Sunday, January 20, 2008

So You Really Want To Help?

This past November, two women I know lost their husbands unexpectedly. At a time when most people were making arrangements for Thanksgiving and Christmas; diving into the season of shopping, food and family, these two women were making different arrangements; diving into a difficult season filled with grief, not joy. Having lost my husband 5 years ago, my heart aches when I hear of the death of someone's spouse. I have a sense of what's ahead for these women, and the people who want to support them.

Whether in our 20's, 30's 40's or older, at some point in time we will be faced with the challenging task of wanting to comfort someone who has faced this type of loss. In my experience, although I had a very large network of family, friends and co-workers who were there for me big-time in the immediate days following Phil's death, only a select few, most of them family, were around to face with me the incredibly difficult weeks, months and yes, years that were ahead of me.

And that it totally understandable. People get back to their own lives. Everyone has their own families, work issues, problems and busy life to deal with. And, to some degree, the fact is, your friend facing this loss has to go through much of this journey alone. No one can be there during the darkest of times, which for me, was (and still is) between Midnight and 6:00am.

After reading an article sent to me by my good friend Tony Thomas, I was inspired to compile this list of Do's and Don'ts for those desiring to help a widow. Many were in the article, and I added a few of my own. Sometimes one of the best ways you can offer comfort is not only to know what you can say or do that might be helpful...but to also know what not to say or do!

Do's and Don'ts
Do stay connected. There is already a huge hole in our world. Don't assume we need 'space' to grieve. If we don't want to talk, you'll know, but if we do, your effort at connection can be a great gift at the right time.

Do say you are sorry for our loss. It may be a simple statement but its true. You are, and we appreciate you are, and sometimes less is more. It's even OK to admit you don't know what else to say.

Don't say "I know how you feel". Unless a person has lost her husband/spouse through death they do not understand how we feel. Do they crawl into an empty cold bed at night? Do they open the door of the fridge to plan dinner for two, only to remember there is no one pulling in the driveway that loves pot pies? Do they run their fingers through their hair and realize theirs will be the only fingers making that simple sweet gesture? Do they pick-up the cell to make a call, only to one will answer? It is unfair for us to expect them to understand. Every grief experience is unique. Many widows I spoke to talked of people who said said "I know how you feel" because they lost their parent, their grandparent, or a friend. Losing an elderly parent...losing anyone is terrible, but it is not the same as losing a spouse. This isn't the time to share your story. We may be able to listen to your story later, but not now.

Do talk specifically about our husband. So many people avoid mentioning his name, thinking they don't want to "remind us" of our loss. Hello? Like we've forgotten? Like we don't think of that person every single day? Tell a story, share a memory, a quality you remember, his acts or words; serious or humorous. We are comforted by knowing our husband has not been forgotten.

Do invite us to anything. We may say no, and that's OK, but we will appreciate being asked.

Do accept that we are where we are. Some marriages are brief, some long. Some marriages are healthy, others dysfunctional, intense, or remote. Death comes suddenly or in tiny increments over years. Again our experiences are so different, as are we. So is our journey through grief. Do not assume we go through the outlined grief process 'by the book.'

Don't make 'conversation only' offers. That's when you don't know what to say so just to make conversation you offer to do something but then you don't follow-up. "I'll call and we'll go out to lunch", for example. We'd rather hear you say, "I've been thinking of you" than make a "conversation only" offer.

Don't say "If there's anything I can do, just let me know." As with the above "conversation offer," most of the widowed won't ask for help, but they do need it, especially if they live alone.

Do be specific. "I've some free time on Saturday, why don't I come to your house and mow your lawn." Handyman work, lawn care, grocery shopping or something like this is really helpful.

More don'ts
A few glasses of wine into a laugh/cry session with friends led to the "dumbest" things people said to us. Here are a few good ones...and yes, these were things people actually did say--so let's call this the "so dumb they should be obvious" list of what not to say: are you? ( how the hell do you think I am?)

--I know how you feel, my dog died last week. (ok, I love my dog but...come on)

--At least you're young...and skinny. You'll have no trouble! If I lost my husband I'd be doomed. (Gee thanks, nice to know I'm so much better off than you! and that you think I can still snag a man!)

--What happened to your husband, I didn't even know he was sick (then why are you here?)

--At least he's not suffering anymore (yeah, but I am!)

--You should sell you house...there's too many memories there. (That's the point, my memories are all I have)

--Now you can do all the things you like without worrying about him! (????)

--You need to move'll help you forget (oh yeah, I'll get a replacement and forget all about him)

--You need to start dating (only you know when you are ready for that)

One of the most helpful things you can do for someone dealing with loss is to be a good listener. Sometimes, just your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical. Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just be there. Concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you. Your family member or friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. But your gift is to listen each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend's healing process.

Finally, give your friend or loved one permission to express her feelings without fear of criticism. Think about your helper role as someone who "walks with," not "behind" or "in front of" the one who is grieving.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Wacky World Of Online Dating

Two years into what I now call my second life (my single life), I was walking in the park with my girlfriend chatting about work, family and life in general. Eventually the conversation turned to my love life…or lack thereof.

“Are you dating yet?” she asked.

“I go out.” I said. “I have some good male friends. I’ve had a few fix-ups, but no one special.”

I then lamented that it’s much more challenging to be single in your 40’s than in your 20’s. The pool of single people when you’re young is much larger than in mid-life. Most of the people in my world are married. I don’t do the bar scene thing, and although I have a cool job, I rarely meet single people through work, or at least, single people my age. Akron, Ohio, I have determined, is not exactly a hot bed of activity for singles.

“Have you tried online dating?” she asked.

I admit I had thought about it. I had even perused several dating sites, and on one evening of boredom I completed the eharmony personality profile. But I was skeptical about joining the world of online dating.

“It seems desperate”, I said. “If I’m supposed to meet someone it will just happen when it happens.”

She disagreed and said that if she were single she would absolutely go online. She thought it was a far better way of meeting people than just by chance, especially in a bar. She then told me a success story of a friend who had met someone online.

I thought about it. I did some surfing, and I concluded there were many benefits. You can scan a profile and learn at least the basics about someone: their hobbies and interests, family background, work, even religion to see if there is some common ground. And, while looks aren’t everything, there does need to be some form of physical attraction, and I liked that you can see a photo.

I had that conversation with my girlfriend 2 ½ years ago. Since then, between her urging and that of others, I gave in and gave online dating a try; on and off sporadically. During that time I met some very nice guys, and had one serious relationship. And though none of them turned out to be the happy ending promised in the commercials, I continue to enjoy a friendship with a select few. As open-minded as I have tried to be, however, I have determined that this form of dating is not for me.

What brought me to this revelation?

It was a communication with a man that made me realize that online dating was like shopping for a partner the way you shop for a car. And somehow, that just feels strange. You log in, and type your search specifications and up pops a bunch of photos. This one looks nice, but it doesn’t have a sun roof. I like the looks of that one, but it has too many miles, and wow, this one doesn’t have a very good track record of performance.

Back to whats-his-name; the final straw in my online dating life. His first email told me he liked what he saw in my profile. That I stood out from the rest, blah blah. I can tell a lot about someone by the way they write, and can quickly determine whether I want to continue the communication. After a week or so, I believe in meeting the person in a safe, comfortable setting. If you communicate via email or phone too long without meeting you can set up false expectations. Someone may seem great on paper, but you have to meet in person to know if there’s any chemistry.

So, when the idea to meet for coffee came up, I suggested a day and time. He then committed the big crime in my book. TMI (too much information) He told me he couldn’t meet with me then because he was meeting with another woman he’d been communicating with, and suggested another time we could meet. He then went a step further and said he would much rather meet with me than this other person, but he couldn’t cancel now. He told me more about his other online meetings with women, ending with the disclaimer that he said he was an honest person, and felt he needed to share all this.

That was the wake-up call.

Of course I’m not naive enough to think people don't communicate with more than one person at a time. But full disclosure of this, along with details of all his other failed dates and disappointments fell into the TMI category. But, hey wait... wasn’t I guilty of the same thing? Window shopping …lining people up, comparing features and benefits…scheduling test drives?

I sat here and thought about many of the crazy dates I'd been on. Those dates where 20 minutes in I'm praying for the night to end. Thinking "why is he saying that?" "Why would anyone share this information?" "Why the hell am I sitting here?" Not wanting to be in that situation again, I politely ended the correspondence with "what's -his-name" without meeting him in person.

Online dating has the potential to lead to serial dating. There’s always another profile that looks better. And there always will be. The grass is always greener. It’s not real life. I don’t mean to sound judgmental. Especially since I felt like so many people judged me when I tried it. Although it didn't work for me, I know there are success stories. I know it works for some people. An eternal romantic, I love to hear those stories.

What’s been most beneficial to me from the online dating experience is that it’s gotten me back out into the world of dating after being with the same man for 20 years. It’s helped me figure out not only what I want…but what I don’t want. I know what my deal-breakers are. Although I’m open to finding love again, I’ve accepted that 5 years of being single may turn into 6, or 10 or forever.

I was blessed to have true love once… until death did us part, and because I am an optimist, I have hope it could happen again. Although my online dating life is over I will still date when the right opportunity presents itself.

Hope springs eternal.