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Time heals all wounds…or something

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by Crystal Ellefsen

Crystal Ellefsen lives in San Diego with her husband and son, where she writes, works, explores, thinks, drinks coffee, writes, makes videos, paints, doodles, sings, and writes some more. Until recently, she published here and elsewhere as Crystal Hadidian, the 'single parenting contributor' around these parts.

Clichés like “it will get better with time” are usually quite true, but rarely worth saying aloud when someone is crying or in the extra fresh stages of grief.

When my husband left, it wasn’t a clean break. It was an extended, complicated, emotional, professional and economic hurricane. I bring this up not to start a contest about whose divorce was worst, but to explain that my season of grief, confusion, and desperation was not tidy or short.

To put it bluntly, I was needy for a long time as I struggled to get financial, emotional, and spiritual stability.

Some people are naturally pretty skilled at engaging hurting people, but most of us, especially when confronted with a loss we haven’t personally experienced, feel fairly confused about what to say and do.

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My dad died when I was a kid, so divorce wasn’t the first huge loss I had encountered, or the first time I had experienced people who didn’t know what to say to me about my life circumstances.

When I went through separation and divorce, some people were helpful and some people were not.

Even at the time, I envisioned writing some sort of instruction manual for friends wanting to help a grieving, wounded, heart-broken mom trying to unravel and recover from the end of a relationship. I never imagined I would actually have a place to share those thoughts.

Here, at Simple Mom, seems to be the right place; a community of caring, determined people, who seem to truly want to grow and improve their own life and the lives of those around them with both external and internal simplicity.

But living simply doesn’t just mean clutter-free kitchens or an un-rushed schedule for its own sake, right? We desire to live simply, in order to live authentically and be available for genuine relationships. And that means not ignoring the realities of grief and pain.

And so, at the risk of making generalizations, but with the hope of giving some guidance to those who truly desire to love a grieving single parent in their life, I give you this list of suggestions. It is my hope that because of these words, a few single moms and dads will get loved a little better by those around them.

Incomplete Guide to Caring for a Grieving Single Parent {SimpleMom.net}

1) Say this out loud directly to your friend:

“I really care about you. I know that you’re hurting but I don’t know what would be helpful right now. What do you need?”

It is true that not every hurting person knows exactly what they need, and that’s okay. But many do know, and just need to be asked by a safe person.

I felt most loved when people acknowledged that I was in deep pain, that they wanted to do something, but they were also aware they didn’t know what would be helpful to me.

We all need different things when grieving. The differences in the children’s ages and life stages also come into play.

One woman may be an introvert and be desperate for some time away from her children to process. Another may crave some verbal processing. One parent may not want other people cooking for her, but would appreciate just doing an outdoor activity with another family for some variety.

If you ask, and they know a specific way they would feel loved, then great! If they don’t know or they are too overwhelmed in that moment, suggest that they think about it, and let them know they can contact you. Mention you’ll follow up to check in again if that’s okay with them.

If they don’t have a reply, then you have at least communicated your interest and availability to help and care for them. That opens up conversations and space for love to flow.

2) Do not offer to do something unless you’re going to do it.

Let me repeat that. Do not make a promise to do something, or make any offers, unless you are committed to follow through to the best of your ability.

Remember that you are dealing with a person who, no matter the specifics of her circumstances, has experienced some intense rejection and abandonment, to say the least. You can cause more pain if you offer to help just because you think it’s polite or you don’t know what else to say.

If you genuinely can’t babysit, or hang out, or whatever, that’s totally okay. Take a deep breath and be aware of your limitations and boundaries. And then be honest.

If you have your own life mess happening and you can’t be available to her, be honest about that as sensitively as you can, or simply don’t make any promises you know you can’t follow through on.

If you have no capacity to babysit or drop her off at the mechanic, that’s fine. Offer what you can, and if you can’t offer much… guess what. She probably understands since she feels like she has so little to offer, too!

3) Say positive things out loud, but be wary of clichés and assumptions.

There are things that are obvious to you that may or may not be obvious to the hurting parent in front of you. When appropriate, speak aloud, but tread gently. This may include but not be limited to:

• I think you are a great mother.

• I really don’t mind just being here with you, even if you don’t feel like talking. 

• This experience will not define your life. But, you don’t need to be in a rush to feel “better.”

• I’m proud of you for all the energy you are investing in your child(ren) even in this tragic time.

• It hurts me to see you hurting and I really care about you.

• If you think of a way I can help you out, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

• It’s okay to need help. It’s okay that you can’t survive this season of life alone.

• I want to be here for you to process this if you want to, and even though I may not understand exactly what you’re going through, I just really care about you.

I know every single parent has very different circumstances, children, and personality, but I hope this is helpful for a few people who have desired to know how to engage with a fellow parent experiencing the end of a relationship.

What’s something helpful that someone else said or did for you when you were experiencing loss?

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Comments

  1. The areas where I’ve experienced loss have been my first pregnancy and in regard to my little girl’s health. I had a couple of friends who really journeyed with me through these painful times. The most helpful thing they did was just acknowledged that they didn’t know exactly how I was feeling but they knew it must really hurt. Their honesty and acknowledgement of my pain really helped me to feel understood.

    I think another helpful thing to remember is that as time passes and the years move on these times of incredible loss still need to be acknowledged. I now have a beautiful daughter, but my my miscarriage still broke my heart and I still want the baby I lost. My daughters health is fine now, but the fear that I may lose her was very real. These times of loss are now part of me and it is unhelpful when people act as if they didn’t happen. Ignoring them is effectively ignoring who I now am.

    Thank you for this post, it must have been hard to write at times, but it will hopefully help us to support others going for loss in a sensitive and beneficial way.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Jessica. Actually, it was pretty cathartic to write! It feels great to have a place to share these thoughts. And thanks for sharing yours!

  2. Thank you for opening your life as a single mama who loves God. I am walking a similar path to yours. I treasure your posts and celebrate with sadness your ministry to both single moms and to married women desiring to minister to us. May God continue to bless and inspire you as you serve Him faithfully. Know that you have many sisters, myself included, who find solace and commraderie in your posts.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful post.

    My loss was a loss of a baby, an early miscarriage. It struck to my very core and to this day (3 + years later) I still cannot speak of it without a tremble in my voice. The Lord does bring comfort and healing, and for that I am so thankful! I did have several who rallied around me and were very comforting. I also had those who, in an effort to be a comfort, could not shut their mouth after the first sentence or two. The more they said, the more the hurt grew. And these people – I knew they loved me and cared for me and were not intentionally hurting me! So from that I have learned – yes, a comforting word should be offered but to stop talking after the first sentence or two!

    • Tammy, I once heard Elizabeth Edwards tell something a friend told her, and it has helped me so much. After she and John lost their sixteen year old son in a car accident, I guess some of her friends said things to her that were either less-than- helpful or downright hurtful. A friend told her, “Elizabeth, when people say the wrong thing, they meant to say the right thing.”

      This has let me “let some people off the hook,” even after the fact, for things that hurt me at the time. In those difficult situations, most of us DON’T know what to say to help, and oftentimes it causes us to do nothing–or say something that isn’t helpful at all.

      And in the future I will remember to KEEP IT SHORT. Thanks for that advice.

      • Boonie, that’s a good perspective. I’ve also found that sometimes (if I know I can say it kindly and the relationship has trust) I go ahead and let them know that what they said isn’t helpful. Especially when I KNOW that they truly want to be loving! Thanks for sharing.

      • Great advice. Because sometimes letting others off the hook lets us off the hook too.

  4. Thirty years beyond — and I think you described it with gentleness and honesty. I even felt more empathy for myself as I read this. That is something I felt too little of at the time. I read an article during the time that stayed with me, and helped me keep seeking higher ground. In short, the resiliency of the children is affected by the way the mother is regarded in her life. If she is a part of systems that show her respect, the children will learn value and respect. Systems that degrade the mother also degrade the children’s sense of self respect. The day I found my church family is the day it began to change. While not everyone could embrace my struggle, the power of being regarded with respect by those who loved me well then (and now) challenged a very destructive dynamic that was in play by her father. Years of difficult battles w these opposing belief systems have been hard for her. Resilience and goodness won. Thanks for writing so well about this hidden minefield.

  5. Loss is always hard, and in no way comparative. It is very personal. I’ve struggled with more losses than I care to recount. Often hearing that time heals all wounds, I have to say that loss doesn’t heal. It ebbs and flows with the passage of time. I like to think time gets us accustomed to the new norm that is what it is, but the loss can still hurt just as raw and painful as when it first occurred even many years down the line.

    Thank you for giving me and others some great tips on ministering to those who are grieving, sad, and in pain. Even when the words of others have hurt I also remember they are trying to help and trying to connect and for that I remain grateful.

  6. As someone who sometimes says too little because of her fear of saying the wrong thing, I thank you.

    • I totally understand that fear! I know we all experience that. We don’t want to hurt someone who is already hurting, but sometimes silence can hurt too. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Thank you for sharing. As someone who recently separated late this spring after being together nearly 11 years, and have two young children under the age of four, my heart ached and I struggled with who I wanted to tell and who I didn’t want to tell because I knew how their response would be. And when I did tell them, their response was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be…

  8. I had a prolonged season of trial, hardship and grief last year as my 5 year old daughter was critically ill and I had to come to terms with a childhood cancer diagnosis. Your post is so full of truth and there were a core of people who showed up, texted, sent an email or left a message – and knowing they were there offering support and praying were key to my personal survival as I knew I wasn’t alone. There were practical things that helped too – every time someone scooped up my older child for an outing or play date, or brought a meal, or gave me a gas card for the frequent trips back and forth from hospital, or walked my dog – it was double blessing – the practical help and it felt like a hug. I’ve learned there is a need right where I am in my own community and as you said, the person in need might not even know what they need, but I can guarantee that a surprise latte delivered, a message, a prayer, a casserole left on a doorstep, a loaf of bread and carton of milk – “just so you don’t have to run to the store” all showered me with love and made a difference. Thanks for sharing this great wisdom today in your post.

  9. I was devastated and surprised to find myself a single mother of three young ones after a drawn out season of betrayal, separation and divorce. Thank you for speaking the ways others can help (and not) when choosing to enter the journey of loss with someone. Keep up the good work of encouraging and mothering!

  10. Last year, I spent three months on bed rest, one month in the hospital, three weeks by my son’s bedside in the NICU, and the last thirteen months dealing with the unfathomable pain of his death. One of the “best” comments was, “It’s not ok that this happened, and it’s ok that you’re not ok.” I felt so much relief at not having to pull myself together for certain people.

    I am sorry for the pain you’ve experienced. I’d trade my newfound knowledge in a heartbeat, but I empathize and know how to help like never before.

  11. Thank you for sharing this guide, Crystal. It is so hard for most of us to know how to help someone without having been in their exact circumstances. I think that your point #2 really resonates with me…when I experienced loss of my mother in my early teens, many people offered help but unfortunately not many people were good at following though, and at the time, I wasn’t always able to reach out for help. This left a lot of scars from those years of my life and highlighted the isolation I was already experiencing. It would have been helpful to have more people who cared consistently checking-in from time to time. For me, it was well after the event of loss when loneliness and rejection set in the most.

  12. avatar
    liza lee grace says:

    Thank you for this! When my dad died (I was in high school), so many wonderful people were so unhelpful. I’ve always hesitated to say anything to anyone else in similar situations, since I don’t want to be unhelpful like they were.

    I do want to help people, though! I care about people – I care deeply. This post comes at a perfect time, as a good friend signed divorce papers last week. I didn’t know anything about their struggles – apparently it’s been in the making for years. But even if it should have happened long ago, it’s still hard. She was in tears when I told her she could come over (or call) any time for any reason – to vent, to relax, to escape. This post really helps me to know that I can say helpful things and BE helpful. Thanks again.

  13. This is a great article! Thank you for writing it.

    My own experience with grief came more than a decade ago when I became a widow in my mid-twenties. Your words would have been appropriate for me to hear during that time. Saying something like, “I am so sorry you are going through this experience. I am here if you need me.” is perfect in so many situations.

    My tip is What-Not-To-Say. The WORST thing you can say to someone in grief is, “I know just how you feel.” No, you don’t. So don’t say it. It is insulting. Unless you have personally been in that exact same situation, just don’t go there.

    • yes. and amen.

      I joined a grief group after my mom died and met with others who were experiencing grief. One friend there had to give continuous medical care to her husband as he slowly deteriorated and passed away. A friend of hers told her “I know how you feel- I had to give my cat injections for a month and it’s just so hard.” It IS hard to give a beloved pet injections… but it’s not the exact same, so just…don’t.

    • “I know just how you feel” is probably worse than not saying anything at all! In this case, as far as your hatred goes for that phrase, “I know just how you feel!”

  14. My dog died last year and, although I’ve experienced loss before (my dad left when I was 6), I have not felt such a deeply rooted and painful sense of awful in all of my adulthood. She was 16 and I knew it was coming, but still it was awful.

    My friend Darlana, also a dog lover with an old boy of her own, gave me her shoulder and her ear. She listened and was there and that was all that I needed or could have ever asked for. There are no words of condolence or advice that anyone could have given me, but her silence and presence were exactly the right support for me in the early days of grief.

    In the week after my dog’s death, when I could hardly function, Darlana brought over healthy meals to feed my family. To know that I had such friendship and understanding was the best comfort at such a horrible and difficult time.

  15. I’ve experienced many deep losses in my life beginning with multiple miscarriages. The more I’ve grown, the more I’ve learned that people want to help, they just don’t know how.

    As a new season of pain beings to unfold, your words were comforting this morning and reminded me to ask for the help that I need.
    Thank you!

  16. I cried reading this post. I feel so abandoned by about 70 percent of friends, many include mutual friends who decided to ignore us both, figuring that would be the fair thing to do. It’s been a year since the separation and four months since the divorce was final. While the divorce had been imminent for some time, I think losing the support of friends hurt the most out of everything.

    I did, however, end up finding out which friends really do care and who will be there. Ones I didn’t expect and ones who came back into my life because they had drifted out at seeing my unhappiness while married.

    I’m glad to say now, I have a close handful of friends I know I can count on and who have seen me at my worst and have watched me slowly heal, instead of a lot of friends and acquaintances who are fair-weather friends.

    Thank you again for the post that made me cry and appreciate those in my life who didn’t necessarily know how to act, but they were there, which was the most important part!

  17. It is soooo great to read posts like this, not only because I think things like this are often unspoken but because also they it sooo needed. I once heard that having your husband/wife leave you is on some levels more painful/heartbreaking than if they died. I believe that to be true, mostly because divorces are usually messy and complicated and as you mentioned there are feelings of extreme hurt and abandonment. However, people judge (whether they mean to or not) and it’s often difficult to grieve publicly for a number of reasons…. therefore many people are simply unaware of your struggles.

    One of the greatest pieces of advice/encouragement was from my sister who said, “I will support you no matter what you decide… and you don’t have to decide right now… you can make a decision in a year or two and that’s okay.”

    I also find it helpful if people simply acknowledge the loss as you mentioned. Even just say, “That really sucks, I’m sorry.”

    On the flip side I don’t think advice unless solicited should NOT be given. You don’t know what you would do unless you were in that position, you don’t know the complications (legally or otherwise), therefore, although intentions may be noble it is NOT helpful to act like you know how someone should handle a sticky situation. Besides encouraging them to search scripture or suggesting them to seek wise counseling. Just pray and encourage them to do so…. that’s really the most helpful thing!

    Lastly, As you kind of mentioned above it is important for the person hurting (especially in a divorce situation) to have trusted SAFE people they can talk to. Therefore, if someone tells you something in confidence PLEASE (unless you are worried for their safety or something) PLEASE do not tell other people…. even for “noble” reasons of wanting to help them in pastoral counseling, etc. If you break this trust it not only deepens the wound that was created by the divorce but makes it more difficult for that person to consequently open up and trust other people in the future.

  18. Thank you for sharing your wonderful and compassionate advice.

    I’m not sure if this is “right”, proper, or helpful (though I fully hope it is), but usually the first thing I say upon learning of someone’s trouble is,

    “I’m sorry you are sad. How can I help and what would you like to eat?”

    Recently, I’ve learned to not be so nervous or fearful and simply say,

    “Tell me everything.”

    I learned this from a husband who had lost his wife during childbirth. He was drowning in grief. An elderly woman saw him and sensed that something was amiss. She sat next to him and learned his wife had died. She looked at him lovingly and simply said, “Tell me all about her.”

    The man said it instantly buoyed his spirit to know that someone cared enough to listen without judgement, without advice, without pity, but only with love, patience, and compassion.

  19. It took me 3 years to get my abusive (ex)husband out of our house. And another 2 years before I was able to file for divorce. I went thru it completely alone. I have no family and only a few acquaintances. I am much stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. But it still hurts to know that he got so much support and the kids (5 of them) and I got none. No one ever offered to help me or watch the kids or even just sit and listen. It’s funny how life works. I wouldn’t wish that situation on anyone yet it’s made me incredibly compassionate to other divorced moms.

    I don’t know why I’m commenting other than to say, please PLEASE reach out to the hurting ones. It’s a very lonely place.

    Take care!

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