From Married to Widowed

Shortly after the death of my spouse, I was filling out a form at the bank. One of the questions was what my “status” was. In the past the answer was “married,” but now I was being asked to check the “widowed” box.

I could not bring myself to check the “single” box because in my heart I had not yet gone from married to widowed. So, I did what any normal griever would do in that situation: I started to cry.

The teller asked me if I was okay. Did I need anything? The response in my head was, “Yes, I wish that I was still able to check the ‘married’ box!” Instead, I told her that I lost my spouse and she said, “I’m so sorry. I know how you feel.”

Can You Know How I Feel?

So, I asked her if she also lost her spouse and she said no, that he was alive and well. I know that she was feeling sorry for me, and maybe even trying to help, but could she possibly know how I felt if she had never lost a spouse?

I try never to say “I know how you feel” to anyone, because I don’t know.

How can I know how they feel? All I know is how I felt when my spouse died, and grief touched my life. We know that people say these things with good intentions. But those of us grieving usually don’t appreciate them or find any comfort in hear it.

We Can’t Know What Others Feel

I always find it difficult in my groups and workshops when people have lost a child. I don’t always know how to help them. I work closely with so many people that have lost a loved one, but I have never had a child, so I have never lost one.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child, so I don’t pretend I can know how they feel. I never will. All I can do as a bereavement counselor is to try to understand the intensity of their emotion and be present with them.

Journey from Married to Widowed is Unique

Loss of a loved one is unique to each person. To say you know how a person feels minimizes their experience because you have shifted the conversation to you and your feelings. The feelings of grief are distinctive based on the relationship and the circumstances of the loss.

I may have lost my spouse, and I remember all too well how that felt, but someone else may be feeling something quite different. We need to validate that. It’s important to legitimize grief feelings, and they aren’t the same for everyone.

I understand the teller at my bank was trying to help, but instead of trying to convince me she knew how I was feeling, it would have been better for me if she just told me she was sorry. Helping people through the grief of a loss is not simply a matter of understanding the emotions we’re going through but supporting us by respecting that our grief journey is unique.

This is an excerpt from Grief: Hope in the Aftermath, by Gary Sturgis. Purchase a copy on

Gary Sturgis

Gary Sturgis survived the greatest loss of his life and now works as a Grief Specialist, Bereavement Facilitator and Speaker, guiding and supporting others in their struggle with grief. Facilitating both Support Groups and Workshops, he finds it a gift to be able to help others navigate their way through the maze of grief in a very personal and meaningful way. He lives by the ocean in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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