The question I am asked most often right now is: What is the best way to relate to and care for widows and widowers? It’s usually closely followed by, “I’m afraid I’m going to do something wrong, so I don’t do anything.” First, it’s such a good question. Secondly, I struggle to answer it. I know the ways my community has blessed me, but my situation is only mine. I don’t have a complete worldview on this issue. So I turned to my friends who have been widowed in the past year or so and they sent me amazing input. Then I had a conversation with someone who was recently divorced and was struck by how different our experiences were. That’s when I decided to talk to a few people who haven’t experienced the death of a spouse, but they have experienced the death of a marriage. Now, I’m not sure which one is harder – they’re both so difficult and so different, but both leave us all in the same place: the land of the newly single. We’re different than the always-single. Used to being part of a couple and usually part of a community of couples, this strange land is fraught with frustration and heartache and, in some cases, shame.
These ideas are not my own, though I do share most of them. They are the collective thoughts from my conversations with some of the bravest people I know. They are by no means exhaustive nor universal, but I hope they inspire you to new levels of love and compassion toward the newly single in your life. Here are our thoughts:
It’s never bad to invite us to…well, pretty much anything.
Holidays can be hard and lonely, but so can regular old Tuesdays. Events with mostly couples can be hard, but invite us anyway – we’ll decide if we can handle it or not. And even though we’ve said no once or twice or five times, please keep asking us. Our ability to move out into society changes from day to day, so please don’t be offended if we have to decline a kind invitation – it still felt so nice to be asked into your world.
Be willing to listen long.
We have, in most cases, lost our primary processing person. We don’t necessarily need answers as much as we need to be able to talk our way to a conclusion or solution which is why we may cover the same ground over and over again. It’s tempting to want to give a lot of advice and it’s okay to offer some – but those who listen well are an amazing gift to us.
We appreciate your love for our kids – especially when you run it through us first.
Again, this one can be difficult to navigate because whatever it is that made us single has undoubtedly caused heartache for them as well. We have our eyes out for signs of fallout in their hearts and are cautious to expose them to anything else that might be hurtful. Offers to take them to coffee, or school clothes shopping or on your family vacation are so kind, but there may be reasons it won’t work, so just ask us first.
Here’s a tricky one: be careful in your attempts to set us up.
So, so careful. Some of my newly single friends are eager to welcome the involvement of their married friends in their dating lives, others are not. And across the board, my friends expressed a fair amount of shock and awe at how they’ve been set up and with whom. Let’s tackle those separately, shall we? Now understand, please, that I’M not in the dating market, but I’m going to speak collectively for the people who trusted me with their insight and so it will sound weird, but that’s just how this is going down.
- HOW to set up your newly single friend. Here are the don’ts: No blindsiding. No secret invites of other single friends, hoping they’ll meet, mingle and marry (totally going to trademark Meet, Mingle & Marry for a new dating web site. Because I have time for that.) Here are the do’s: Do ask permission. Do be honest about your motives (wanting to introduce two people who may become friends or more is not bad, it just becomes bad if people feel tricked) Do give your friend a way out if they are not comfortable.
- WITH WHOM: This one is a little tricky to talk about, but talk about it we must. We understand that the dating pool gets smaller as we get older. However, that does not mean our standards shrink along with it. We want someone who shares our beliefs and values. We want someone who has character and integrity. We want someone who – and I can’t stress how many times I’ve heard this, so it must really be a thing – is not crazy. I get that crazy can be subjective and a little crazy can be cute to some – but use good judgement here. And here are some random don’ts:
- Don’t put your friend in a situation that you yourself would not want to be in. Ask yourself: If roles were reversed, would I think this person was a legitimate option for my dating life? Then, add in all the pain and sorrow that comes from divorce or widowhood and multiply by 17 and you have the level of caution and disorientation your friend is feeling as he or she faces the whacky world of dating.
- Do not be offended if your friend asks to see a picture or a Facebook page before committing to a meeting. You would want one, too.
- Do not be offended if, after viewing said Facebook profile, your friend takes a pass.
- Do not be offended if, after one date, your friend doesn’t want another. Love and attraction are entirely subjective and what makes sense to you may not make any sense at all to them, and that’s okay. Almost every one of my friends made a comment along the lines of, “I’d rather have no one than settle for something that doesn’t feel right.” In my conversations, people who had lost their spouse to divorce were much more adamant on this point than those who were widowed. Though walking a spouse all the way to the end of his life is difficult, it also re-emphasizes the beauty and strength of committed love. Those who have watched the wedding vows die, on the other hand, do not always enjoy that same faith in relationships.
- Do not offer the possibility of finding a mate as a source of comfort. “Don’t worry, you’re young – you’ll love again” just really isn’t comforting. It implies that what we lost is replaceable and often times, the thing we lost was our faith in the safety and sanctity of marriage itself. So “again” is loaded with all sorts of emotions.
Speaking of people who have been through a divorce or difficult break up: This one is very tender. Every divorced friend I spoke with had a word in their lexicon that the widowed group did not, and the word is a powerful one: shame. They are carrying the weight of failure, whether perceived or actual. They are often locked in bitter battles for children or property or reputation. They haven’t just lost the friendship of a spouse, each one expressed the depth of pain in losing half their friends or their church or their in-laws. Sometimes they feel that married people eye them suspiciously when they get near their spouses. It is sorrow on top of sorrow.
Widows and widowers usually receive an outpouring of love and sympathy (at least initially), but divorced people are often tragically neglected as communities choose sides and scatter. The bottom line here, however, is love. Be willing to love your divorced friends without condition and without needing explanations or apologies. And in those situations where the social dynamic must change in your relationship (you probably won’t keep having your ex brother-in-law over for Christmas dinner), refuse to get caught up in the mudslide of gossip and slander that so easily rolls through communities (and social media!) in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown. Refuse to throw mud. And love instead. For the sake of broken hearts and hurting children and in honor of the grace of Jesus, choose generous, covering love.
Finally, stay in the game.
Many I talked with mentioned feeling that their friends gradually began to slide out of the picture. Sometimes it’s friend fatigue, sometimes it’s just forgetfulness. Once the initial shock is over, the surrounding community returns to their regular lives while the newly single person stands in the wreckage, wondering if rebuilding is even possible. If you’ve lost touch with someone you love who is rebuilding, it’s never too late to reengage. So many people have told me how sad they are for neglecting to stick close to their hurting friend and that they’re now too embarrassed to reach out. Don’t be that friend. Reach out. No need to over-explain or over-apologize, just say, “Hey I love you and I miss you and I want to get together whenever it works for you.” And then make it work. Because we’re all in this together, guys. And from my side of the newly-single fence: I need you. And I’m so glad you’re in my life.
And hey – single or formerly-single friends – comments are open: what did we miss?