A Brief Grief Manual for Living, Dying and Dating
by Ronni Burns
Recently an acquaintance of mine lost her husband. I suspect many of us struggle in this situation with what to say as well as how and when to say it. Call? Email? Send a card? Visit? Take them out? Now? Later? Reach out? Let them be? I lost my husband in an instant in January, 2016 and there are two things I wanted to share. 1. I wanted her to consider that everyone grieves differently and moves on differently and that she will find her own way in her own time. 2. I wanted to prepare her that even with the best intentions, people will say things that are not helpful and maybe even painful. Remember they mean well. Often, they are dealing with their own emotions; this loss may trigger memories of other losses they’ve had, and frequently at this time people fear their own mortality and say things to help soothe themselves.
#1. Everyone grieves differently and moves on differently
I am especially aware of this now that I am dating again. When people hear you are a widow it often triggers primal reactions such as pity (you poor thing), fear (“black widow”), and freeze (what do I say?). After the initial shock, they weigh in and freely offer opinions about my timetable and readiness to find a partner. One (divorced) gentleman I went out with remembered reading that it takes one year of grieving for every year you were married. Okay, maybe for some people. Your point is? (BTW all divorces aren’t the same and divorced people move on differently, too). Another date asked if I was really ready. Ready? For what? Heartbreak? Loss? Intimacy? Sharing? Caring? Exploring? I deeply understand there are no guarantees. And then there was the widower (BTW there are many men that refer to themselves as widows not widowers) who only wanted to date widows because they would understand him. Really? Are all widows the same? “Your Nancy” died 8 ½ years ago, bud, yet that’s all he wanted to talk about. I didn’t suggest he move on, just please, move over. Next.
Although I know my friends and family have their own thoughts I feel so lucky that they are guided by what I think is right for me and they follow my lead and cheer me on. (Maybe I’ve trained them well.) Here is what I know. You are ready for a new relationship when you can put yourself out there with an open heart and open mind with no expectation to replace or replicate your mate. I know I am ready to share the things that can best be shared only with an intimate partner. Bring it on. Enough said.
#2. People mean well and yet sometimes say things that are not so helpful. At least to me.
Below are some of the things that were said when my husband died. I suspect they are rather common bromides said by well-meaning acquaintances, friends, and colleagues who wanted to reach out and ease the pain. I know they spoke from the heart. Maybe it will help others who have the best intentions and struggle with what to say, to know how these words landed for me. One communication principle I teach is that the meaning of a communication is how it was RECEIVED not how it was INTENDED.
“He’s in a better place.” Really? A better place would be right here, right now.
“I sense his aura around you protecting you.” Yikes. I don’t, nor do I want to.
“If you talk to him it might help.” I don’t talk to dead people and they don’t talk to me.
“You will be reunited someday.” I don’t believe there’s some hotel in the sky that I will check into with my side of the bed waiting. Perhaps this comforts some. Not me.
From well-meaning widows:
“It’s 3 years later and I still cry every day.” That’s really sad. Too bad.
“I didn’t take my wedding ring off for 5 years.” Oh, what a hussy I am.
“There are no men out there for us.” Not my experience or belief.
“You’ll never find anyone as good as your husband again.” And this is helpful how?
“You were cheated. Robbed. You should have had many more years together.” Actually, I think I was blessed with the time that we did have together. People who didn’t experience the unconditional love I had are the ones who were cheated and robbed.
The feeling of being blessed and understanding that phase of my life is over, is the driver that allows me to move on. I never felt like a victim and no one would be a louder cheerleader for my continued happiness than my husband. SO, BRING IT ON!
What was most helpful in the process was knowing that I was surrounded by people who cared about me and shared the loss. Just being there and telling stories that made me smile was the best medicine. And yes, cooking for me or bringing my favorite foods felt very nurturing. Most of us get through grief and go on quite nicely. Sheryl Sandberg, my hero in this journey, whose husband also died suddenly and unexpectedly, met a new great guy. She’s on the talk circuit with her recent book and I heard her speak about resilience and moving on. YAY! Good for her! Here’s to resilience, and with a little luck and timing thrown in I will have a new story too.
Ronni Burns was a corporate executive for many years in a variety of senior roles. Currently, she is a Professor of Management Communications at NYU/Stern and UMD/Smith teaching MBA and EMBA students presentation skills, influence and presence. She has a consulting business and coaching practice, working with executives on public speaking and interpersonal communication. Her secret sauce is knowing that the starting point in successful communication is understanding your audience. What do they need or want? Where are they coming from? How does what you have help them achieve their goals? Her website is ronniburns.com