a support group) or informal (visiting with a family member or friend who’s recently or longtime widowed). Around each other, we talk and talk and talk. And we cry. And we laugh. We share memories and heartaches, speak of regrets and fears and gain comfort and courage.

In a support-group setting, together — month after month, meeting after meeting — we tell of making our way in this strange new world. Taking baby steps forward or enduring sizable setbacks. Making discoveries about ourselves. Surviving birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas and ... on and on.

Day by day. Night by night.

While the details of our circumstances are unique from person to person, the theme of each of our stories is identical: “I had a happy marriage that ended too soon, and now I’m devastated.” That’s so if a couple was together only a few years or many, many decades.

There are never enough years in a happy marriage.

My story

Yes, no marriage is perfect, but some are incredibly happy. I was blessed. Mine was one of those.

Monica and I married in 1974. We raised three children and have two grandchildren. Beginning in the early 1990s, we wrote family columns for Catholic News Service and the Knights of Columbus magazine, Columbia. We wrote books together and edited My Daily Visitor magazine. In 2005, we started the Friends of St. John the Caregiver, an international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers.

In early 2010, Monica was diagnosed with uterine cancer. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she had a 20 percent chance of surviving five years. The cancer returned in early 2012 and we were told she had, at most, a year to live.

She died in January 2013. Both of us were 60.

I thought I was ready. I was ... and I wasn’t. I think I was as ready as someone can be. But, I very soon realized, it’s not possible to be truly ready.

I tell my story here because that’s often how the support group meeting begins. We each have the opportunity to tell our story and, for a newcomer, it may be the first time that person has had a chance to give voice to his or hers. To share previously unspoken details to a group of people who are able to listen, understand and empathize.

It’s a safe place. A comforting place. And, I’m sure — although I’ve never heard anyone there use this word to describe it — a holy place.

We each can say, “I know what widowhood is like for me,” now clearly aware that just as every marriage is unique, so is a widow’s or widower’s grief.

The secrets of widowhood

Sometimes the conversation drifts to what we wished we had known before all this happened so that we could have better supported widowed loved ones, friends and acquaintances. We wish someone had told us some of the “secrets of widowhood.” And sometimes I tell those at the table — those people, my people — I’m sharing their secrets.

“I’m ratting you out,” I say, and again they laugh.

And so, with their approval, here are six things they’d like you to know:

1. I don’t talk about what’s really going on, because you probably think, just as I thought, that after six months, a year, 10 or more years, I should be “over it.”

Or that I am over it. Time doesn’t completely heal all wounds. The grief of widowhood diminishes, but it’s like a chronic condition that I learn to live with, knowing it can flare up at any time.

2. I know it’s hard for you to say “the right thing” when you see me for the first time after my spouse died.

But please don’t tell me you know exactly how I feel. (Please don’t mention you had a cat that died!) There is no one-size-fits-all “right thing.” In fact, it’s comforting when you admit, “I don’t know what to say.” Tell me you’re sorry she died. Tell me she and I are in your prayers. Tell me a story about her. Something wonderful or funny you remember.

3. Don’t be afraid to talk about my wife just because that makes me cry.

It’s so much worse to have no one say her name. To have so many family members and friends act as if she never existed. My crying doesn’t bother me. I’ve become a world-class crier. I’m not offended or upset if you send an email or call me on her birthday or our wedding anniversary or the date of her death. I love that! Love it, love it, love it!

4. Now my happiest moments can also have a sad undertone to them.

My son is graduating from college! My daughter is getting married! I have my first grandchild! And this is happening ... without my beloved wife by my side. It was supposed to be “us” celebrating this event. And it’s “me.” Only “me.” It helps to know you’re aware of her absence, too, if we reminisce a little about her.

5. I’m not the same person I was before she died.

I live on the same planet, but it’s a different world without her. This huge loss is made up of countless small losses that are a part of my days. And nights.

6. You can help, and you do help, by graciously inviting me to gatherings even if I continue to say “no thanks.”

By your understanding if, at the last minute, I call to say I can’t come. By being patient if, when I’m there, I’m distracted sometimes. Even in the middle of a crowd of loved ones, sometimes I’m lonely because, in a very basic way, I am there alone. But your ongoing support and understanding and prayers mean a great deal to me. They continue to make a huge difference as I stumble along. And I’m so very grateful for them.

And you.

Bill Dodds’ latest novels are “Mildred Nudge: A Widower’s Tale” and “The World’s Funniest Atheist.” He can be contacted at BillDodds@YourAgingParent.com.