An excerpt from "If There's Anything I Can Do..." A Book of Personal Experiences and Good Ideas on How to Help Those Who Have Suffered Loss, Feldheim Publishers, 2003
After consulting with a number of widows, I was able to put together the following discussion of important issues. Hopefully it will give you a better idea of how we are feeling at times, how to deal with us in certain situations, and what we do to keep ourselves in good shape mentally for our families. I would like to emphasize that not every widow thinks, feels, or behaves in the same way, so please do not assume that what is explained below holds true for each and every one of us. However, I still think that the following information will increase your awareness.
PRIVACY: RESPECTING AND PRESERVING IT
When it is discovered that a family member has a devastating illness, it is, without a doubt, a huge trauma for everyone involved. It takes a few weeks for the individual to grasp what is happening, to know what to say to their children (young and adult alike), and to learn how to resume their day-to-day lives that are now overshadowed by the terrible news.
To complicate matters even further, they now have to deal with hospital stays and treatments, side effects to new medications and treatments, and medicines that must be taken according to a time schedule. Any one of these can be completely overwhelming.
This is why families need their privacy. They have to learn about the changes that they must make in their lives and determine what is the best course of action in dealing with all the issues that come up as a result of the illness.
One of the first things the family decides is whom to tell and whom not to tell. This select group of people will form the nucleus of the family's support system. Therefore, only very supportive people should be chosen -- people who are truly concerned about the family's welfare.
The family may not want to let the rest of the world know about the diagnosis right away if the one who is fatally ill is expected to live for a few more years. On the other hand, if the prognosis is only for a few months, then the family might want to immediately inform everyone in order to rally Tehillim [Psalms] groups and to benefit from the prayers of others. Or, they still might want to preserve their privacy up until the end. This is a very personal and private decision.
When trying to help someone in this situation, be supportive -- not intrusive.
There will always be those individuals who feel insulted that they were not informed about the illness early on. Their hurt feelings should not be taken into account. What is imperative is that the family, within the confines of taking care of an ill person, continues to try and have as normal and productive a life as possible. Their needs are of primary importance at this time.
The main guideline to follow in trying to help someone in this situation is to be supportive -- not intrusive. I cannot stress the importance of this statement enough.
It is wonderful when a person can make time for a friend or family member who is going through a personal crisis. A calm, supportive friend can quell the emotional or physical storm raging inside the distraught person. Yet, these people must keep in mind that even close friendships have their boundaries. Do not cross over the line of being a caring friend to being one who is a "tale-carrying" friend.
People will come to you when they need to talk things out if they feel you are trustworthy -- i.e., they think that you would never repeat to others what they choose to confide to you. They will come to you if they think you will really listen to their fears and concerns -- and also if they think you will never, ever try to pry more information out of them than they want to give.
"Being there" for a person does not mean that you need to know every detail of what is going on in the person's life. That is not true friendship. Sometimes things are just too painful to talk about. And if at one time or another your friend confides something really personal to you, do not automatically assume that she will want to discuss it even in the near future or ever again. Let her lead the conversation where she wants it to go. And, needless to say, anything said in confidence should not be repeated to anyone else.
Also, if the family seems particularly hesitant about using a doctor that you suggest, don't press them for an explanation. They may not get along with that particular doctor, or they may have heard contrary information about him that they do not want to discuss with you. Their decision is a private one, but you can rest assured that they will go to the four corners of the earth to find the best place to treat the ill individual.
SUPPLYING USEFUL INFORMATION
It often happens that when word gets out about someone's illness, the family is deluged with advice from well-meaning family and friends. The suggestions and information that they have to offer can actually be useful in the following areas:
- Who are the top-rated doctors for that particular disease and where are they practicing?
- Which are the best local hospitals to go to for treatment?
- Exactly what does their insurance cover regarding treatments, hospital stays, and medicines?
- Where can they get financial help to cover their medical bills?
- Where can they find a competent therapist to help them or their children cope with this terrible crisis?
However, before conveying this information, it should checked thoroughly for accuracy.
Such information can be obtained over the Internet, often by just typing the name of the disease into the search engine. It can take hours or even days to sort through all the information that turns up -- and this is time that the family very well may not have. Assembling all this data and letting the family know what resources are available near them helps them tremendously.
But only do this research if you know for sure that the family would be receptive to it. If they feel confident about the competency, medical skills, and course of treatment that their doctor is pursuing, there is no need to look further.
By no means should you undermine any of their decisions when they feel that the medical care they are getting is the best and right one for them. If you know of an excellent doctor in the field they need, or you've heard of a hospital where they are providing successful treatments, you can simply pass this information along to the family and let it go at that.
The way you deliver this information is also important. Write or print it out for them instead of bombarding them with it when you happen to see them in the grocery store. They may not be able to concentrate on what you are saying at that moment.
If the information you want them to have is clearly typed or written in neat handwriting, they are much more likely to absorb the date when they look at it in the privacy of their own home. You can even write it down in a new notebook that has pockets on the sides for other information. Believe me, they will be very grateful to get it this way!
Please keep in mind that the family may choose to handle their situation in a different way from what you have outlined in your research. There is no reason for you to get insulted if they decide not to take your recommendations. They will still be very appreciative of your good intentions and all the hard work you did in collecting and sending them information you thought was important for them to know.
ON LOSING A SPOUSE SUDDENLY OR AFTER A PROLONGED ILLNESS
While losing a spouse suddenly or after a prolonged illness are both very hard, there is a vast difference between them in terms of how prepared the remaining spouse is in handling the new circumstances.
After a Prolonged Illness
A woman who has lost her husband after taking care of him for years has slowly moved into the dominant role in their partnership. Over time she has assumed the majority of the household responsibilities, i.e. paying bills, maintaining the house and car, managing the children, etc. She has become extraordinarily adept at rearranging her schedule and that of her children at a moment's notice, since it was always possible that a medical crisis might arise. Once her husband dies, it is not as if she had been thrown into the wilderness without a map; she already knows how to manage things on her own.
But it should be understood that even though she has been the main caregiver in their family for the past few years and has shouldered all of the responsibilities, she still has to make a tremendous adjustment once she loses her husband. Although he could not offer much in the way of physical assistance, he still might have been offering suggestions regarding the children and finances, etc., and the wife still felt she was part of a couple -- a team. Once her husband dies, she has to get used to being single in every respect.
One of the main problems this type of widow has to deal with once shiva is over is pure exhaustion! Years of being her spouse's primary caregiver (and for some, also taking care of her children) finally take their toll. An emotional and physical fatigue can sweep over her so quickly and silently that she may not realize at first what has happened and why she is feeling so weary now that she actually has fewer responsibilities.
After a Sudden Death
When a woman suddenly loses her husband, adjusting to all the new demands that life makes on her while trying to deal with the shock of the death is completely overwhelming. After all, she had no warning and no opportunity to prepare herself.
One woman described her anguish over losing her husband in a fatal car accident with the following analogy: "It's like surfing on a tidal wave, trying to reach shore, but every time you get close to land another huge wave pushes you back again. And many times you feel that you have nothing to hang onto to keep you afloat."
A widow whose husband has died suddenly and unexpectedly loses her footing. It doesn't matter if her children are still living at home or have grown up and moved out of the house. She has to readjust the way she lives and thinks all at once and in every aspect. This is very difficult. After a few months, she usually is able to get her bearings again and settle into a schedule, but it takes time, a tremendous amount of effort, and unfailing support from family and friends.
It goes without saying that a widower also has tremendous adjustments to make when he loses his wife, either after a prolonged illness or sudden death. If he has young children at home, he must arrange for childcare so that he can go to minyan and work, since in most families, it is usually the wife who manages the house and cares for the children so that the husband is free to go out and do these things.
Once the wife is gone, the world turns topsy-turvy for the husband and children. The husband may have to learn new skills such as food preparation, how to do laundry and clean the house, and how to take care of his children's individual physical and emotional needs. He must make all of these adjustments while dealing with his own grief.
Whether husbands or wives have it worse is definitely not an issue here. Anyone who has lost a spouse under any circumstances suffers greatly. That is why people should be extremely considerate when dealing with a widow/er who is emotionally and physically spent or in shock over the death of his/her spouse. Follow that person's lead as to what his/her immediate needs and wants are.
PEOPLE MAY EMERGE FROM SHIVA CHANGED BY THEIR LOSS
When mourners step outside for the first time after shiva, the first seven days of mourning, most of us notice that the world has stayed the same -- after all, the sun has continued to rise in the east every morning and set in the west at night for those seven days -- but we feel completely different. Our loss of a loved one has changed us.
As we reenter the "normal world" a bit unsteady, but determined, our friendships and priorities begin to shift. We draw closer to our counselors, seek guidance more often from our Rabbinic advisors, and consult with men and women who have been in our situation. We need them for their wisdom and experience; we have problems to solve and stories to share that only someone who has been in a similar situation can understand. As a result, this new circle of friends helps us gain trust in our judgment and confidence in our abilities. Our friendships of the past are not any less wanted or treasured, but now we need others who can help guide us into the future.
"FIRST TIMES" AFTER SHIVA ARE VERY HARD
It is really hard after shiva to meet and greet people for the first time outside of the house. This applies to people who came during shiva and more so to people who hadn't yet heard about what happened.
Many people who had suffered the loss of a close relative told me that for the first few months they would only go out in public if they had to, i.e. to run an essential errand, to go to work, or to buy food. They were worried about who they would see, the mutual embarrassment and the inevitable pain. One woman told me that she did not know what to say to parents who had recently lost their teenage son, so she ducked down a supermarket aisle and hid there until they left the store. Some people are able to make eye contact with those who have suffered a loss, but then they look embarrassed and very uncomfortable. They turn beet red and mutter something unintelligible and then quickly walk away. (Actually, people told me that they preferred that to being drawn into emotional scenes in public!)
Just a simple greeting and few kind words are all that are necessary when you meet anyone who has suffered a recent loss.
While people who just lost someone they loved may be at a loss as to how to handle themselves in every social situation that might come up, those I spoke with all agreed that seeing someone completely avoid them often made them feel uneasy. And, believe it or not, many times they found themselves in situations where they had to make those awkward moments comfortable for the other person!
Perhaps this whole situation can be summarized by saying: You feel uneasy and they feel uneasy, but just a simple greeting and few kind words are all that are necessary when you meet anyone who has suffered a recent loss. Many times that is about all the person can handle. They don't like to be engaged in a long uncomfortable conversation about what happened -- especially in public.
Even the simplest routines are hard to return to after shiva, such as attending the first minyan in shul or the first P.T.A meeting at a child's school etc. Those who were mourning might prefer to sit in the back of the room for a while. Please understand that they need time to adjust to their reentry into even the most mundane of activities (even if it is something they've done hundreds of times and even if they were there just a week ago).
They may also need the emotional support of their family and friends to help get them through some family "firsts," i.e., holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other celebrations. Even though they are enveloped in the sadness that comes with not being able to share these occasions with the one they lost, they try to keep their spirits up for the sake of their children and the rest of the family and friends who, they know, are also suffering from their loss. Together, families should work to summon up the strength and fortitude to make these occasions happy times, as they ought to be.
After a while, those who were mourning get their confidence back and comfortably face the world again. But, they appreciate it when family and friends let them do it according to their own "personal time clocks."
SINGLE PARENT FAMILIES: THE PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, AND LABELING ASPECTS
The Physical Aspect
Managing a household alone is difficult and exhausting -- it's that plain and simple. The single parent must clean the house, do the laundry, pay the bills, maintain the car, fix the plumbing, take the kids to the doctor and dentist, make birthday parties, keep on top of each child's studies, get each child to school on time, help each one with school projects, buy them all shoes, clothing, and school books, take them for haircuts, etc., and still have a nutritious supper ready for them on time!
That is a huge task to accomplish for a full-time parent, but how does a working parent get everything done? As the saying goes, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" Single parents quickly learn the importance of prioritizing tasks, becoming very organized and efficient, and arranging for assistance when needed. Those who can afford it hire help. Those who can't enlist their children, relatives, or neighbors when they need assistance. Often these people are more than happy to offer their services. Other times a trading or bartering of services can be worked out. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity and a positive attitude.
Most single parents try not to dwell on all of the work that single parenting entails. They feel very fortunate to have their children and pray every day for Hashem to give them the wisdom and strength to keep up with everyone's needs.
The Emotional Aspect
Assuming full responsibilities for a growing, active family puts a tremendous amount of strain on a widow/er. Those whom I interviewed told me that the most daunting part about becoming a single parent was learning how to cope with difficult situations and having to make critical decisions alone. It was frightening for them to realize that now there was no one else they could count on day or night beside themselves. Every single issue that came up, they had to face - alone.
The most daunting part about becoming a single parent was learning how to cope with difficult situations and having to make critical decisions alone.
Although it is a fact of life that pressing problems inevitably arise concerning the children, work, the car, money, etc. in everyone's family -- and it can be overwhelming at times to deal with these alone with all of the other daily responsibilities -- the most emotionally difficult part of it is trying to decide alone how to handle everything correctly. It imposes a tremendous pressure on single parents. They feel that, with their children depending on them, they should do everything right every time.
Whenever they have to make a major decision, they often do the following:
- Consult an expert.
- Ask a close relative or friend for advice or just to listen to their concerns.
- Give the matter a lot of thought, knowing that - right or wrong - only they bear responsibility for the decision. (When a couple decides together, at least they can share the blame!)
That is why it is so crucial for family and friends to express their support and even come out and say that they know these individuals are trying to do their best.
Single parents do not invite unsolicited advice, but if they do ask you for your opinion they are hoping that you will diplomatically steer them in the right direction, with only their family's best interests in mind. They are perfectly capable of making the decision on their own, but as it says (Proverbs 1:5): "A wise man seeks counsel."
A married couple can bat around the pros and cons of an issue with each other. Someone who is single (whether widowed or divorced) does not have that option. When you are asked to express your opinion on a certain matter, try to appreciate that fact and take the person's feelings into consideration.
Feeling solely responsible for managing the household actually has ramifications in another area of our lives. If the garbage bag is still sitting by the door, or the bedroom is a mess, or we run out of milk, who is there to blame but ourselves? A tremendous lesson in marital harmony can be learned from this. How often do couples get upset with each other and squabble over these things? But when the option of blaming the other person isn't there, believe me, we all become much more tolerant and less judgmental of ourselves!
So whether single parents no longer have someone with whom to share the responsibilities or the decision-making -- or even the blame -- what it all boils down to is that they feel very alone and lonely. They might manage nicely one day and feel anxious and depressed the next. It takes a while for their emotions to stabilize.
Even the full support of family and friends cannot alleviate the deep loneliness and the pain of loss.
It is also important to understand that even the full support of family and friends cannot alleviate the deep loneliness and the pain of loss. Someone can be busy from morning until night, but that "hole in his/her heart" still weighs heavily. It is tremendously hard to fill the void left by the death of a spouse if the marriage was good and the remaining spouse knows exactly what wonderful things s/he is missing out on as the days go by.
Sometimes fear and anxiety grip the individual late at night. A woman asks herself: Where will I get all the money I need? How can I be both a mother and father to my children? Where should we live? What will happen to us? What will happen to us? What will I do once my children leave home? Will I ever have a loving relationship with another man? Sometimes all these worries can make a person physically ill.
Yes, loneliness and anxiety can slash a zig-zag through single parents' hearts and their daily lives. Yet when they grow accustomed to and more secure with their new status -- that was thrust upon them -- they are able to slowly disentangle their emotions and learn for themselves the best ways to deal with the issues.
The Labeling Aspect
Sometimes people assume things about single-parent homes that simply are not true. They may think that our children must have behavioral problems, that our homes are filled with sadness, that our Shabbos and Yom Tov tables are depressing, and that we need advice on everything. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In most cases, it is just the opposite! Our children are normal and happy, our homes are cheerful, and we can handle our problems by ourselves.
I cannot count the number of times my children's teachers have told me, after praising their academic achievements or their behavior, "Mrs. Feldbaum, I just can't believe that your child comes from a single-parent home." This is of course intended as a compliment, but I am sensitive to underlying assumptions. Many of my single-parent friends have received similar "compliments."
Healthy single-parent homes provide a warm, loving, happy, safe, and supportive atmosphere where well-adjusted children thrive. Of course, not every single-parent home is healthy, just like not every two-parent home is healthy, and not every two-parent home provides only wonderful things for their children.
To stereotype children from single-parent homes does them a tremendous disservice. It is even destructive. It undermines all the hard work these parents put into raising their children in a healthy fashion.
HOW TO KEEP A HAPPY OCCASION HAPPY
If a person in this category is making a simcha, a celebration, see if there is anything you can do to help with the preparations. Not only is this an emotionally hard time for this person, but all of the preparations compound the amount of stress s/he is feeling at what is supposed to be a happy time.
You can help a close friend or family member who is going through this in the following ways:
- Send over a meal the week before the event.
- Invite the children over to your house sometime so the parent can run some last-minute errands.
- Invite the family over for a Shabbos meal a week or two before the event.
- If a wedding is being planned, offer to give one of the Sheva Berachos meals for the new bride and groom during the first week of their marriage.
- If the celebration is taking place at home, come early to help set up, or stay late to help clean up, or offer to help with some of the food preparation or serving.
- Come early to the house to help get the younger children ready.
- Offer to run errands.
- Try to be available the day of the event to pick up guests at the airport, or drive them to where they need to go, or take care of any last minute "emergencies."
Helping with any of the above suggestions will mean a great deal more to the person than even buying the most perfect gift for the occasion. After all, is there any more important gift you can give than being there for people when they need you the most?
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MENTAL HEALTH GETAWAY
The physical demands of raising young children or the emotional challenges of raising teenagers can become too much sometimes for a single parent. It is precisely then that these parents need to get away by themselves to recharge their mental batteries and regain their calm.
Many single parents take a vacation from their children at least once a year. Here are some examples of where they go: One travels across country every year to visit friends for a week, another attends out-of-town family celebrations alone a few times a year, and yet another, taking a very novel approach, sends all of her children to the Catskills to visit relatives for a week every summer while she stays home!
Single parents love their children and are "on call" for them all the time. It disturbs us when we hear someone say, "Oh, are you going out of town again?" Do not jump to conclusions about something you know nothing about. A sensible parent knows she must take care of herself so that she can take care of others. She will use her best judgment when deciding how long to be away, when is the best time to go, and which childcare arrangements will work.
All parents have to deal with their children's needs, wants, and issues on a daily basis. However, it is harder for a single parent because she must handle all these things alone; she no longer has a partner with whom to share the responsibilities. Short vacations definitely make a difference!
And remember, a happy parent is better equipped to raise happy children.
To purchase a copy of "If There's Anything I Can Do…" visit www.feldheim.com
For more on this topic, see "Sensitivity Training" by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski.