Returning after Grief (and Pavement) Smacked Me in the Head

Hello, again. You might have noticed the July to April gap in new posts on What to Say When Someone Dies. Years ago, I first started writing content for this grief support website within three days of my husband’s unexpected death, although I didn’t know at the time that’s what I was doing. Even surrounded by the thick, heavy fog of shock, I recognized that some folks’ well-intended words landed like a blow to the gut or slapped me in the face.

Slap in Your Face unintended commentary assume you meant well, surprised face, embarrassed face, grief

On the other hand, a few — sadly, too few — friends’ and even strangers’ words and gestures gently reached my hurting heart through comforting compassion. I wanted to remember all these words — the helpful and the harmful — so I opened a spiral notebook and scribbled them as best I could.

ink on notebook paper, list how to help mourner, Teresa TL Bruce
Days after I started the “Slap in Your Face” list, I wrote this on the page before it to remind myself how to treat others who were grieving (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

As I slowly (oh, how slowly!) learned to live with my grief, I networked with widows and widowers of widely varied backgrounds, cultures, and nations, some in their senior years but many younger — even decades younger — than you’d likely expect. At the same time, I spoke at length and developed cherished friendships with bereaved parents, children, siblings, and others who mourned departed dear ones. Imagine my surprise at how many of us, while mourning diverse losses, experienced similar distressing visceral reactions to the trite, time-worn platitudes (“he’s in a better place”, “at least they didn’t suffer,” “her suffering’s over now…”) meant to offer comfort.

meant well p 5, grief, TealAshes.com

Likewise, regardless of our backgrounds, we appreciated the thoughtful outreach of those whose words acknowledged and validated our pain.

It took nearly three years to work up the courage to share what I learned. While my husband’s death felt recent enough to keep fresh my recollections of raw grief, the merciful yet relentless passage of time allowed me a self-preserving sliver of distance. Not only that, but in most areas of my life, I’m a deeply private person. Opening up about grief’s impact on me still sometimes feels like opening my curtains and inviting the world in to witness my vivisection.

Deaths of family members and friends from December 2017 through March 2019 forced me too many times to again ask myself what to say when another someone died. New bereavement reopened wounds of mourning earlier losses. These new losses forced me to focus on how to comfort those closest to the center of each loss while grieving myself.

As much as I wanted to post here, I held back. I ached with grief, but I recognized mine wasn’t the primary loss of each surviving spouse, parent, child, or sibling. And what pain I owned felt too newly raw and too personal to publish.

For the last nine of those sixteen months, after hitting my head on the street, I’ve also been learning about managing symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Consequently, I’ve kept my screen time focused on work for clients more than writing for myself. (Stay tuned for a post now in progress comparing the effects of grief and concussion. In true writer fashion, I tried to capture details while inside the ambulance and the MRI machine. I’ll admit those injured mental notes weren’t as coherent as I’d like.) I’m still not fully recovered, but I’ll keep working toward it.

As this website approaches the completion of its sixth year of offering ways to help grieving friends, coworkers, and family members, I remain grateful to you for reading. I’d like to thank those of you who’ve followed this content from the beginning (How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies) as well as those of you who’ve browsed my posts only on occasion as needed. I appreciate your trust, and I’m always touched when you take the time to comment.

I hope you’ll continue to visit and share as we move forward with helping those who are grieving — and as I move forward with preparing an accompanying book.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping your grieving friends! — Teresa TL Bruce

What to Say at a Funeral or in a Card

Against medical advice, I attended my friend’s memorial service. Most of it.

I left the sanctuary during every hymn — had to — and watched the video tribute through the window. My concussion-injured head (a long, unrelated story) can’t yet tolerate many sounds, including, apparently, music.

Even though my doctor ordered me to “strictly limit all social interaction” while recovering, I needed to attend. It felt important to show up in support of my friend’s family.

Despite my concussion, I also wanted to gather with others who’ll miss my friend, but my desire was secondary to offering his widow, son, and other family members the tangible presence of one more person who cares about their loss.

Having said that, I don’t recommend foregoing doctors’ orders for a funeral service. If you’re possibly contagious, stay away — for now — because the last thing someone grieving needs is additional trauma from already grief-stressed immune systems.

But if you’re physically sound and geographically near enough, show up. If you live too far away or you’re too incapacitated to attend the funeral, send messages of support.

What should you say at a funeral? What should you say in a message if you can’t attend the memorial service?

Keep condolences short and simple. “I’m sorry” can be enough. Acknowledge your awareness of the huge loss your friends now face. Let them know you are thinking of them and, if appropriate to your beliefs and theirs, praying for them.

Share positive memories of the dead loved one. If the circumstances surrounding the memorial don’t seem appropriate, write such anecdotes and send them later.

Offer specific assistance. Even the most sincerely offered “Let me know if I can help” seldom helps someone overcome by the raw, overwhelming nature of grief. When my husband died, I realized people who said this meant it, but I had no idea what I needed. Weeks later, when I began to understand what would have been helpful, I couldn’t bring myself to follow up with them. On the other hand, I could say yes (or no) to targeted offers like “Please let me bring your family dinner Wednesday” or “May I take the kids to the park tomorrow afternoon?” or “I’d like to help you with laundry or dishes or other chores of your choosing around the house Saturday morning if that time works for you.”

Avoid preachy platitudes like “he’s in a better place” or “God must have needed her” or “it was their time to go” or “heaven’s a happier place now with them there.” It’s never wise to use clichéd words as if you’re trying to make anyone else’s losses seem OK.

Avoid saying “at least.” In almost every case, this phrase minimizes rather than validating the breadth and depth of grief.

It’s absolutely all right for the mourners themselves to use these phrases — or any other words they choose — as expressions of how they feel. Even if you disagree with a mourner’s assertion regarding their loved one’s status in the afterlife, showing up in support of grieving friends is not about you, so don’t argue. At all.

Finally, it’s never too late to reach out because there is no “finally” in supporting friends who mourn. Death’s impact on surviving loved ones does not end with the funeral or even after a year or two. While you’ve got the funeral program or obituary notice in hand, make a few notes in your calendar — the person’s birth and death dates, their wedding or other anniversaries, children’s birthdays, etc. — and reach out to your grieving friends in advance of those dates. Many bereaved individuals silently struggle in the days leading up to such commemorations.

The most intense shock of new, raw grief often erodes as the most upfront support from friends and neighbors also wanes. Reaching out to your grieving friends in the months (and years) after the funeral can offer much needed support and encouragement.

My Easter Admission on Gratitude, Grief, and Ambivalence — and How Faith Factors in Consoling Friends

No matter your religious beliefs or cultural point of view, I’ve always wanted this website to offer you ways to support your grieving friends. Some posts speak to specific topics of what to say (or not to say) when someone you know has suffered a loss. Others offer general insight into what is normal for one who is grieving. This one reaches into each of those areas.

First, I’d like to share this Easter- and grief-related post, Easter Admission: Gratitude, Grief, and Ambivalence, which I wrote for the Segullah literary blog.

For those not of my faith, please understand I’m not trying to impose my beliefs. Rather, I’m illustrating how — even for those with clear convictions — grieving can (and does) influence mourners long after the funeral, so long, in fact, that your friends might not seem like they “still” mourn. (More than seven years widowed, I no longer cry every day as I once did, but that doesn’t mean I don’t cry from time to time, even though my life has become full and fulfilling again.)                                                            EasterSunriseForSegullahByTeresaTLBruce-min

Grieving is a complicated business. For some, faith simplifies the process — but not always.

In the earliest days (and by days I mean weeks, months, and even years) after my husband died, my faith offered me an anchor to hold when the ground beneath my feet turned to unpredictable tidal waves. In the long nights when I could no longer sleep, I often turned to scripture for comfort, guidance, and connection as I read of others’ great trials and how well they did (or didn’t) cope as they relied on God for deliverance or endurance. It helped me.

But it seldom helped when others told me how or why or that my faith (or theirs) should, could, or would help me.

At first, I didn’t understand why I bristled at others’ attempts to console me by their declarations of faith and doctrine. After all, I’d lived my whole life by relying on prayer and study and devotion. Why, now that I leaned upon it even more, did I resent others’ telling me to do so? In time, I figured out a few reasons.

Why should you think twice before urging mourners to have more faith or speak to them in faith-based clichés?

  • I resented the implied message that if my faith were strong enough, my grief wouldn’t show up in ways that made those around me uncomfortable.
  • If I believed fully, their attempted consolations implied, I wouldn’t need to grieve. I’d “get over it” sooner. (Note: Never say or imply one who has lost a loved one should “already” get over it.
  • Those already feeling fragile in their faith may take your words as condemnation rather than support.
  • Never, ever tell a grieving child (or parent, or anyone, for that matter) that God needed the deceased loved one more than they did.
    • Do you really think the Almighty “needed” that individual more than the survivors needed their loved one?
    • Do you really have the authority to speak for God?
  • Never tell mourners that God — or the deceased — wouldn’t want them to be sad.
    • Grief is a natural, even healthy, response to losing ones we love.
    • Do you think the Almighty — or the one who died — would want loved ones kicking up their heels and saying, “Hooray!” about the death? (And if so, who authorized you as the spokesperson?)
    • Many Old Testament stories depict prophets and others openly mourning their own and others’ losses; one of the New Testament’s most poignant verses states simply, “Jesus wept.”
  • Never say, “She’s in a better place,” implying that all’s well because the loved one is now in heaven.
    • Even if the mourners believe this, it’s up to them to state it.
    • Sometimes grief and families’ lives behind closed doors is complicated. You might think the deceased was a saint, but the grieving family members might feel differently about their loved one’s eternal destination.

When and how is it appropriate to share faith-related comfort with mourners?

  • When they ask for it.
  • During discussions the bereaved initiate about faith and mourning.
  • Limit your professions to what gives you comfort. For instance:
    • RIGHT WAY: When my mother died, I found peace in reading from her Bible and studying the verses she’d outlined.
    • WRONG WAY: You should study your mom’s Bible and see what she marked in it.
    • RIGHT WAY: Sometimes, when I’m grieving, singing this hymn helps me feel better.
    • WRONG WAY: You should sing this hymn if you’re feeling sad. Or, I’m going to sing you this hymn right now to make you feel better too.

What’s most important to remember when comforting grieving friends?

Be there. Listen. Show up. Remember. Ask to hear stories about the one who died — using their name. Express your awareness of their loss.

broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss, TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

Grief and Glass — Shattered

 

Broken glass, shatter, grief, teal shoelace, loss, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

When the glass cutting board hit the tile floor, shards went everywhere — much like life shatters under the impact of grief. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When my glass cutting board hit the floor, it shattered against the tile. Tiny, sharp cubes spread near — piled around my feet — and flew far — some 12 feet away. (Thank goodness for tempered glass, or I’d have been sweeping up even more shards.) Portions clumped together, resembling a crackled fraction of the item that once protected surfaces and survived countless kitchen close calls over the last two decades. Not one bit of it was salvageable.

When my husband died, grief shattered my world into nearly as many tiny fragments of my former life. It was as if someone scored a crackled fraction pattern over me and then dropped me onto tile. The resulting impact sent shards of myself flying — some landing in a crumpled heap at my feet and others tumbling far, far, far beyond view. I didn’t feel salvageable.

I could have attempted a Humpty-Dumpty–patch job with parts of the cutting board. With scads of time, protective gloves, and the right adhesive, I might have reassembled a nearly complete rectangle of the same overall shape. Its length, width, and depth might have been close to the original version of itself.

broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss, TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

Shattered tempered glass might stick together at first, but like a life shattered by grief, it will never be the same. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

But it would never, ever be good as new again. Never would it safely bear up under the burdens of chopping, slicing, or dicing with a blade of any dimension. Never would its once-impervious surface be easily cleaned for hygienic meal preparation.

Now, I’m not saying we should sweep up the pieces of mourners’ lives, hand them over with a dustpan, and say, “Put it together or throw it out.” Grief doesn’t work that way. (And we all know how well Humpty-Dumpty turned out.)

Early in grieving, mourners need to be told it’s okay that they feel shattered. Being told how “strong” they are or that they can “handle” everything might seem helpful — but in most cases it’s not helpful. Often, well-intended  comments about your bereaved friends’ strength, resiliency, or abilities will come across to your grieving friend as poorly as these:

  • So what if your world has fallen apart?
  • People die every day, so why are you having such a hard time with your loss?
  • You’ll just have to learn to live without your loved one.
  • Better you than me.
  • You don’t need (or deserve) my help.

Ouch. No one wants to wound their mourning friends with such sharp-edged apathy, so avoid saying those kinds of things. Please.

tile floor, shattered glass, grief, far-flung, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

Grief sends pieces of survivors’ shattered lives in many directions, much like this far-flung glass that shattered and flew 12 feet away. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

In time, your friends’ grief will no longer be as overwhelming and raw as in early months and years. That doesn’t mean their grief will go away (there’s no magic Humpty-Dumpty–patch for that, remember) but they will adapt — eventually. (Though I’ve learned to function without my husband, and though much of my life now is great, there are times I still feel fractured seven years later.)

You can help grieving friends in the meantime by picking up some pieces for them:

  • Bring meals or easily prepared snacks, invite them to dinner, or take them with you to get groceries.
  • Help with household tasks or chores.
  • Call, write, text, phone, and visit to show your awareness long, long, long (weeks and months and years) after the funeral.
  • Listen. Share and hear stories about their loved ones.

You can’t fix your friends’ grief. You can’t put them back together. But you can be there to handle their broken, shattered hearts with care, attention, and gentle understanding.

 

Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.

___

*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.