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What not to say: How to reach out to a young widow

How to help young widows — even just what to say — in the face of such a loss is a challenge to those who love and long to comfort someone. Most people have no idea how to approach the topic of an untimely death.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: July 15, 2014 at 8:06 pm •  Published: July 15, 2014
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When Chris Eborn died in 2006, his wife Michelle was surrounded by great friends. Chris suffered a cardiac event while swimming and never finished the race.

The Eborns of Kaysville, Utah, were both 34 years old and had four kids. Michelle was pregnant with their fifth.

At the viewing, two young women — strangers — stood in front of her. You don’t know us, they said. But you will. We are young widows, too. And we will become great friends.

It was the birth of hope in a time of chaos and sorrow, Michelle Eborn remembers.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted 14.3 million Americans as widowed in 2010, the vast majority — 11.4 million — women. There’s a tendency to picture widowhood as a consequence of old age, yet about one-third of widows lose their spouse before age 45. Widowhood is not something young women are prepared for, and they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder to some degree, said Gwen Peterson, president of Hope for Widows Foundation. Their vision of their lives and plans for the future are shattered.

How to help — even just what to say — in the face of such loss is a challenge to those who love and long to comfort someone. Most people have no idea how to approach the topic of an untimely death.

“Who’s helping these women grieve?” asked Peterson, Michelle Eborn’s best friend. “Nobody. People don’t like to see people grieve.”

Peterson did everything she could think of to help Eborn, often even spending the night. But “those widows did for her what I could never do,” she said. “They kept her emotionally alive. She could call them at 4 a.m. and talk. She said she was in so much physical pain she did not know how she would survive.”

The two widows had survived that initial pain, and through them Eborn saw glimmers of a future. She could not yet see down the road to the remarriage that would come nearly eight years later, or to co-founding the support group Hope for Widows Foundation (Hopeforwidows.org). But she dared to hope she’d make it through.

Just be there

Eborn is still stunned by the outpouring she felt and the ways people were willing to help her. But the biggest help was the simplest, she said. People showed up.

Friends brought meals and took her kids, including the newborn, so she could rest. They ran errands and they sat with her.

To really help, she said, don’t ask what you can do. Pick something and do it. “When your spouse dies, you don’t really know what you need. People worry about overstepping boundaries so they don’t do anything. I probably would have said ‘nothing’ if you asked what you could do to help. But I needed help.”

Ellen Gerst of Phoenix, Arizona, was 39 when her husband took his life 19 years ago. They’d been together since they were teenagers and had sons who were 10 and 15. She believes he fell prey to a momentary panic, but it could not be undone.

She knew that “way off in the distance” she would be OK and made a decision to work toward that goal, but she worried about the boys. Someone from Survivors of Suicide told her children follow a parent’s lead: If she held in emotions, so would they. “If you show them it’s OK to express emotions, they will, too.”

She also took them to a children’s grief group, where they could explore their feelings and loss independent of her.

Gerst particularly appreciated concrete offers of help: the friend who took the initiative, instead of waiting to be asked, and said, “Make a shopping list and I’ll go,” or the one who took her kids to school. Another helped her older son learn to drive, which Gerst was not up to right then.

Ryan Dunn, a doctoral candidate at Utah State University who is researching young widows for his dissertation, believes the best way to help is to meet the need you see. Widows may not know what they need or may feel uncomfortable asking for it. But those he interviewed were grateful for the people who mowed the lawn, shoveled driveways, or washed the dishes they saw in the sink. There is a special fondness for people who took young widows to the Social Security office or helped with taxes, Dunn said.

Now, if someone he knew became widowed, he said, he’d offer a hug and a “sorry.” For a handshake-type person, it would be a hand on the shoulder. He’d look around unobtrusively and try to figure out how to help. If people brought food, he’d swoop out and return with plates, napkins and forks, for instance. Or with permission he’d take the kids for a while.

“Mostly, I would sit and I would listen. Listening seems to be something that was wished for and fawned over. Another that came up over and over: bringing up the deceased by name and sharing stories of him. ‘You know what I loved about Steve? How he made the party come alive. Do you remember when he started his shirt on fire by lighting the sparklers?’ ”