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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Appendix A: How You Can Help the Military Widow

Reprinted with permission of the authors. This was taken from the book Military Widow: A Survival Guide (2006) by Joanne M. Steen, MS NCC, and Regina Asaro, MS, RN, CT.



  • your command has experienced a death, and you want to provide the right support to the surviving spouse;
  • you are assigned as a casualty officer to a new widow; or
  • someone you know became a military widow
We know you want to help, or you wouldn't be reading this book. Like most people, however, you probably don't know what to say or do, or you are afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Here are some suggestions for ways in which you and your command can help the military widow.
  • Treat her as you would like your own wife to be treated if she were in this position.
  • Don't try to protect her from information about her husband's death. If she is asking questions, she is ready for answers. She may not like what you are telling her, but she does want to know.
  • Never use the phrase, "I can't tell you." Even if your reasons are valid, she won't hear them. She will think you're hiding something from her. Instead, say, "I can't answer that question right now."
  • "I don't know" is an honest answer. Don't speculate or repeat rumors.
  • Never use the word "closure." It does not exist.
  • If she prefers not to talk with the media, have the PAO handle them for her.
  • Shock and grief can significantly slow down a widow's ability to make sense of what you are telling her. You may have to repeat information several times before she understands it. Be patient.
  • Bereaved people may behave in ways that make no sense to you. Grief reactions are not logical or rational. Again, be patient and nonjudgmental.
  • Don't assume she knows how the military works. Let her know what to expect and when. The military culture may be especially confusing to National Guard or Reserve widows, who have limited exposure to it.
  • If her husband died on deployment or at sea, ask her if she wants his clothes washed or returned as is. She may want his belongings to smell like him rather than laundry detergent.
  • Don't help out at her house without asking first. That squeaky door may remind her of her husband.
  • Don't assume she knows what she needs. Ask her.
  • Include the military family support group in assisting her and her family. They can help with meals, child care and refreshments for the funeral or memorial service.
  • Remember, you are helping to bury a fallen comrade or shipmate.
  • If she decides on a military funeral for her husband, offer to let her personalize it. The same thing goes for the memorial service
  • If she is not familiar with the rituals and traditions of a military funeral or memorial service, tell her what to expect so she won't be blindsided. This may be especially important if she doesn't know about the rifle salute, the Final Roll Call, or the Missing Man flyby. She may not know she can obtain mementos from the services, such as the spent shells from the rifle salute.
  • Be sensitive to how her husband died. For example, if he was killed by gunfire, she may not want the rifle salute at his funeral.
  • Allow her and her family to see ahead of time where the service will be held.
  • Offer to pick up out-of-town relatives at the airport. Assist them with hotel and car rental arrangements, as well as base or post access and directions.
  • Find out how many family members will be attending and reserve enough chairs or pews for them. Have tissues available in the seating area.
  • Offer to videotape the funeral and the memorial services, especially if the widow has children.
  • Have a guestbook or scrapbook available so friends and visitors can share memories of her husband. Consider having a video camera at the funeral or memorial reception and encourage people to share stories about him.
  • Make sure she has the correct contact numbers for ongoing needs, such as benefits and counseling.
  • Ask her if she wants someone to explain the accident report or autopsy results: they may contain graphic or disturbing information.
  • Tell her when the accident report will be released to the media. It may be carried as a news story.
  • Wherever possible, don't let her find out about developments in the investigation of her husband's death from news reports.
  • If she is not having a military funeral for her husband, offer to help with the private funeral arrangements. This is probably the first time she has had to plan a funeral, and it may be overwhelming.
  • Ask what you can do to help. You can assist with small matters, like washing clothes, or big tasks, like making a picture collage for the service.
  • Offer to help her write thank-you notes after the funeral.
  • Don't avoid her because you don't know what to say. Sometimes, just your supportive presence is enough.
  • User her husband's name when talking about him. People think using his name will upset her. It won't.
  • Be prepared for a wide range of feelings and reactions for a long time.
  • Don't judge her behaviors. She is doing the best she can, given the circumstances.
  • Bring meals and nourishing snacks to have on hand. Comfort food is always welcome.
  • Help her return the empty casserole dishes.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Laugh with her. Share funny stories about her husband. She will love to hear these, especially stories she hasn't heard before.
  • Watch the kids so she can have some time to herself.
  • Help her sort through her husband's clothes, when she is ready.
  • Call her on significant dates, such as the anniversary of his death. It will make her feel good to know that her husband is remembered.
  • Seek out and suggest local support groups she can attend. Offer to go to the first meeting with her. It will help her feel more comfortable.
  • Offer to take her to visit her husband's grave the first time. Going alone may be more than she can handle.
  • During the holidays, remember this new widow. Don't ignore the fact that there will be an empty chair at her table.
  • Ask her if she wants to attend Memorial Day or Veterans Day ceremonies.
  • Make a donation in her husband's name to her favorite charity. Check with her first, though.

This book has helped me find some stable ground to stand on as I trudge through this unknown territory, and try to find footing in my new world. Please check out the website for this book at The book really helped me to gain perspective on what I am facing, and what I am going through. Many of the items in the list above I am now past, but these are great tools to help out future military widows. Unfortunately, there will be more of us. I hope that this helps many to be able to assist those in need in the future.

Thank you to Joanne and Regina for such an amazing resource that helped me tremendously. I know it will help so many others, and love that this appendix is in the book, so that those who are not military widows can help those that do, sadly, become one.

Please also note that Joanne will soon be coming out with another book aimed at the parents of fallen heroes, Military Parents: We Regret to Inform You. I am sure that this guide will be as helpful to the parents of the fallen heroes as Military Widow: A Survival Guide was to me.


  1. Thanks Tiffany, for posting these 25+ ways to help not only military widows, but all families of America's fallen warriors. Peace to you, my friend, Joanne Steen

  2. I appreciated all thoe comments. The one that is a big one for me is I do find that my friendsand family avoid talking about Ben. When. Do they change the subject. Or will talk but avoidhis nam when I mention his name they look away. I think they think they are protecting me...I need to hear his name andsay his name...Ben...Ben...Ben...Benjamin...Benjamin...Benjamin...SFC benjamin Thompson Miller