Surviving Spouse Corner: Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to a Surviving Spouse

By Kathy Prout, former Surviving Spouse Advisory Committee chair

When a death occurs after a sudden or long illness during a short or long marriage, the surviving spouse has suffered a huge loss. It is never easy. Out of sympathy and good intentions, family and friends sometimes say the darnedest things. Here are examples of what not say — all comments I heard as a surviving spouse — and some suggestions for what to do and say instead:

  • “I understand exactly how you feel because my [substitute any noun other than spouse, including cat, dog, etcetera] died.” Nobody knows how another person is feeling. Every relationship is different. Instead, say one of the following: “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling,” “You must be so sad,” or even, “I don’t know what to say.”
  • “If you need anything, let me know.” A recent widow(er) doesn’t know what he or she needs and won’t call. Do say, “May I take you out for coffee?” “May I run errands for you?” “May I bring you a meal or babysit?” or “May I stop by and visit?”
  • “He/she is at peace now” or “At least you were prepared,” in the case of a terminal illness. It is never easy. When death is sudden and unexpected, do not say “At least he/she didn’t suffer.” The surviving spouse thinks, Maybe he/she didn’t suffer, but I am suffering.
  • To a younger survivor, people say, “You are young, and you will move on and find somebody else.” Naturally, the surviving spouse cannot imagine life with anybody other than the deceased spouse.
  • Asking any survivor about dating is just as tactless. Do not ask, “When are you going to start dating?” or “Will you remarry?”
  • To an older widow, people say, “You were so fortunate to have had such a long marriage or to have known each other so long.” It is never long enough.
  • “Did he/she leave you a hefty life insurance policy?” Unless you are a very close family member, the family financial advisor, or an attorney, do not ask.
  • “It has been a while now. Aren’t you over it yet?”

Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased, as memories are with survivors constantly. It is comforting to survivors to know others have not forgot them. Tell them, “I remember.” Everybody grieves differently and on a different time line. It can take six months to several years. Accept where a survivor is in the process. Do not assume a survivor is no longer interested in couple’s activities. Your invitation might be declined, but it will be appreciated.

No matter what, remember to be there for a surviving spouse and stay connected.