She greeted me with a bright smile. Whether it was truly sincere, I’ll never know. But it was the smile I’ve seen a million times. The one that said “You’re the widow.”

“Hi. Thank you SO much for meeting me!” She started. I took a seat next to her.

“Of course!” was the only answer I had. What did she want? I assumed it was something like an interview, but I had no idea whether it was for her benefit or someone else’s.

“I wanted to talk to you…because…” And now she’s searching for the right words. We’re sitting at a shady table, and the temperature is starting to rise. She wanted to talk to me about being a widow, but she had no idea how to say it.

“Are you caring for a spouse that’s terminally ill?” I asked her, quietly.

“No! Oh, I’m not married. But my friend…her spou-husband died.” And that’s how easy it is to get to the point.

“I’d like to help her. I’d like to know what to say to her. I’ve been reading your blog, and I need to know what to do. She needs my help.” She says this very seriously. Her smile is still there, but her eyes are hard. This is hard for her.

“Is she suicidal? Is she trying to hurt herself? Does she have family?”

“She has family, and I don’t think she’s suicidal. But it’s been four months. She doesn’t eat very much and she doesn’t sleep. I’ve tried to get her to a doctor, but she doesn’t want to go. I’m worried that she might be overdoing this. I’m worried that she’s going to get very depressed and hurt herself.” I can hear the honest-to-goodness concern in her voice. And the confidence. She wants her old friend back, and it’s been four months. Something must be wrong if it’s been this long.

“I see.” And this is all I can say, in order to buy myself some time. Maybe I wasn’t the right widow to talk to about this. My mind wanders. I notice the sunlight moving toward my feet, and anticipate the warmth it will bring.

Customers come in and out of the coffeehouse with purpose and coffee. Cars are driving past, with their systems blasting rock and top forty. It’s been five minutes, and I still don’t know how to give her an answer that she doesn’t want to hear.

“Let me start by saying this…” I begin. I don’t look at her until I am ready. “It sounds to me like your friend doesn’t need the help you think she does.”

She looks at me blankly, and I get the feeling that she’s heard this before.

“In our world, where marriages dissolve more often to divorce than death, it’s hard to imagine that a widow in her 20’s wouldn’t want to get out and restart her life after a few months. But that’s only because you haven’t even experienced marriage, let alone losing a spouse to early death.  Marriage is an entire life change. Death is another. Aside from having children, nothing else changes us in ways that Marriage and Death can. These are all things one has to experience in order to understand. We can read books or watch other people go through these life experiences all day long, but until we experience them for ourselves, we really have no clue about them.”  I’ve said a lot and I wait for it to sink it. She doesn’t.

“So your saying that because I have never been married, I can’t understand how she feels? Because I know that. I’m not trying to tell her to not feel this.  I know that I don’t know what it’s like! But don’t you think that being sad for this long is excessive?” She’s already arguing.

“The average (and this is a WIDE scale), is approximately three to five years. That’s a rough estimate on how long it takes a widow or widower to accept a death and learn to live with it. There are those who don’t take as long. There are some who are so convinced that they’re over their grieving, that they remarry prematurely, and cause further damage. And there are those that don’t. I’m careful to tell people what to do with their grief, as much as I’m careful with the term: ‘move on’ because I don’t believe that people really do that. I believe they learn to live with the loss, but I don’t believe they move on from it as if it never was, or is just something in their past. Especially not a parent, or a spouse.” Once again, I try to let these words sink in. Once again, she doesn’t.

“That’s not healthy. You HAVE to move on. You can’t live in the past. The past is over with. She has to let him go! She can’t go on mourning him forever. He wouldn’t want that.” And she says this with a certain authority. I’ve heard that line so many times, I can’t count. People always know what the Dead would want, as if they are sitting there, right next to them and whispering in their ears.

“I don’t believe people go on actively mourning someone forever. I’ve known some who have a harder time with the release and the re-living part. And I know many who don’t. But the time line is relative. She’s not breaking up with a boyfriend. She’s lost a husband. I don’t even know how he died, but I can tell you it doesn’t matter. Even if she watched it happen for a year or more, it is as devastating as if he left her house one morning and just never came back. Death is final, and incredibly hard for the living. We don’t get a choice in the matter. No matter how inevitable it is, the loss of control over what happens is tragic for us.” I pause. She doesn’t argue this time.

So I continue, “You have to understand something very important. No matter how she ends up handling her grief, she will never be the same person you once knew. This is a life-changing event that has taken her far beyond your level of experience and understanding. I’m sure you’ve lost someone, or more than one someone in your life. I am sorry for your loss. But this goes beyond that. I’ve learned not to compare to other losses, but I’ve heard enough from grieving parents that the process is very similar. I believe only the loss of a child would be more painful, but I don’t know how much more.”

“So you’re saying… you don’t think she’s going to get over this?” She asks me, finally. Her face has lost all trace of the bright friendly smile that was once there. Instead, she is statue-hard, a frown etched in marble. I can’t tell if she’s relented or if she’s already closed me off.

“I’m saying that she’s a different person now. I’m saying that she needs you to love her as she is, no matter what she goes through. I’m saying that you have no control over how long her period of active grieving lasts, and the most you can do is not put pressure on her to jump back into the fast lane of life. And I’m saying that you need to give her a break. Four months is like a day in Widow Country, and she probably doesn’t even remember most of it.”

“Widow Country? Really? You look at it that way?” I’m not even angry at her arrogance. I understand that it comes from a place of complete lack of understanding. She’s on the outside, looking in, and realizing it’s uglier than she thought it was.

“I can’t wake up and have my life go back to the way it was. I LIVE here. I live in grief and healing. I live in a new reality, where my late husband is not included. I can’t change that, and I have to live with it everyday. Yes – I call it Widow Country. I live there. Every single day.”

She doesn’t say that she never realized how hard it could be, or that she’s sorry for my loss. In some ways, I am grateful for that. I wonder why she picked me, out of all the widows that are in my city, and then I realize that I only know two others. Maybe I’m the only other widow people know of, out here.

She does thank me for my time and patience. I can’t tell if I’ve really gotten through to her, or if she’s going to find someone to agree with her crusade to save her friend from further depression. Part of me wants to know who this person is, but a bigger part of me doesn’t.

I still leave my number, letting her know that I am available if they need to talk. I’m not a professional, but I’ve learned to listen. And I know what not to say. She leaves, and I stay, because the sun is going to warm my feet, and no amount of death can stop that from happening right then. I’ve learned to live in the small moments. I’ve learned to be grateful for what I can.

The secret is that it DOES get better. But only after it’s been really really bad for a long time. Only after it hurts so much we become numb to it. It gets better only after the worst. I don’t tell people this, especially in the beginning. They’re in so much pain that it doesn’t soothe them; instead only confuses them.  Because time is relative, and only time will get them there. But they will feel the warmth of the sun again. No matter how long it takes.