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An Open Letter to New Widows

As painful as it is, literally setting small goals each day will help you through this very dark and lonely time. You may not understand and know the purpose for your loss. This will come later with openness and insight.
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Mother with daughter (6-11 months) in living room
Mother with daughter (6-11 months) in living room

Dear Widow,

I know firsthand that you are beyond scared. Your deepest fear has been realized and now you are in unchartered territory. Unfortunately you are not alone, although you may think and believe you are on a solo trek on a steep mountain with no end in sight. I spent over three years interviewing widows from all different backgrounds about their experiences and put their stories together in my book, A Widow's Guide To Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. Time and time again, during the interviews, common themes without prompting emerged. One of these themes is something called secondary losses.

Your spouse's death creates many losses and often these are referred to as secondary losses. In other words, the first loss is the death of your beloved husband and the secondary losses are losses that occur as a result of the death. An example, may be having to move because you are no longer able to afford your home. Another example is the loss of a friendship. Perhaps, you and your husband did many social things with another couple and now that you are alone the social invitations cease. These are common examples of secondary losses. They can be just as painful and hurtful as the primary loss especially because you are no longer able to process these losses with your husband.

If you find that some of your relationships become fractured after your loss, be aware that your actions can contribute to deepening these breaks. Be careful not to overreact to the signs of deterioration. Although, it is not fair that your spouse died and others are seemingly punishing you for it, overreacting will generate an intense amount of stress and will only make matters worse.

Try to look at your spouse's family or friends' excuses for what they are: just excuses. If you start reading more into them, you will develop anxiety. You may be extremely sensitive to the slights, the veiled hostilities, and outright cruel remarks that may come your way, and you may have every right to be sensitive and easily hurt, but managing your own stress is also a priority. If you want to salvage the relationship or heal yourself, it's crucial to look at the risks you take when confronting people about a deteriorating relationship. These include further alienating yourself from them, feeling a sense of panic or depression when they don't respond with open arms and finally melting down because you got your hopes up only to be let down. Instead have options available. Turn to those friends who are still there for you.

You may be surprised to find that a friend who you would not have expected to show up for you before your husband died is now there for you in those critical emotional moments. What may be even more surprising is that the person is not a widow. Go ahead and embrace the deepening of this friendship. Opening yourself up to new opportunities like this can help you with all of your losses.

Adjusting to all of the changes created by your multiple losses is multi-faceted and very few widows find that one person can meet all these needs. For example, you may reach out to a colleague at work to help you readjust to your work environment once you return. This is someone different than the person who may help you with your childcare stressors.

Secondary losses are real and can be painful. Seeking out multiple supports in the areas impacted by the losses is often necessary. Go ahead and ask for help

The important thing is that you know and believe that you are stronger than you think you are. You just survived a tremendous loss. Do not give up on yourself. You want to die but do NOT give up. Talk to your doctor and tell them the truth that you think about ending your life and you need professional help.

As painful as it is, literally setting small goals each day will help you through this very dark and lonely time. You may not understand and know the purpose for your loss. This will come later with openness and insight.

Finally, be gentle with yourself and give yourself grace. No one has perfected being a widow. Developing self-compassion is essential and something that can ultimately help you manage your losses. It is counter-intuitive for many widows. You are trying your very best to get everything right, but each loss is different and there is not a magic formula that will guarantee success. Your husband's death is like an amputation and it can't be easily replaced. Eventually, you with time and awareness you will be able to transform your loss. For now, give yourself compassion, ask for and accept help.

With Sorrow and Lament,


Kristin Meekhof is a licensed masters level clinical social worker. She is the author of the book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years." She was a recent panelist at the Parliament of World Religions. Her husband died from adrenal cancer in 2007 when she was 33. She was the primary caregiver for him and they used palliative care and hospice.