Maintaining Friendships After a Spouse-Loss

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships lately and how they change and I know that’s also on the minds of many of my widow(er) friends out there.  I guess it’s that time of year…when friends and family seem to get together more than usual, so friendships and how they change are pretty much “in your face” right now.

This is something I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but I wanted to write it very carefully.  I don’t ever want to come across as someone who doesn’t understand or who dismisses how hard widowhood can be.  Believe me…I’m not that person.  But I also think there is a different side to our changing friendships that we don’t often look at.

I’ve thought for years how lucky I am that many of my friends didn’t abandon me when my husband died.  I gave them all a lot of credit (which they deserved) for sticking by me when the going got tough.  And tougher.  And even tougher still.  But I think for a long time I wasn’t giving credit to someone who was the most important part of keeping my friendships together.

Me.

I know I’m different from a lot of people. Throughout my life, very rarely would I sit back and wait for someone to come up with a plan or call me.  I was always the one putting parties together, organizing Happy Hour, or just calling to see if someone wanted to go to the movies.  My family affectionately calls me “Julie the Cruise Director” because I’m always the one getting everyone together.

This is going to sound strange (and for those people who are supporting friends who have entered the Widdahood, please forgive me if I make you sound like the family pet for a minute), but I think there is a certain training process we have to put our friends through when we lose our significant other.  We have to show them who we are now.  We have to give them time to digest who we’re becoming.  Instead of being upset that they’re not calling…we have to make the effort and call them. 

One of the big reasons I started thinking about this was Memorial Day weekend.  I heard from several people who said they had no plans for the weekend because no one had called and asked them over and they seemed so disappointed.  I started to feel really sad about that.  But then something occurred to me.

No one had called me either.  I had no plans.  And that’s when I got on the phone and called them.

I really think there is a certain amount of time after we become widow(er)s where we almost have to insist that our friends stay our friends.  They don’t know what to do.  They don’t understand that we’re not crying because of something they said…but because there’s a piece of lint on their shoulder that looks like our dead spouse and that just set us off. They don’t know when we want to talk about our significant other and when we want to pretend like all of this never happened.  We’re a really confusing bunch.  I’ve even found myself stumbling over what the “right thing” to do is with newly widowed friends of my own…and I’ve actually been through it.

They need to take their lead from someone and I hate to tell you this, but…we’re that someone.  Many of our friends have never been through this before and many of them haven’t even been through this with another friend.  They don’t know what to do.  We’re the ones who know what we want and need.

So…why are we waiting around for them to make the effort?

I’ll give you an example:  When I first lost my husband, I had a great core group of friends who really looked out for me.  They would call and check in every once in awhile…you know…kind of the social “mirror in front of the face” to make sure I was still functioning.  But it occurred to me that after a few weeks…I never saw their husbands.  Now, I’ve heard other widows say that their friends are suddenly uncomfortable with the fact that they’re suddenly single and a possible threat.  At that time…that didn’t even occur to me.  What seemed to be happening was much worse.

The husbands just didn’t want to be around me.

It got to the point where I thought enough was enough.  If I wanted my friendships to survive (because, after all, I had been friends with their husbands too), I had to prove to them that they could.  I started putting together small dinner parties at my house when I felt up to it, on my turf and inviting the couples.  Night after night, I would have people over until setting a table for 5 instead of 6 became more normal.  I would still bring my husband up in conversation (I still do) and after awhile my friends stopped fidgeting uncomfortably in their seats when I mentioned his name.  As time went by, we all seemed to start working together to fill in what was missing the best we could.

I didn’t wait for them to come around.  I didn’t wait for them to invite me over.  I took control.  In a way, I forced my new situation on them until it became their new situation as well.  And darn it…it worked.

What I’m about to say is going to sound incredibly unfair, but I firmly believe that it’s true.

When you become widowed, you have to make more of an effort to be a friend than you ever did before.

This isn’t permanent.  But it’s a fact.  If you want people to be with you…you have to call them.  If you need to talk, you have to go through your entire contact list until you find someone who picks up the phone.  I would say that at the beginning stages of widowhood, if you’re interested in staying close with a few people, the effort to keep those friendships going shifts to about 70% on your part and 30% on theirs.  And I’ll tell you why.

Because they don’t know what the heck to do with you.

They don’t know what to say.  They don’t know how to act.  They don’t know if you want them around or if they’re an imposition.  For awhile, it becomes your duty to be as detailed as possible in saying what you want and need.  You can’t dance around it.  You can’t hint.  And you can’t wait.  You have to call someone, anyone, and say, “I want to go to dinner tonight.  Will you go with me?”

I realize that there are many people in the world who are not like me and being social isn’t their thing.  In fact, for a lot of those people, I’m betting that they lost the more social person in the couple.  Which makes it even harder to think about making the effort and coming up with a plan.

What I would suggest are baby steps.

And believe me…I know what I’m asking of you.  I’m asking that you, in your exhausted widow state, add yet another thing on your list of things to do.  But I’m also suggesting that you have a little more control of this part of widowhood than you might think.  In good and bad times…no one wants to go through losing a good friend.

And that good friend…is you.

Tips for Jump-Starting a Social Life in the Widdahood:

Creating friendships can be like developing a helpful habit:  It out may take awhile, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll do it without even realizing it.  I know that developing new friendships or keeping old ones can be incredibly challenging as a widow…mainly because we’re still trying to figure out who we are.  But if you set some small goals in front of you…you could develop a life that’s less lonely.  Once you create the foundation, you’ll always know it’s there.

  1. Make a list of people and call one of those people once a day.  They don’t have to be local and they don’t have to be your best friend (in fact, many of us will say that the people we are closest to now are not the people we were best friends with before this happened).  Reach out to someone once a day.  And I’m betting after awhile they’ll start reaching back.
  2. Set an “outing” goal in front of yourself and make it happen.  If you really feel the need to get out, make it once a week.  If you’re more of a homebody…once a month.  This doesn’t even have to be with someone.  Find an activity that you might be able to do on your own, but where you might talk to new people.  Book Clubs are usually free.  Painting classes and cooking classes are fun even when you stink at it.  Weight Watchers is a perfect social group for when your cooking improves.
  3. When calling is too much…email.  Let people know that you’re not 100% right now, but that you’re thinking of them.  Some of my closest friendships developed because when I was too tired or just grieving too much to be social, I would email in the middle of the night.  Again…this could be someone you know, or you could even do some searching around for someone new on www.theWiddahood.com.
  4. I know that some people aren’t as comfortable at entertaining in their own homes as I am, but it’s a really great thing when you become a widow.  I have a friend who has become close in the last few years who, every once in awhile, puts on her sweats, packs a bag, and comes over just to hang out.  And as I started to have people over in small groups…they started inviting me to their gatherings as well.  Everyone likes to reciprocate so this is a great way to get things moving in a social direction.  It doesn’t have to be big or elaborate…again…it’s all about making the effort and inviting them.
  5. Always remember (especially with friendships that are trying to weather this storm):  They don’t know what you want.  Communicate and be specific.  If you need to get out and would like to go to their house…tell them.  I have friends who will say, “If I pick up dinner, can I come over?” and I’m always happy to have them (especially if they bring me food).  If you need to be alone…tell them, don’t just ignore them.  If you are honestly so busy trying to get things done because your “to do” list has doubled now that you’re taking on everything…let them know.  And if you need help with things, recognize the strengths that your friends have and ask for support.  Everyone likes to feel helpful and if it’s doing something they’re good at…all the better.

Catherine Tidd 2011

Catherine Tidd

More Articles Written by Catherine

Catherine Tidd is a widow and the Founder of www.theWiddahood.com, a free social support network dedicated to anyone who has lost a significant other. She is also a writer, public speaker, and mother to three young entertaining children. She received a degree in English from Rollins College in 1998 and has since worked as a writer, editor, Marketing Manager, and Event Planner. Originally from Louisiana, Ms. Tidd currently lives in Denver, CO. To read more of Catherine's work, visit http://widowchick.blogspot.com

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  • Debbie Itzkowitz says:

    Your story is very helpful to me the daughter-in-law. I have been taking my mother-in-law to doctors to find out if this is physical or mental. She was with her husband for 56 years and he passed a little over two years ago. She has never been alone. At first her friends were their…now she feels like she has no one. I feel she has alienated her friends…because she is angry. She doesn’t seem to get it.

  • Rachel Kennedy says:

    This is extremely helpful for me to read. I found it because I was doing a google search looking to see if other people struggled with their friendships after too. It does feel like no one knows how to treat me, and i’m just six months in—it’s hard to handle myself, still, let alone try to maintain the friendships I’m in. But I really do want to, and I’m tired of it being so uncomfortable with my closest friends. So I’m gonna reread this and take your advice.

  • Priscilla Petersen says:

    I just read this………….So timely!! I’ve been struggling with exactly all of these issues, especially lately – it’s been two years since my very long-time husband, best friend since “forever” passed away….and I was his caregiver, during a horrible illness.

    So, my mind is clearing slightly, and I realize, “where is everybody??”…..

    At first, I was included in dinner or lunch plans, house parties, etc. but, lately? not so much….

    Family is a constant source of support, but, friends??

    After reading this, I know it’s My Problem……

    Interesting……………………