Relational Health for Widows

Setting Boundaries with Friends and Family Members — Including Your Kids

by Kim Murray

Since the death of a spouse is the most stressful event someone can endure (it tops the Holmes-Rahe life stress inventory test), it’s important to establish boundaries to protect your fragile mind, body, and soul. So many things are out of your control after your spouse dies, but one thing you can take charge of is deciding how you want to spend your time, and with whom, and communicating those choices as clearly as possible. You’ll do yourself an enormous favor when you set limits with people regarding your time, your space, and your mental capacity.

For example, well-meaning family and friends might pressure you to attend every event that is held in your spouse’s memory. Or you might pressure yourself to attend to things that bring an undue amount of stress. While some events can be cathartic, others can be sheer torture. Whenever you’re struggling to cope, think of your boundaries as a protective shield that gives you as much time and space as you need to heal.

You get to decide what an appropriate boundary is for you. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to set boundaries — only your way. And you get to change your mind when you want to adjust or remove your boundary lines altogether.

Need some help setting boundaries?

Here are a few common ways that healthy boundaries with friends and family members, including your kids, can have a positive impact on everyone involved.

Setting Boundaries with People Who Need Help Managing their Own Grief

I remember in the early days of widowhood I resented the fact that I felt like I had to help other people process my husband’s death. While in the midst of processing my own excruciating grief, others felt compelled to share their stories about how hard his death was on them, too. I didn’t have any limits on my time or space, so I ended up absorbing everyone else’s grief until it was all just too much.

While you can acknowledge and appreciate that others are grieving too, you can also set boundaries that limit requests for your emotional assistance.

Communication Tip: “I know how hard this has been on everyone. Have you thought about talking to someone professionally? I wish I had the emotional capacity to help you process your grief, but I’m struggling with my own grief right now.”

Setting Boundaries with People Who are Overly Supportive

It’s nice to have a support network, and friends and family often want to do everything they can to support you. While I’m sure you appreciate the support, sometimes people can go overboard. It’s not helpful when the overly supportive folks think it’s okay to check up on you constantly. Or ask you repeatedly to go out with them to “get you out of the house” because they think they know what you need better than you do. Even though most people have good intentions, it can feel like too much.

Instead of answering phone calls or responding to every text message, you can suggest a time and/or place where you can catch up with your friends and family on your terms.

Communication Tip: “Your support is super important to me, but I’m having a hard time responding to all the texts (phone calls). Can we set a weekly phone date (biweekly coffee date, monthly lunch date) and catch up then?”

Setting Boundaries with People Who Ask Personal Questions

You get to decide what details about your experience you want to share. People like to ask a lot of questions about situations they’re not sure how they would handle if they were in your shoes. But not every question requires an elaborate response.

A question I got asked a lot after my husband died was, “Did you have any life insurance?” I wouldn’t share my finances with people prior to my husband’s death, so I certainly wasn’t going to share any details after he died. Some people might not realize their questions violate your privacy because they don’t have any personal boundaries on what they share. And that’s okay. We all have our comfort levels, and we get to decide what details of our lives we choose to make public.

If you run into people asking personal questions you’d rather not answer, just say so. A simple, “I’d rather not say” will suffice. The other way to approach people you feel are too forward is to question why they’re asking. Not as an interrogation, but more of a casual interest. When people ask questions about your finances, job status, or your kids’ mental health, and you reply with “Why do you ask?” this takes the onus off you and requires the other person to decide the real purpose of their question. Maybe they were being nosy, maybe they were trying to be helpful, but either way, turning the question around takes the burden off you.

Communication Tip: “I like to keep my finances private” or “I know your intentions are in the right place and you might be worried about us, but I respect my kids’ privacy so I’d rather not talk about their grief.”

Setting Boundaries with Your Kids

You get to set boundaries with your kids too, even though they’re grieving. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” and this applies to a solo mom tasked with doing everything for everyone all the time — by herself.

Setting boundaries with your kids doesn’t mean pushing them away or ignoring them, it just means being clear about your needs. When you’re specific about what you need, you’re modeling that it’s okay to request time and space for yourself. You get a moment to yourself, and your kids learn valuable coping strategies. Or when you’re specific about what kinds of behavior you will and will not accept, you’re modeling that you teach people how to treat you and you won’t settle for disrespectful attitudes.

I used to feel guilty about setting boundaries with my kids because I made it mean that I was a terrible mom. But I’ve learned that giving people clear instructions, especially your kids, helps them navigate confusing situations. When I didn’t set clear boundaries, our house was in chaos. However, when my kids knew what I wanted, needed, or expected, it made things so much easier. I’m not saying my kids never argued, talked back, or tried to wear me down to get their way (they were kids after all), I’m just saying that when I adhered to my own boundaries, I made situations less confusing for me, too.

Communication Tip: “I’m going to take a walk around the neighborhood for 45 minutes — I can drive you to the store then” or “I wish the circumstances were different and I could’ve let you go out with your friends, but you didn’t finish your homework.”

Setting healthy boundaries with friends and family members, including your kids, is crucial for controlling the chaos that grief brings into your life. Whether it is learning to say no, setting clear expectations, or establishing physical and emotional space, boundaries give you gentle reminders that you always get to decide what’s best for you.

Kim Murray learned more than she ever wanted to know about grief and loss when her husband died from brain cancer in 2014. After figuring out how to live with her “new normal,” Kim created the website Widow 411 to help other widows overcome the overwhelm with topics like grief, finances, and relationships.

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Knowing there are women who have not only survived what I was going through, but were also thriving and moving forward in their lives.
— MSC Wister® (Widow + Sister)