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Grief Etiquette: Unspoken Rules of Helping Widowed Loved-Ones

Many people wonder: how can I help my widowed friend? There are hundreds of articles (including a few on our own website) but many fail to educate readers about the etiquette you should follow when reaching out to your loved ones following bereavement. We want to give you a comprehensive guide of what to say, how to act, and how to use proper terms.


Here is some background information about terminology: While you may assume a "widower" is the person who passed (causing someone to become widowed), a Widower is actually a man who has lost his spouse, while a widow is a woman. The proper adjective to describe the marital status for both men and women is "widowed", while "widowhood" is the state of being widowed.

Topics to Avoid

Some common topics and phrases that are reported to be the most hurtful include the following:

  • "Everything happens for a reason." This statement is particularly despised by widowed persons everywhere. Huffington Post explains this perfectly:

"What people think they are saying: There is a reason for this and one day it will all make sense. What it sounds and feels like to a new widow: Yes it does. I don’t doubt His plan for one second. But now, at this moment, that brings me absolutely no solace. I mean none."
  • "I understand your pain". Unless you've personally lost a spouse, you likely don't understand. Even if you have lost your spouse, every loss is different, and you won't understand every emotion or reaction that a newly widowed person is experiencing. People report that their friends and family will compare their spousal loss to divorce, loss of an extended family member, and even the loss of a pet. While all of these events are tragic and emotional, each is very different, and comparing losses can be hurtful and angering.

  • "You'll get married again." That is the last thing on the mind of most widowed persons following their loss. Many people don't want to get married again, and don't even want to entertain the thought of moving on from their late spouse. Your friend or family member just experienced an immense loss, and all they're wishing for is to get their spouse back--they don't want to replace them.

  • "Shouldn't you be over the grief by now?" This is rude and insensitive-- let you friend grieve at their own pace. Widows and widowers typically go through the 5 stages of grief, as we briefly mentioned in our last blog post, "Grief's Physical Impacts". These stages are categorized as follows: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression & Acceptance. There is no "right" amount of time to spend in each stage, so give your loved one an ample amount of time to find acceptance.

Don't fret if you've said any of these statements before; as Maryalene LaPonsie suggests in this article, "Imperfect words are better than no words at all!" Your loved one will likely understand that you're trying your best to help. Moreso, each person will have their own opinions, and statements that irk some, may be helpful to others. If you're interested in reading more, here are some other articles that discuss topics to avoid.

How to Act

Are you wondering how to act around your widowed friend or family member? Here are some suggestions about what to do to help them:

  • Ask them how they're feeling, and listen. Ask if they want to talk about their late spouse, and let them unleash their sorrow and emotions while you sit & listen. Don't offer unsolicited advice-- rather, ask them questions and prompt them to share. Instead of responding with "I've dealt with loss and I totally understand how you're feeling", respond with "I'm very sorry that you're going through this and I wish there was something else I could do to help-- is there anything else you want to share?"

  • Treat them normally; sympathize but don't pity them. While it can be helpful to talk about grief, your loved one will also want to talk about other things, like their interests/hobbies, current events and more. It's important to acknowledge their grief, but it's also important to preserve your relationship with them.

  • Rather than asking how to help, give them suggestions about things that you're able to do to help. Following bereavement, it can be hard to ask for help, and "Widows fog" makes it hard to organize future plans. Offer specific assistance, like driving to an appointment on Monday or going out to dinner on Wednesday, so they don't feel guilty for requesting help.

  • Cook & eat dinner with them. People can lose their appetites when they're grieving, and the thought of doing daily tasks like cooking can be overwhelming, leading to unhealthy eating habits. Help to combat this by taking on the responsibility of cooking and encouraging them to eat while spending time with you.

If you're interested in reading more, check out these articles below.

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Don't agree with 'ask them how they are feeling'. You care and that is so wonderful. But please understand you are only one person and imagine when a newly grieving person manages to leave the house, they could be asked that question 20+ times in one day, by lots of other caring people. A grieving person has just lost their world, in the worst pain, emotional and physical. To be expected to answer that question continually all day is so hard. Can even make it hard for them to leave the house.

Better to say, 'There are no words', 'I can't imagine your pain, but I am here' or even just 'I am thinking of you'.


I have a question. Is it inappropriate for a widow to send out a photo Christmas card with only herself pictured 3 months after her spouse dies? Or wait a year to jump back in with holiday greetings?

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