Losing Him Every Day
By Ahuva Roth
Overview: Faigy is a widow. She lost her husband some time ago. She loses him every day. Through recounting her experience she offers words of comfort to others as well as some helpful ways to help and speak to others who have suffered loss.

Some time ago, yesterday, every day since the dark and terrible months of his illness and the shattering, dissociated time after, Faigy lost her husband.

She tells me that she feels she loses him again and again every morning when she wakes up alone and goes downstairs to make coffee in the deafening silence of her empty house.

When she comes home from an outing or work she feels it again. There is no one home. Even if a child or a grandchild happens to be visiting that day, there will never again be anyone home in a true sense.

Shabbos is torture. Yom Tov is a struggle to keep it together. Simchahs are a wrenching tsunami of conflicting emotions. At a kiddush, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, everyone is there with their spouse, and she is conscious of nothing so much as that she is there alone. There can be no succor for this pain this side of the World to Come, and this frightening knowledge is another of her burdens.

Perhaps you can contemplate the joy and the anguish Faigy felt at the bris of her grandson when they gave him her husband’s name. But can you contemplate the loneliness she felt when she drove home afterward, alone again, to her house with the silence of a mausoleum?

Faigy is a widow. She lost her husband some time ago. She loses him every day. She is not better. The pain and loss do not diminish. She knows it will be this way until she is with him again.

The pain of a woman who has been widowed is unique, Faigy points out. While she acknowledges that there are certainly many men who feel the loss of their wives and the subsequent emptiness in their lives as sharply and as painfully as she does, their predicament is different. Men get to go to shul. They have a place and a time where they can see friends and acquaintances. There is a social milieu where frum men interact daily without the presence of their wives, and the awareness of their tragic singularity is not forced upon their constant awareness. There are daily shiurim where men can hear an uplifting word, can get spiritual nourishment, can receive an invitation for a Shabbos seudah.

“Who thinks to call me?” Faigy wonders aloud. “Who would know that my Shabbos plans fell through? Who wonders if I am eating the seudah alone again?

Several months ago I read a round-robin article of almanos speaking about their challenges, heartaches, and needs. They were all mothers struggling with the financial, emotional, social, and psychological burden of raising children alone. It is a heart-wrenching matzav. But their struggle is profoundly different from the one that faces Faigy and others like her. The unique tragedy and struggle of an older widow living alone seems to be one that has been largely overlooked.

In the United States, women live on average six years longer than men. This means that if you don’t know someone like Faigy, you probably will. In all likelihood you who are reading this article right now know or will know someone, a neighbor, a friend, a mother, a sister, an aunt, who lost her husband, and is living an existence of nearly unrelenting loneliness and sadness.

Baruch Hashem, we have many chesed organizations in our communities. Faigy’s plight, however, and the plight of others like her, does not well lend itself to organizations, volunteers, or philanthropy. We cannot help them by mobilizing great search teams on the sides of the Palisades Parkway, or with subsidies or Chinese auctions.

In my capacity as a mental health professional, I sent out a questionnaire (courtesy of Samcheinu) to widows of 55 and older. Women like Faigy who live alone, whose children are married and busy with their lives, children, and obligations. Here’s what I found:

Words of (Dis)comfort

Many women spoke about the words of comfort offered during shivah — words  meant to comfort that actually stung.

Here are some doozies:

“Your husband’s death is a kapparah for Klal Yisrael.”

“Mashiach will be here soon and you’ll be reunited.”

“Hashem only takes the prettiest flowers.”

“You’ll be okay.”

“He will always be there for you.” The woman who was given this last bit of ingenious consolation wrote that all she could think upon hearing it was — Will he eat with me? Answer questions? Speak to me?

Many respondents mentioned the dissonance of loss comparisons and wished people wouldn’t make them. “I know what you’re going through, I lost so and so,” and so on. Because while we mean to express sympathetic understanding, what actually happens when you say something like that to someone in an acute stage of grief is that you shift the focus off  them and onto you, which isn’t comforting or helpful. “When people came and compared their losses as a way of showing they know how I feel, that was both belittling and unhelpful,” one woman remembered.

Advice can also be painful — especially from women who have not been in the almanah’s shoes. One almanah shared that she received a phone call during shloshim from a cousin, who started by going on and on about why she hadn’t come to the shivah. Then her (younger, married) cousin said, “The advice I give all almanos is to….” Three strikes and you’re out, the woman thought. One, this is not about you. Two, I am not all almanos. Three, who are you to give advice about something you know nothing about!

Almost all the respondents said the most comforting comments during shivah were stories, memories, or anecdotes about the niftar. “Hearing stories and other people’s memories of my husband was the most helpful. I made a constant effort to speak about my husband and shut down the nonsense side chat that is unfortunately all too familiar at shivah houses,” said another.

After the Fact

Some women shared that unexpected nichum aveilim phone calls during the shloshim from people who didn’t make the shivah were difficult; it brought back the sharp pain when they weren’t ready for it. For someone who isn’t especially close (and if you are, you were probably at the shivah), an email can be a better way to reach out with an invitation to speak when the aveil is ready.

One woman wrote how she was at a wedding recently and a cousin came over and apologized for not reaching out, but she hadn’t heard the news during the shivah. She proceeded to say words of nechamah. This exchange threw her off for the entire wedding. It’s confusing and hurtful when people who haven’t been in touch bump into the almanah and blunderingly broach the incredibly sensitive subject.

There were many examples the almanos who responded to my questionnaire gave regarding what people did that was comforting and meaningful, and suggestions for what would be most helpful. Almost all respondents said that concrete and specific offers were very helpful. One woman shared how a friend had offered, “I go shopping every Thursday. Let me know what I can pick up for you.” And her friend then followed through every Wednesday with a text asking what she needs from the store.

One widow said she couldn’t bring herself to go out to eat in a restaurant, and so really appreciated when friends called and asked if they could pick up dinner and come over and spend some time together. Another almanah said she wanted to go out to eat as often as possible, because it was painful to eat at the table she shared with her husband. Many women said Shabbos invitations were essential for getting through the first year (and beyond).

Another reported that going to others for Shabbos was painful. She preferred to have company, and family come to her. “I lost my husband,” she said. “I don’t want to lose making Shabbos as well.”

One woman said she was very touched when a friend dropped off cookies on her doorstep every couple of weeks the entire first year with a sweet note. Another woman appreciated a friend dropping off coffee and a muffin randomly. A third shared how a friend offered to accompany her on doctor’s visits.

One of the big hurdles several almanos mentioned was going to simchahs alone. One woman was continually disappointed that none of her friends called before a simchah to offer a ride or offer to be her buddy so she didn’t feel so awkward at a kiddush or shul event. If you’re making a simchah and you know there’s an almanah who will be coming, call ahead of time to ask who she would be most comfortable sitting with. Remember your friend, neighbor, or family member is now single in a world of couples. A little forethought can help mitigate some of that social awkwardness, discomfort, and pain.

Between Us and Them

One experience nearly all of my respondents described was the surprising phenomena of the people they expected to be there for them disappearing, and genuine caring coming from unexpected places. A neighbor they were only casually acquainted with stops by weekly. An old friend they’d lost touch with calls regularly. Yet many relatives and close friends are bewilderingly absent.

“Where is the friend who said during shivah that she would be there for me?” Faigy wonders. “When? When did she mean she would be there for me?”

“Let me know if you need anything.” “I think about you all the time.” These are vague statements that mean nothing.

One woman commented that she comes home to an empty house and eats dinner alone. Not one of her three closest friends ever said, “Let’s get together for supper,” or called to ask if they could drop in, go for a walk, or get a cup of coffee. But a neighbor she had only a peripheral acquaintance with called and said, “I go walking every day. Let me know any time you want to join me.” Another neighbor said, “I’d love to stop by Shabbos after candlelighting or in the afternoon, whatever works for you.”

Why? Why is it that so many almanos have this same experience? Here’s a noncomprehensive list I came up with based on responses to the questionnaire and my experience as a mental health professional. It’s my hope that if we can identify the underlying resistances, we’re halfway to rectifying them.

  1. People don’t want to be intrusive.

One of the benefits of technology is that there are many ways now to reach out without being intrusive: a text, a WhatsApp, or an email are easy and can mean so much. (Not the kind with emojis and hugs; those are for parking tickets, not death.)

  1. People feel they aren’t close enough to the aveil.

Even if you aren’t part of someone’s inner circle, acts of kindness and recognition are always appreciated, even if they’re declined. Persist. Any practical offer is immeasurably valuable. However, there is a caveat to this suggestion. There is a subtle but profound difference between generosity and pity. Being there for someone and putting someone on your obligatory Friday call list aren’t the same thing.

  1. People feel uncomfortable confronting someone else’s pain, and fear things related to sickness and death.

Recognize your discomfort with pain and death, and speak to a rabbi or a friend who has suffered a similar loss to figure out how to get more comfortable with the situation. The resistance is natural, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s easy to overcome.

  1. People assume aveilim have a good family support system.

Even if people have a good family support system, their family members can’t be there all the time. The dramatic and traumatic shift from living with a beloved spouse for 30, 40, 50 years and then being alone creates so much emptiness and loneliness that every text, act of kindness, and thoughtful offer is appreciated (even when not responded to).

  1. We’re very busy and life has many demands.

I can’t help you with this one. I can only point out how much pain older widows live with and urge you to be conscious of it. You can be assured that while you have moved on from the loss, the almanah has not.

Author Nora McInerny points out, “For you time marches on. You may be tempted to tell the grieving to move on, after all, it’s been weeks, months… surely at this point they must have moved on? Nope. Grief is messy. We do not move on from grief. We carry it with us all the time.”

Grief isn’t linear. Research has shown the stages of grief are circular. One can experience the same stages again and again and also different ones at the same time. Many widows look fine, put on their makeup, a happy face, and get back to everyday life. But the pain and loss are always there.

No one can be there all the time for the almanah the way her husband was. But the more friends and family reach out to be there — a call on Tuesday from an old friend, a dinner one night with a sibling, a visit from a grandchild, an invitation for a Shabbos meal — the less lonely she will feel. Each person who reaches out matters. The almanah needs to fill the place of a person who was there every second of her life. She must replace — no matter how unsatisfyingly — the omnipresent relationship of her husband with a score of people who will touch her heart in small ways.

And if you really want to, you can be one of them. Close your eyes for a few moments and envision a week in the almanah’s life. Then reach into your heart and let it guide you.

Published with the permission of Mishpacha.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 852)

Ahuva Roth