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7 things never to say to a widow during the holidays... and 5 you should

My husband died in April 2012 of a Glioblastoma, the dogged and ruthless brain tumor now afflicting John McCain. Since then, the holidays — once filled with ski trips to Lake Tahoe and raucous couples’ parties at various apartments — are now centered around my son and me (and an assist from our one-eyed cat), as well as a trip to spend Christmas with my husband’s family in Texas.

Our final Christmas as a family, in December 2011. Justin died the following April.

But the lead-up is lonely and solitary, with Alex, now 6, and me decorating our tree alone, wrapping presents alone and opening them up, alone. We hang out with friends, but too often, feel like the proverbial fifth wheels, interfering on otherwise very intimate family moments. We make the best of it. But along the way, I’ve heard some pretty, ahem, notable pearls of wisdom from well-meaning (I hope) adults who simply cannot fathom what we go through every year. So, here’s what not to say to a widow (or widower).

  1. “At least you have fewer gifts to buy.” The reason why this one is obtuse and insensitive should be obvious, but if it’s not, maybe you need some emotional intelligence training.
  2. “Trust me, the holidays only make me realize how much I can’t stand my spouse/partner and how lucky you are to not have to deal with fights all the time.” Ummm, well, possibly, but maybe not quite the right sentiment or timing. I’d take a nice, juicy argument over dry chicken over having to be both mom and dad to my kid.
  3. “You can control your own travel plans.” Yes, this is a real thing said by a real person. I didn’t realize having the love of my life die would result in the bonus of me being able to book flights whenever I wanted.
  4. “Count your blessings.” Gee, thanks. On it. But appreciate the reminder.
  5. “At least you have your amazing son — he’s so much like his dad.” That one is true, and that’s something I appreciate and relish every single day. Even those days when my son, like his dad, debates every last issue into the ground until my head is pounding and fine, yes, you can have gummy bears for dinner. But as a general rule, never start a sentence to a grieving person with "at least." Whatever your intentions, you end up minimizing our pain.
  6. “Who knows if you’d still be married anyway if Justin had lived? Everyone we know is getting divorced.” Yes, folks, this is an actual quote from an actual human who ostensibly has an actual functioning brain and beating heart. No further comment necessary.
  7. “You’re so incredibly strong — I have no idea how you do it. I’d never be able to function.” Yes, you would. Just as yes, I do. Because guess what? Babies can’t feed themselves, rents don’t pay themselves, and the only way out is through.
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Joe Biden on wearing Beau's rosary beads : It's my connection to him

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Joe Biden on wearing Beau's rosary beads : It's my connection to him

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And for what it's worth, here's something you can say to a widow anytime, but particularly during those super-tough moments like the holidays, when it's all about family and single parents can't help but feel shut out:

  1. "Hey, do you want to join us for a casual holiday dinner?"
  2. "Come over and help us trim our tree!"
  3. "We're going on a ski trip and it would be so fun if you could join us!"
  4. "We'd love to come over and help you decorate and wrap gifts."
  5. "Let's have holiday cocktails together!"
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