With the recent news about Harper Lee’s new book, I remembered the famous scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus is teaching Scout about emphasizing with other people. He tells her in order to understand another person you need to see things from that person’s point of view, climb inside their skin. This reminds me of a Joe South song from the early 70’s named Walk a Mile in My Shoes, in which he says to walk in his shoes before you become judgmental and critical. Both of these are lessons in empathy.
A few days ago, I endured an unnecessary conversation, and thinking back on it, I should’ve walked away. Not wanting to hurt that person’s feelings, I defended my life choices to a person who had no clue of what I’ve lived through as a widow.
It’s been several years now since Dan died. The days of the deep mourning, the sleepless nights, the explosion of grief episodes are behind me. The wound, now scabbed over, is still there. All it takes is a memory, a song, a smell, to make my throat tighten and my eyes water.
I want to write this from the perspective of the widowed. I have yet to meet a widow who hasn’t been on the receiving end of some, if not all, of these comments. No one understands what widowhood is like until it happens to them. Empathy is hard to come by, and the widowed, especially new widows, already vulnerable, often endure the most inconsiderate remarks. So here we go.
1 – “You should have known he was going to die.”
This is possibly the cruelest comment made to me after Dan died, and it happened a month later, when the wound was so fresh it was oozing blood. This asinine remark came from someone who should have known better. My husband’s health wasn’t good, but his disease didn’t kill him—a Pulmonary Embolism did.
If a loved one dies after a prolonged disease, it doesn’t make the pain any less. Even though the condition is terminal, loved ones still pray for a miraculous turnaround. The heart clings to hope until a loved one takes his or her very last breath.
2 – “If you need anything, let me know.”
This is common statement, often made with good intentions. Just a nice thing to say when no other words will do—we’ve all said it to the bereaved. We say it and forget it.
At first, a widow doesn’t know what she needs. In marriage, there are usually jobs either the husband or the wife takes care of. Death transfers those burdens to the surviving spouse. This is a particularly difficult situation for the widow
When I dealt with problems Dan would’ve handled, I thank God for the good people who were honest with me, showed up when they said they would, and charged me a fair price. No one can ask for more than that.
3 – “At least you know he loved you.” Translation: the pain of losing a spouse through divorce is worse than the pain of losing a spouse through death.
Yes, I know my spouse loved me. When he left, he didn’t do it because he wanted to leave. Ok, I get that. Losing a spouse through death or divorce is painful. A similar life rebuilding has to occur if one is to move forward.
Here is the difference:
People who are still alive have the ability to change, to realize their mistakes, and attempt to correct them. Sometimes divorcees do remarry, sometimes years later. Where there is life, there is hope.
For the widowed, there is no hope of an earthly reunion—no rethinking, no realization of mistakes, and no reuniting in life. My husband’s body is still in the grave we buried him in several years ago. He is not coming home. Not ever.
4 – “I know how you feel.”
Unless someone is widowed, he or she doesn’t know. For example, feeling alone and abandoned is normal for the widowed, even with a room full of caring people. This may be difficult for many people to comprehend, but the widowed will completely understand those feelings. Just as C.S. Lewis stated, grief feels like fear. That sounds odd, but it is very true.
5 –“You’ll get over it, it just takes time.”
It is a widespread misconception that you can actually “get over” losing a loved one. It is not true. Time makes it easier to deal with, but one never gets over it. The wound is always there.
6 – “They’re better off.”
From the conversations I’ve had with other widows, this comment isn’t as comforting as many people think it is. A new widow is longing for things to go back the way they were before death came and destroyed her world. If he was sick, she longs for him to be alive and well where her world is complete and her heart is whole. It’s human nature to want who we love to be near us.
Yes, I’ve said many times I know Dan’s in heaven, and I’m glad his breathing problems are over. I said it with my chest split wide open, my heart ripped out and smashed to pieces. I’ll never stop wanting to be by his side. The longing will always be there, even though my life must go on.
7 – “You’re young, you can remarry. Why aren’t you dating?”
When someone says something like this, I wonder what makes them think a widow wants to remarry. Remarriage may not be what God has planned for the surviving spouse. I know several widows and widowers who found new spouses. That’s great, but it’s not for everybody. A wise woman once told me there are worse things than being alone. I agree.
When someone tells me to start dating, as if I’m crazy because I don’t want to, I want to tell them to mind their own business and let me rebuild my life the way God wants it rebuilt. I don’t say it because I don’t like hurting people’s feelings.
Harper Lee and Joe South reminded us to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes, by spending a little time in their shoes, especially if you feel the need to criticize them. The world would be a better place if more people could do that.
If you’re a new widow, please remember most deliverers of inconsiderate remarks mean well, and as you grow stronger and your thinking becomes clearer, you can tell the difference between who’s being concerned, but not sure of the right words, and who’s being a jerk. No matter what anyone says, don’t ever stop working on rebuilding your life. Never, ever give up!
If you’ve never heard Walk a Mile in My Shoes, below is a link to Elvis Presley’s cover of the song. I like what he says before he starts singing.
© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2015. All rights reserved