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.

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

Mourning in the Holidays — How to Help Grieving Friends

What do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friends’ loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

grief, help friend, holiday, mourn, candle, TealAshes.com, smoke, wisp, teal,

Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joys of the season (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Saying something is better than saying nothing. Here are ways to tell your friends you’re thinking of them and aware of their grief during the holidays:

  • “I’m thinking of you. I know this is your first Thanksgiving without [say the name of the person who died].”
  • “I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts this second Hanukkah after [say the name]’s death. I realize you’re still adjusting to [his/her] absence.”
  • “Will you join us for Christmas Eve services? We realize you might not want to sit alone.”
  • “I’ve brought you this token as a symbol of [one of the seven principles] to share with you this first week of Kwanzaa without [say the name].”
  • “I know this New Year’s Eve will be hard without [say the name of the deceased] here with you.”
  • “Will you please join me for this holiday?”
  • “May I come visit with you during this holiday?”
  • “I’d love to hear stories about [say the name of the lost loved one].”

Did it seem odd that I repeated the admonition to say the name of the deceased? Most mourners need to process their losses by talking of their departed loved ones. Too often, well-meaning friends think they’ll “make” their friends sad if they mention the names of the ones being mourned. The reality is they’re already sad and would rather have others acknowledge their loss instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Remember, grief is a natural outgrowth of love.

Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.) When talking about the holidays with the newly bereaved, be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices of words:

  • Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate.
  • Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party.
  • Acknowledge awareness of your friends’ ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others.
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

There’s no good time of year to grieve, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Whether death takes place in the middle of the busiest holidays or in the least-scheduled month of a family (or corporate) calendar, it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt not just now, when the loss is new, but also in the weeks and months and years to come. (Yes, I said years.)

Holiday traditions and expectations sometimes fan the embers of grief back into flames. You can’t restore what grief’s flames damage, but you can offer the balm of kindness and understanding as your mourning friends’ adapt to their altered lives.

Halloween Horror — Hurt or Help Your Grieving Friends

Want to rub salt and vinegar in the weary wounds of the newly bereaved? Decorate your home like a scary cemetery with limbs and bones reaching from the ground. Dress yourself (and even worse, your child!) like a zombie — a decaying, walking “undead” — for fun. And what prompted this rant-like post, you might wonder? Could it be the last-straw home house I drove past that featured fake, bloody-looking, severed heads hanging from a tree?

If these folks want to be cruel to friends, neighbors, and strangers after their loved ones died, congratulations — mission accomplished. Halloween “decorations” like these horrify many mourners.

Who cares whether little kids will be outside and see these scary things? Who cares whether children (or their parents) have recently buried family members, some due to violence? If they don’t like it, they don’t have to look, right?

Wrong.

If you enjoy a decor that makes the Addams Family home seem like the Little House on the Prairie, then good for you! But please confine the creepiness to the interior of your castle — you don’t need to inflict it on everyone who inadvertently stumbles across your street on their way to school or to work. And if you’ve invited a recently bereaved friend to your party I do applaud you for involving them — that’s great! (But offer them a heads-up on the decor so they won’t freak out when they step inside.)

Some people’s life-inspired nightmares already hold enough fuel to burn for a lifetime without you fanning those flames.

I’ve said this before:

My husband died about a month before Halloween. Fake tombstones and skeletons lined store aisles. I was a new widow, the unwilling owner of his cemetery plot. Holiday prop inscriptions labeled Rest in Peace were anything but peaceful. … Mock cemetery displays (complete with fake tombstones and skeletons) contradict the “peaceful” invocation to “rest in peace” (RIP). Many mourners despise them. … There’s nothing restful or peaceful about mock burial sites when you’ve had to buy a real one. — from Halloween Grief

pumpkin, halloween, grief, death, what to say when someone dies, TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If you want to decorate the outside of your house for a spooky but not sickening Halloween, stick with adorable witches, goblins, or even ghosts. Embrace historic, cultural, artistic Day of the Dead traditions honoring deceased ancestors. Let your porch pop with pumpkins, bats, and spiders.

But keep the gross stuff to yourself. Please. Yes, the U.S.A. is a free country with freedom of speech. But just because we can say (or display) a thing doesn’t mean we should.

A little bit of thinking how others might feel can go a long way toward helping grieving friends. At Halloween, please be considerate when dressing up yourself, your home, and your car.

(Rant over. For now.)

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. (Although I can't imagine what those good reasons may be ... I snapped this photo in August, long before Halloween's approach.)

Maybe this van’s owner had valid reasons for the skeletons and red paint on (and in) this vehicle more than a month before Halloween — but I can’t imagine any. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

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Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

Halloween Grief

Belated Halloween Reprise (including a link to Megan Divine’s HuffPost Healthy Living “Halloween and Grief: When the Nightmare Is Real“)

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I also wrote “Halloween Apologia” for Segullah.org.