What Not to Say to a Widow - As Widows and Widowers Reveal the Worst Things Said to Them Since Losing a Partner
"I know how you feel... My dog died last week"
Recently we conducted a survey of 1,000 widows to find out the most outrageous and insensitive things said to them after losing their partner.
Over 80% (83%) of widows and widowers stated that they had been spoken to insensitively upon the death of their partner, with just under half (47%) stating that the comments were made within six months of losing their loved ones.
Among the most outrageous things ever said to a widow or widower, some of the most shocking comments included:
- “I know how you feel… my dog died last week”
- “At least your house is mortgage-free”
- “You’ll soon be back in the groove chasing other women”
The majority of the widows surveyed said, upon their bereavement, many of the insensitive comments were based around them finding someone else, and moving on quickly:
- “I’m jealous you get to start dating again”
- “You’re still young enough to meet someone else”
- “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll marry again”
- “You’re actually lucky, because some people go through life never even having been married”
- “You should get a dog for some company, instead”
- “When are you getting back onto the dating scene?” – said a week after their wife had just died.
Others were suggesting that the bereaved was better off:
- “At least you don’t have to see him grow old and frail”
- “You’ll get over it soon enough” – said at the funeral
- “I’m sure you’re enjoying life without a man, and the hassles that come with it”
And some tried to empathise and relate:
- “I know how you feel… my dog died last week”
- “I know what you are going through. I felt the same when my husband divorced me”
- “I know how you feel, I’m going through a divorce which is the ‘death’ of a relationship”
Some of these remarks may seem pretty astounding – but, in fact, it’s something that many of us widows and widowers have experienced many times over. Most of the time, it’s not malicious; it’s simply ignorance or insensitivity.
Sadly, widows and widowers are all in a club we never really wanted to join, and grief is very different for each of us. What may seem like empathy to you, probably won’t seem that way to somebody who has just lost their partner of 30 years.
So, how do you speak to a friend or family member whose partner has recently died?
It’s important to recognise that grieving looks and feels different for everyone and for those around the bereaved, it’s also important to acknowledge what has happened and express sympathy.
Sometimes the shortest messages can mean the most to people. A simple ‘I’m thinking of you’ could be exactly what they want to hear. If you know the person who has died, you could also say something personal about them, what they meant to you or share a recent memory.
Ask them how they are feeling, and ask if they would like to talk about it – but don’t force them to open up if they’re not ready. Let them know you’re there for them and ask if there is anything that they need.
One of the biggest myths is that you’re somehow a better widow if you remain sadder for longer but we do deserve to date, to get remarried, and to find happiness once again, regardless of when this will be.
At Chapter 2, our community is uniquely placed to understand each other, particularly when grappling with grief.
Senior Therapist and Relationship Expert, and founder of www.workingonthebody.com, Sally Baker, offers her key do’s and don’ts, and advice on how to be a good friend to someone going through grief:
“Do listen without judgement. Grieving people need to talk about their loss, so make time to listen attentively.
“Don’t try to offer solutions or silver linings. The bereaved need your compassionate ear more than your advice.
“Do offer tangible help. Caring for home and family can feel overwhelming in grief. Offer to help with chores, meals, and childcare. But don’t just say “Let me know if you need anything.” It’s crucial to make specific offers of help so they don’t have to reach out because often they will not ask.
“Do share fond memories. Talking about their lost loved one can be comforting. Share your favourite stories and memories of their partner. It’s okay to laugh and cry together as you reminisce.
“Don’t avoid talking about their loss. Some friends distance themselves to avoid “reminding” the bereaved of their pain. But grieving people need to process their grief. Keep reaching out and talking about their partner. You may be rebuffed at first so persevere.
“Don’t minimise their grief. Comments like “it was their time” or “they’re in a better place” can invalidate painful emotions. Simply acknowledge the depth of their loss.
“Ideally, mark important dates. Remember their partner’s birthday, death anniversary, etc with a card, text, or visit. These dates are excruciating for the bereaved. Knowing you remember means a lot and helps to make them feel less isolated in their sadness.
“Don’t expect closure. Don’t be impatient. Grief has no timeline. Expressions like “it’s been 6 months, it’s time to move on” imply grieving has an endpoint. But their loss will always be part of them. Offer ongoing support.
“Do invite them out. Grieving people often isolate themselves. Gently encourage them to go out when they’re ready. Start small – a walk or coffee. Low-key invitations can help, even if they decline at first.
“Don’t take it personally if they withdraw. Grief can be all-consuming. If they seem distant, don’t take it personally. Give them space knowing the isolation is temporary.
“Keep gently reaching out. Losing a life partner leaves a huge void. Being present, listening, and offering heartfelt support can make a big difference as a grieving friend navigates their loss. With time and compassion, the pain will ease, and you’ll be part of helping them build their life again.”
Losing a partner is an indescribable pain, and navigating conversations with widows and widowers requires sensitivity and empathy. The insights shared by those who have experienced such loss offer us a poignant reminder of the power of our words.
As we conclude, let’s carry forward the lessons learned, aiming to be a source of comfort, support, and understanding for those who are grieving. May our interactions be filled with compassion, allowing space for healing without unintentionally causing further hurt. Let’s strive to listen more, speak thoughtfully, and offer solace in ways that truly honour the immense loss and strength of those who have lost a loved one.