Grief Before and After the Storm

“Feeder bands” of grief-tinged déjà vu arrived ahead of the hurricane.

Hurricane Matthew surges toward my state after devastating the Caribbean and taking lives there. My ties to the islands are indirect — a young friend’s anxiety for the family in Haiti she hasn’t been able to contact; a daughter’s concern for students she worked with in the Dominican Republic; local friends’ worries for people within their ministries on the island of Hispaniola …

24-hours before Matthew's arrival, Central Florida grocery staples disappear (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Empty bread aisle 24 hours before Matthew’s arrival in Central Florida (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Here in Central Florida, I’m stocked up (water, food, dog food, and battery-operated fans). I’ve lowered and secured window awnings and stowed away outdoor items — I’m as ready as I can be.

Wednesday night, on the way home from a writers meeting, I stopped at a grocery store to top off my supply of stress foods (chocolate chip cookies and crunchy cheese-ish snacks). I’m glad I had already purchased the basics; as you can see by these photos, the staple aisles were depleted.

But my heart is heavy for the families of those who’ve already lost loved ones. I too clearly remember how new, raw grief felt — and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

48 hours before Matthew's arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Empty water aisle 48 hours before Matthew’s arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

The advent of this monster storm also brought back memories of the years when my late husband and I weathered earlier hurricanes and tropical storms. This is the first BIG storm I’ve prepared for without him.

Six years after his death, “firsts” still punch me in the gut. Not as hard as during earlier years, but enough to make me suck in my breath, feel a moment’s panic that my wedding ring isn’t on my finger, and revisit the anger I felt so often while adjusting to widowhood.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but as I stowed away outdoor items and braved the general icky-ness of our backyard shed, I wanted to tell off my husband. (WHAT was that thing skittering past my foot? It looked like a short, striped snake with legs.) I wanted to gripe at him. “This isn’t fair. You’re supposed to be here. How dare you leave me here to get ready for this storm — and for everything else I’ve had to do — since you died.”

It’s not fair to blame him (and his absence) for this storm. It’s not reasonable to be angry with him for it. It’s not nice to wish him here in harm’s way with the rest of us.

But grief isn’t nice, or reasonable, or fair. It’s a monster that sweeps the ground out from under mourners, floods them with confusion and distress, empties them of planned-for futures, and blows over the concept of “normal.” 

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

After someone dies, life does not “go on” the same for the bereaved as it does for everyone else. It takes years to build what most of us call a “new-normal” life plan without the loved one who figured prominently before.

I don’t know what this (or any) hurricane will do to the physical landscape around me. I didn’t know what grieving my husband would do to the landscape of my life, either. 

If your friend or coworker or neighbor has lost a loved one in the last two years, please be patient with them as they rebuild their new normal. Stand close beside them, and let them know you are aware of their grief. Lend them your strength as they sort through the debris of dead dreams.

If you’re in the path of this storm — or others — please, please, please help each other be safe.







When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.


Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.



*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.

Walking on Eggshells When Someone Dies

Does knowing what to say when someone dies feel like walking on eggshells?

photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

(Walking on Eggshells photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

You wouldn’t knowingly step barefoot into a kitchen littered with sharp, slippery shells. Who wants to walk on a surface that’s messy at best, hazardous at worst? But you can’t ignore what’s there. Before entering to clean up the unacceptable disorder, you slip your feet into shoes and grab supplies to help you remove the rolling shell-shards and wipe up the white-and-yolk smears.

Mourning friends’ emotions can seem as hard, thin, fragile, slippery, or sharp as broken eggshells, but you shouldn’t ignore them or their loss, either. Please, please enter their grieving space, but tread lightly and bring appropriate resources as you walk with your mourning friends through their emotional eggshells of grieving.

(Before I take this analogy further, let me be the first to admit where it breaks down: You can completely clean and disinfect a floor, making it good as new, like nothing ever spilled there; you CANNOT straighten or sanitize grief. The bereaved who mourn their spouse, child, sibling, parent, cousin — anyone dear to them — will NEVER be the same. Given abundant time and support, they’ll someday learn to function well again and may no longer display the sharp, messy, slimy aftereffects of grieving — but only after they’ve woven and worn-in an all-new carpet to cover the permanently stained, scratched, and scorched surface beneath.)

  • Acknowledge you’re aware your friend is hurting — and that you know you can’t fix their grief. Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women can fix the breaks of bereavement.
  • Lament the loss and LISTEN. (“I’m so sorry your friends died. I’m here to listen. Would you like to tell me more about her/him/them?”) If your friend says something you disagree with, this is NOT the time to argue. Your role is to be a safe sounding board. Don’t take their short temper or lack of attention personally — it’s not about you when their world has shattered.
  • Pick up the practical pieces you can.* Offer to do specific, tangible tasks (drive carpool, bring groceries or meals, wash laundry or dishes or the dog, mow the lawn, tend the kids, make phone calls …).
  • Wipe up the mess — without judgement. Grief can cause torrential tears, erratic emotions, disrupted digestion,  sickly sleep, distressing distraction … in short, mourning is messy. Bring the softest tissues you can find, offer assistance with upcoming deadlines, invite the bereaved into your circle and activities (without reproach if you’re turned down), and reassure your friends that it’s okay for them to grieve in their own way**.
  • Return often. Grief’s relentlessness is as certain as gravity. Eggs will fall, crack, and roll all over a cleaned kitchen floor. Mourning will hit without warning, cracking life into a fragmented shell of what it once was. As your grieving friend begins to adjust, shock wears away, allowing new waves of grief to resurge as they confront the ongoing realities of living without their loved one.

Tread lightly while stepping alongside your mourning friends, but DO walk with them. And don’t be afraid of the mess as you clean up crushed eggshells with them along the way.


*Exercise CAUTION when helping with physical things within the deceased person’s home or office. Do not rush a bereaved person into any decisions, but ALWAYS ASK before throwing away or laundering items. What you may see as an old newspaper to be thrown out, your grieving friend may see as the last crossword puzzle their loved one finished. The pillowcase you wish to strip in order to provide your friend with fresh bedding may contain the last scent of their loved one.

**Everyone grieves differently. Avoid telling your friends they “should” (or shouldn’t) anything. The only exception is if their actions or (inaction) cause immediate or imminent harm to themselves or others.

Maybe it's grief, not the cat, that's got your mourning friend's tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

When Grieving Friends Go Quiet

“I haven’t heard from my friends since the funeral. Why don’t they return calls?” I’ve heard mourners ask this question — but others have asked the same question about those who are bereaved.

Yesterday one of my friends expressed concern over not hearing much from me lately. Also a widowed writer, she’d noticed my diminished postings here and on my Facebook page. *

Silence isn’t my norm, but this summer became a season of quiet.

Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

107 Degrees in the Car. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

I don’t mean quiet in the sense of vacationing away from home or hiding out from Florida’s relentless heat.

I mean quiet as in stilled by Mom’s adage — If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all — mixed with an adulterated metaphor — grief’s got your tongue. (Sorry, cat. You’re out of this one.)

So now, nearly six years into widowhood, when grief’s got my tongue, near-silence results. (More on this later.)

I wasn’t always this way.

In the early months after my husband’s death, I radiated raw emotion. I sobbed in public and blurted nonstop without thinking. Grief shredded whatever filters I’d once had.

As shock faded, I began — gradually — to recognize strangers’ uncomfortable body language whenever I shoved the intimacy of my loss into their awareness. (It took nearly a year to rein my words in, longer to channel the emotion behind them.)

Worse were the moments acquaintances’ and friends’ expressions shouted wordless discomfort … then beat hasty retreats.

But I still needed to talk about my loss.  One of the greatest gifts you can give grieving friends is the assurance and presence of being there to listen — without judgement — over and over again.

Suppressed grief doesn’t disappear or go away — it drills deeper, cutting below the surface of already inflamed wounds, even damaging what may appear (from outside) to be healing.

Mourning is personal, even when the loss is publicly known and acknowledged past the deceased’s core family and friends.

Britain’s Prince Harry recently said, “I really regret not ever talking about” Princess Diana’s death.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Harry and William to mourn their mother while the world watched and weighed in.

As much as I needed to talk through the traumas of my mother’s and husband’s deaths, I also needed to insulate myself. Wounded, I cocooned myself (and my kids, as much as possible) toward healing. Answering the phone took monumental effort; returning calls exceeded my capability. Opening emails overwhelmed me; replying no longer seemed possible, let alone expected.

Sometimes, like this summer, I return to similar silence.

I’ve written elsewhere of why July 4th renews missing my mother and about my first wedding anniversary after my spouse died — our 25th. Tiptoeing toward and through those dates (and a birthday) this month had me on shaky footing as my 30th anniversary approached.

Meanwhile, a couple of personal, below the belt blows left me reeling.

And horrific, ongoing public scenarios fill this summer’s news: The Christina Grimmie and Pulse shootings in my hometown. Violent murders and beatings by errant police officers, which prompted demonstrations of much needed awareness that #BlackLivesMatter. Attacks by rogue protesters against dutiful officers in Dallas and other cities. Political vitriol spewed between people (of otherwise seemingly good conscience and good sense). The plight of refugees around the world (including those my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford volunteers with and writes about — see, for example, “Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story“) …

Maybe it's grief, not the cat, that's got your mourning friend's tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Maybe it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got your mourning friend’s tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Sometimes it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got one’s tongue.

Even if your silent (or blurting) grieving friends don’t call you back or reply to your texts or emails, keep reaching out. One day, they may have the strength to respond again, and knowing you’ve cared all along will make that possible.


*Thanks again for reaching out, Shelby Ketchen! Your friendship is as full of honest encouragement as your writing. (Check out Shelby’s latest at

More Killings, More Grief, More Sorrow

More killings. More bereaved loved ones. More mourning.

I’m crying, blinking furiously just to see the screen while I’m typing.

I didn’t know until a few moments ago about this week’s police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota or the subsequent shooting of police and other citizens in Dallas. (Once again, for two days I’ve not watched or listened to the news and have given Facebook and Twitter only brief glances.*) I almost wish I hadn’t caught the noon news today.

So much pain. So much death. Too much.

My first reaction was a silent scream. NO!

My second thought was of the victims’ families — their shock and grief and disbelief and pain. NO!

My third reaction was sobbing. My heart cries out for all the new grief those families face. My body remembers early bereavement. Would I wish it on anyone who’d ever wronged me? NO!

I’ve never understood violence and hatred — especially in response to fear or in protest of violence and hatred. Although I consider myself pro-life, I have never agreed with those who spew hatred (or violence in any form) toward those who choose differently. Although my ancestors were persecuted for their religious beliefs, I’ve never understood those who proclaim their faith as a reason to fight. Proverbs 15:1

In my town (Orlando) and country, hateful violence against individuals continues to break homes and hearts. Around the world, war and upheaval send families fleeing from nations ripped apart by strife.

Why don’t they, why won’t they recognize the wisdom of another way? There’s timeless truth that “a soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, KJV).

Even the longest of lifetimes is too short to live in anger, because the cliché is true: life’s too short.

Especially when it’s senselessly cut down.


*Sometimes a person’s grief makes it difficult to watch (or read or listen to) news of others’ losses. Please see Grief Is Not a Spectator Sport to better understand why some mourners — at least why I — avoid heeding the news.


Grief on the Fourth of July

I’ve always loved the U.S. holiday called Independence Day, but for twenty years I’ve struggled to enjoy the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate it. Contradictory? Perhaps, but holidays after a loved one’s death can become complicated, contradictory things.

20150704_stars and stripes fireworks burst

“Stars and Stripes Fireworks over Orlando” photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

On the one hand, maintaining annual traditions can give survivors a lifeline of continuity in a time when their lives have been demolished by death. Things will never be normal again, so holiday celebrations and commemorations can — for some mourners — offer the comforting familiarity of ritual. For the first couple of years after my husband died, only at the last minute did I remember to buy hot dogs, potato chips, dip, and soda (our family’s traditional Fourth of July junk food)  — primarily because our kids expected it.

On the other hand, for some who grieve, carrying on with past traditions (as if nothing has changed) hurts more than it helps. Also in the first year (or two) after my husband died, I felt raging jealousy and resentment for those going about their days as if everything was okay — because to me it wasn’t. I couldn’t make myself display any of our household Independence Day decorations I’d made and/or purchased during our twenty-four years of marriage. (In fact, on this my sixth widowed Independence Day, that bin remains untouched. Maybe next year.)

If your friends have lost loved ones recently, please be sensitive to their grief this Fourth of July (and in holidays yet to come):

  • Acknowledge that this holiday will be different (if not downright difficult) for the bereaved. Don’t be afraid of reminding them of their loss or “making” them sad; they already remember their loss every minute of every day. What they need is to know someone else does, too.
  • Invite them to join you in cookouts, picnics, beach trips … whatever you usually do to celebrate. Tell them the invitation remains open if they decline. Don’t push — they may really need space — but do make certain they are welcome to change their minds later.
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down, won’t RSVP, or don’t return calls or messages. In the early months after my husband died, sometimes I answered the phone only for my immediate family but let other calls go to voicemail. (It wasn’t them, it was me.) It took me more than six months to be able to even think about attending social gatherings (and it took longer to actually go).
  • Ask them how they usually celebrated the holiday with their deceased loved one. Most mourners are grateful for the chance to speak about the ones they grieve.
  • Tread lightly with greetings like “Happy Fourth.” Of course you want your friends to be happy, and happiness is possible even while grieving, but when grief is new and raw, a safer, more considerate message might be “Thinking of you on the Fourth.”

(To find out why I’ve had an aversion to July 4th since the 1990s, see Fireworks of Grief.)

One more thing. While you’re enjoying whatever it is you like to do on this national holiday, please take one moment (or more) to reflect on the gift it is to be able to celebrate as you wish. The freedoms we too often take for granted were purchased by the labors — and the lives — of many to whom we owe a debt our gratitude can never repay.