From the January 2016 issue

A Guide for Grief and Healing for Widows

Author of 'A Widow's Guide to Healing' Kristen Meekhof shares her personal story and advice for grieving widows and moms.

What do you do your spouse dies? It’s a question Kristin Meekhof knows painfully well. At 33, she lost her husband, Roy, to a rare cancer eight weeks after his diagnosis. A clinical social worker, she grappled with intense grief – and legal decisions she had to make fast. “They need a blueprint that spells out exactly what to do,” she’d later write. They didn’t. So she and local psychologist James Windell paired up to change that. With the input of 100 widows ages 25-80, many of them moms, the result is new book A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. We asked Meekhof, now 41, to share some of her top insights for widows, their kids and families and friends who care about them.

Support circle

Often, post-loss, people widows “thought they could count on end up disappointing them,” she says. Weed out negative nancies and focus on nurturing relationships. The weeks after the funeral put widows in a fog, so they need a diligent confidant who can triage key documents and expenses. Keep close a “sounding board” too. “Someone who you trust, who’s nonjudgmental and can provide emotional support.”

Maintain sanity

Tackle what you can control, she says, like exercise, going to the bookstore or even engaging in a conversation. “Healthy distractions can really begin to provide those initial steps to healing.”

Focus on health

“Whether your immune system has been compromised, you’re sleeping less, more, or you’re exhibiting other physical symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your doctor” in the weeks, even months, after the funeral.

The kids

“Sometimes kids are afraid to bring it up because they don’t want to hurt their parent,” Meekhof says. But being open and helping your child “get to know” you is key. Keep it natural: “It doesn’t have to be one ‘sit down.'” For kids who don’t know others who’ve lost a parent, support groups can help. “It gives them another place where they can at least be identified and share when they feel comfortable.”

How to help

Friends and family who help manage the “small stressors” is a huge aid – think home and car maintenance, child care issues, meal time. That “can relieve some of the overall day-to-day components that grief throws into the situation.”

What to say

If you’re at a loss, Meekhof says, complete honesty is best: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’m so very sorry. Please tell me what to do.”

What not to say

Don’t tell widows how to grieve. “There’s no finish line for the grief. It’s something you learn to live with. Words can be sharp and painful.”

Identity crisis

Many widows struggle with no longer being a partner. “When that’s taken from them, it’s a huge identity crisis. It’s developing the identity of the solo mom, or sometimes they have to go back to work because of financial concerns.”

Self-taught advice

Meekhof urges widows to practice self-compassion. “Women tend to be very critical of themselves. They try to get everything right, but there’s no perfect way to grieve.”

A Widow’s Guide to Healing

  • Authors: Kristin Meekhof and James Windell
  • Pages: 256
  • Price: $14.99
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, 2015

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