How to Talk to a Widow

People are kind; some are wonderful. For a time. Then they move on to the next widow.

That’s how it should be. But I realized I wasn’t prepared for this after the following email exchange. A friend wrote, “How are you?” I wrote back, “I’m better.” The friend replied, “Oh! I didn’t know you were sick.” Given that I had become a widow more than a year earlier, she had assumed that I had moved on and that I was feeling “better” after, perhaps, a cold, or the latest Covid. But I meant that I was feeling better about my widowhood. I guess I was supposed to have recovered from that. Apparently the correct amount of time is a year or so. Apparently I wasn’t doing the recovery thing right.

Given all the widows in society today — 11.4 million compared with about 3.4 million widowers — it’s surprising to me that people often struggle with how to talk to us, how to be with us. America has never been a more sensitive — or hypersensitive — place: There has never been as much discussion about mental health needs, especially of younger Americans. Although many of us are OK compared with other groups, we need people to be aware of us, and to be mindful that we’re not all alike and not all experiencing loss and grief in the same way. And I have a word to my fellow widows, too: Interacting with people takes effort and creativity on our part, as well.

First, a little more about us. Most of the women who are widowed each year are over 65 and they frequently outlive their husbands by many years. Widows are far more likely than married women to be poor. Widowed men are far more likely to remarry than widowed women (and often remarry younger women). Black Americans, male and female, become widowed at younger ages than whites. By ages 65 to 74, about 24 percent of Black Americans are widowed, compared to about 15 percent of whites.

Not all widows suffer their loss. For some, their husband’s dying was so horrific that death was merciful, and, at least at first, the widow experienced mostly relief. Most older widows also have grown children, who may help their mother feel there’s someone left who loves them. One of the main ways I’m different is that I never had children (or siblings). When I was in my 30s and had breast cancer, a doctor advised me against having children. I might not have had them anyway — it was the 1970s and I was what was then called a Career Girl. When, many years later, we learned that my husband Ed’s colonoscopist had seemingly failed to notice evidence of advanced colon cancer and that Ed was a goner, we joked about adopting a 60-year-old.

Ed and I married late. He was 42, I was 43. We had just short of 42 years together. Improbably, they were wonderful years. “Improbably” because we were so different — he, a mathematician WASP from the Midwest, me a New York Jew whose worst subject in school was, of course, math. But it worked out. More than worked out. We both felt dizzy with our good fortune at having found each other. When we walked home from the doctor’s office after getting the news that Ed had two years to live — they tell you straight out these days — Ed wanted to talk about how lucky we had been and still were. And when we got home and sat down in the living room, our coats still on, the sky growing dark, and I talked about wanting to write to the colonoscopist who seemed not to have noticed Ed’s progressing cancer, wanting, desperately wanting, to give him a piece of my mind, Ed said no. “I have two years and we’re not going to spend any of that time being angry. I’m not writing to that doctor, and neither are you. We’re going to forget about him and be as happy as we can.”

And that’s what we did. Well, that’s what he did. A good part of the time, I was pretending.

Childless couples like us often have big social lives and during the pandemic, thanks to Zoom, we continued ours with a vengeance. But as Ed got sicker and when he got on the heavy meds — thank you hospice — we had to cut down on our time with friends. Ed continued to work on his math book. Did I mention he was writing a math book as he was dying? He managed to finish it four days before he died, and the book, incredibly, has recently been published. I’m thinking of having a party of close friends. First, though, I must get into more of a party mood than I am now. I’m trying. A psychiatrist helps. This guy is the one I saw before I married Ed; I hadn’t been any good at choosing men and was worried I might be making another mistake. The psychiatrist didn’t seem to think so. He was right, obviously. Anyway, I got his email and wrote to him. He wrote back that he was 1) still alive and 2) still working. So, for the past year or so he’s been trying to get me to cheer up. Well, that’s not quite correct. Mainly, he wants to help me get out of the black hole I still seem to be in.

Of course, I realize I have no right to be in a black hole. All I need to do is open any newspaper or turn on NBC News, where I used to be a correspondent, to know that I have no right to sadness and certainly no right to misery in the world we live in today. But one reason I’m confessing is that I know there are a lot of us who are in my situation and feel the way I do. Even the ones who have children don’t often live near the children. Or the children aren’t kind, or they have their own problems. And some of us oldsters are a lot sicker than I am. One of the nastiest surprises about being 86 is that you probably have something wrong with you, something that makes you feel your body wasn’t meant to last this long. And of course, there’s Covid. Even if you don’t have it, you’re probably still nervous about getting it. Especially now that you’re alone.

Although you are alone, there are some ways to be less alone. You can help others with a skill you may have. You can keep in touch with friends, even if they’re not perfect. Plus, I Zoom with friends, which still beats a phone conversation.

Here’s another tip: If you want to keep those friends, don’t forget to ask them how they are doing. That’s something that even happy people often forget to do. And here’s a choice that may work only for yours truly: I read books that have nothing to do with today. Like Trollope. Watching movies doesn’t do much for me, but I know it does a lot for some of us. Physical activity can be cheering. It makes the heart beat in a reassuring way. And if none of that does the trick, many widows can reflect on the fact that the main part of our lives was Covid-free, and free of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, in a world far nicer than it is now.

Finally, Friends of Widows, here are a few pointers: The main one is don’t do one sympathetic email with your widowed friend, then disappear. Don’t tell sad stories about your other widowed friends. Don’t (see first paragraph) assume that, after a year or so, the widow is all cheery again. Don’t assume anything about the widow’s finances. And now, just speaking personally: My Christian friends sent flowers; My Jewish friends sent food. Food is better.

Betty Rollin is a former NBC News correspondent and the author of several books including the memoirs “First, You Cry,” which was made into a television movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, and “Last Wish.”

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