I’ve decided to write an etiquette guide for the recently widowed. I’ve been struggling with the extreme mood swings that are a normal (or so I’ve been assured) symptom of losing a spouse, and I’ve had concerns over how those mood swings appear to others with whom I interact. That, plus years of insomnia spent watching Law & Order have given me deep insight into human nature and what is considered acceptable behaviors for people in this situation.
Necessary caveat now required for anything meant to be humorous and most especially if the humor is somewhat dark:
Everyone I know has been helpful and supportive through these terribly hard months. In no way am I trying to be disrespectful of the very real difficulties those of us recently widowed face, or of the attempts of friends and colleagues to provide support.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can continue.
Chapter 1: Your Public Face.
There’s a public face to grieving, an expectation of what is considered appropriate and what is not. It’s important for the newly bereaved to understand this so as to meet societal expectations.
This is not Victorian England, and unless you possess wealth on a Kardashian-like level it is just not considered good form to sink too deeply into grief. Spending a month or so at a high-end resort is a fine way to get past emotional turmoil, but calling in sick to work for 3 straight weeks will get you fired.
An inability to manage daily life is considered excessive and wrong, showy even. Adults have responsibilities, and these need to be dealt with. Mourning the death of a spouse will not cut it as a reason for being late in paying bills. That “work family” you were told you had? Don’t even think about asking for more time off, or a lighter schedule after the first month is over. Overt, public expressions of grief are to be avoided at all costs, especially if any noise is involved.
On the other hand, doing too well is considered equally bad form. One of the staples of Law & Order was the surviving spouse coping too successfully. An ability to focus on priorities is a bad thing. How dare you be concerned with collecting the insurance money! Starting any projects or making major purchases, even if they were ones planned before the unfortunate event, should be avoided at all costs.
Worst of all is showing any signs of enjoying life or being capable of positive actions and responses. The grieving spouse needs to be in a constant cloud of despair (quietly and discretely expressed, of course). Public appearances are ideally kept to a minimum, and only to acceptable venues such as grocery stores and dry cleaners.
Acceptable ways to show your grief include losing an extreme amount of weight, staring meaningfully into space on occasion, not washing the kitchen floor, and dressing in dark colors. Unacceptable ways to deal with your spouse dying are any forms of physical contact or even admitting to a desire for dating (for reference, see “Silver Linings Playbook”), appearing to enjoy yourself in public at any time, for any reason, gaining weight or appearing too competent.
A good rule of thumb is to consider a potential activity or action and think to yourself, is this something that will make me feel good in a public, noticeable way? If the answer is yes, do not continue.
When encountering acquaintances who enquire how you are doing, the answer should be some meaningless platitude that relieves the questioner of any need to pry further or otherwise get involved. “Fine”; “As well as could be expected”, “Okay. Slowly moving forward” are all good answers. A long, rambling treatise on your combined anger, despair and grief, punctuated with swearing, crying and screaming, is not. Your answer should be delivered with a downward cast of the eyes but a raised chin, and perhaps a small shoulder shrug. Combing a head tilt with the shoulder shrug is permissible only if you are of Mediterranean or Semitic ancestry.
The goal of these interactions is to make the other person feel they’ve done their job in showing an adequate sense of concern, without in any way making them feel uncomfortable or obligated to intervene further. A sample interaction is:
“Oh, I heard about (fill in name of dead spouse). I’m so sorry. How are you doing?”
“Oh, fine… I guess”. This is delivered with a small, brave smile.
“Well, it must be really hard”
“I just keep moving forward, one day at a time.” Looking down, followed by a shoulder shrug.
“Good for you! Glad to see you’re hangin’ in there.”
Further chapters on acceptable vacation planning, allowable expenditures and when to change your Facebook status will be forthcoming.