After Castro’s Death — Grief or Relief?

When you heard the news of Fidel Castro’s death, did you feel relief or grief?

For many on the island nation, the news ushered in a state of mourning for their longtime leader.teal-thespian-faces-tealashes

For Cuban expatriates in the United States and other countries, however, in  some quarters the news ushered in celebrations at most, relief at least.

My first, widowed thought was, How sad for his family and friends who mourn him.  My second thought was, How deeply relieved his opponents and enemies must be.

Because of Fidel, many in Cuba lost their livelihood, home, country, family members, friends, and lives. Were it possible to have tried him for human rights crimes committed against his own countrymen, many I know would have signed up for jury duty.

And yet … that aged dictator’s demise cannot undo the years of separation (by sea and borders if not by death) through which those injured families have grieved.

November 26, one of my friends wrote on his personal Facebook wall (and gave me permission to quote):

Fidel Castro.

A frail old man died. No joy in that. As a Cuban who grew up listening to stories from my father about how Castro rounded up many of my dad’s friends and had them lined up in a firing squad, I am thankful for the end of this dark chapter in the history of my country and pray for better days ahead for the Cuban people.  — Manuel Fernandez*, author of the Wolf Battle series and other books

“Pray for better days ahead.” That’s good advice in the aftermath of every death — not just of public officials but of private citizens too.

Like Manuel, I hope and pray healing and reunion will step in where exile forced out.

___

*I’ve known Manuel and his family for more than twenty years — long before my youngest, now-adult child gave theirs an unauthorized haircut. 

Thanksgiving after Death

I threw out the post I penned for this Thanksgiving week.

I’d written about how giving thanks while grieving helped me heal, but those thankful acknowledgments came from within me — not from others’ admonitions to be grateful for X, Y, or Z. And I wrote about ways the post-Thanksgiving frenzy of Black Friday shopping can be a grief trigger for many.

But two events nudged me to change this post: the death of an elderly friend and the news of the school bus crash in Chattanooga.

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My octogenarian friend fell, had surgery, and began recovering. After all accounts reported she was healing, Emily took ill and died within days. Two common thoughts predominated this week as I met members of the family she delighted in, as I listened to neighbors who interacted with her daily, as I spoke with others who knew her through her writing (as I did):

  • We all loved and will miss her, though in different ways.
  • In spite of her age and recent health challenges, we all felt varying degrees of shock and disbelief.

I recognized the expression of acute grief in Emily’s family members’ faces, remembering (a little too clearly) how I felt when my mother and grandmother died. My friend’s passing saddens me, and I will continue to miss her. But her family and closer friends will actively mourn her for as long as they have loved her.

Which returns me to the second event prompting this altered post.

Many hearts in Chattanooga and elsewhere will be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend as they rejoice in their little ones’ safety, but even that gratitude will be overshadowed by the knowledge of others’ suffering. My heartfelt condolences and prayers and thoughts go out to the families whose children were so abruptly taken from them.

I cannot fathom the weight of grief and mourning in that community and within the walls of those homes. I have witnessed my friends’ acute pain in mourning their  children, but I have not worn the soul-searing loss of a child, so I cannot truly understand it. I can only try, knowing nothing I do will make them feel better because nothing I do will restore their dear ones. I can’t fix their pain, but I can — I must — acknowledge it.

After any loved one’s death, Thanksgiving as a holiday and thanksgiving as a practice are never the same. The holiday — with all its traditions — now carries the dark smear of absence. The practice — though healing — may seem impossible for a time likely to stretch beyond a single season (or year).

Every life is precious. All souls deserve to be sung out of this world with love and tenderness as the sun sets on their presence. Heart-songs of mourning include gratitude for the good they did, the lives they touched, and the connections they shared. But those sweet overtones ring truest when honestly accompanied by the bitter, background disharmony of bereavement.

If your friends are mourning this holiday season, listen as they share their gratitude for their loved ones. Openly share the reasons you thank heaven for their loved ones’ influence in your life.

(But please, do not lecture or admonish grieving friends on why or whether or how they should be grateful.)

 

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children's Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day

I wear teal every day. Most days it’s obvious by my shirt or scarf (or both).

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children's Grief Awareness Day

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children’s Grief Awareness Day

When I’m walking my dog (in old jeans and older T-shirts), it’s not as easy to see. It takes searching to note that my eyeglasses frames are a dark teal, my sneakers are a brighter shade of teal, and my key chain carabiner is — you guessed it — another shade of teal. (Even my hair scrunchies alternate between patterns of flowers and Winnie the Pooh figures — against teal backgrounds.)

Children, like adults, wear their grief every day, and for them it’s also obvious to see on some days. The hues of their grieving show brightly as they’re crying when a children’s movie protagonist loses a parent (or a beloved animal) — Bambi, Mufasa, Cinderella, Nemo, Charlotte, Old Yeller … (Anyone else see a trend here?) You may see them drawing pictures of deceased loved ones. Or you may see them “acting out” in behaviors you’d rather not witness.

Children’s grief — just like their drawings and the size of their clothes and their experience in every area of life — does not always look the same as adult grief. They at times play and study and go about their daily routines (almost) as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, adults may see those healthy behaviors as signs bereaved children are “all better” and expect them henceforth to behave that way.

But love, loss, and grief weave their way into children’s lives as deeply as into adults. And where children’s lives and personalities and outlooks are still in development, those threads should not be overlooked.

For specifics on what to say (and not say) to grieving children and for helpful resources, visit this earlier post.

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother's hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother’s hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When my mother died, her hospice nurses gave this book to my grieving children, because they wanted my girls to have something just for them in that difficult time. We’ve purged many kids’ books in the 21 years since, but this one will always have a home with us.

 

 

Mourning, Elections, and Choosing to Be Kind

After you study the issues and candidates, cast your vote, and learn the election results, please remember this:

Be kind.

Regardless of the outcome — win or lose, rout or run-off — the individual people in your life are more important than the people elected into community, state, and national political offices.

(You might be asking, “What does this have to do with grief and the bereaved?” Keep reading. We’ll get there.)

voted

(This sticker was from an earlier local and primary election. I’m going to the polls on Election Day. Will there be lines? Probably. But that’s okay — people-watching is always instructional.)

I don’t mean to imply that politics don’t matter. I take the opportunity to vote seriously. When I was a child, I watched my mom research the issues, attend rallies, and question candidates. This was long before the Internet allowed Google-speed searches. She invested her time — lots of it! — and her intellect in making informed choices to better our neighborhood, city, state, and nation, all the while instilling in me the responsibility to do the same.

Over some election results, Mom rejoiced; over others, she mourned — though never to extremes. No gloating, no berating. No in-your-face chanting or ranting.

I emulated her example with my children as they grew up, dragging them with me to pick up and turn in petitions, voting before or after school (so they came with me into polling places), explaining my choices beforehand and while awaiting election results.

After Mom died, when questions of politics arose, her overwhelming absence overshadowed my interest in doing as she’d taught me. I still went through the motions of researching, but the process felt hollow — as did much else without her.

However, it wasn’t until after her death that I learned how much farther her influence spread beyond what she taught me. In the first half dozen years after she died, I received phone calls — more than I counted — from people she’d met and networked with. For years, they’d sought her out during every election cycle, asking, “What do you think of so-and-so?” or “How do you interpret the meaning of such-and-such?”

She’d never told them how to vote, but she freely shared the information she had gathered and let them make up their own minds. So after she died, they called me, (rightly) assuming I did the same kind of research.

Over time, elections triggered fewer painful reminders of her absence and offered more opportunities to reflect on what a great woman she was. That became my secondary focus as I researched.

When my husband died, everything political blurred. I still cared on some level, but it was a level so far below the surface level of mourning — where I tried to survive — I may as well have been reading campaign signs without my glasses. (Reading anything without my glasses means I see only colorful, impressionistic, wordless blurs.)

Raw with shock and grief, I scarcely remembered to pay the same bills I’d managed before. I couldn’t pick out a box of cereal or loaf of bread in the grocery store without bursting into tears. Political research became a low priority. Campaign calls to my late husband’s phone, which I couldn’t yet make myself turn off, felt like daggers to my already torn heart. Contribution solicitations addressed to him made me want to stop checking the mail.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

What hurt the most as a newly grieving widow was the bitterness, rancor, mudslinging, and nastiness of political arguments. I didn’t mind honest, open-minded debate and discussion — still don’t — but I couldn’t stand the unkindness — still can’t.

Strangers attacking strangers — on social media, at rallies, over the radio. Family members fighting over philosophical disputes. Candidates calling names and contending.

Ick. Yuck. Eew.

When you’re grieving, the worst thing in the world — the death of your loved one — has already happened. Your world is upside down. The last thing you need is arguing and animosity over politics.

When you’re mourning — immersed in the hurt and anger of loss — you can’t abide meanness. You’ve been forced to acknowledge that life is too short for such negativity.

When you’re not bereaved yourself, it’s easy to forget that all around you — in person and online — there are folks in various degrees of mourning loved ones. People you know and people you don’t know, all facing their own grief over death or divorce or health …

So, please, please …

Please keep politics in perspective. There will be future elections. But many are mourning loved ones who won’t be with them in that future; they’ve got enough to handle without being surrounded by more negativity.

No matter the outcome of this election (or others), be kind.

___

For more about mourning and politics, see Taboo Topics When Someone Dies — Part 1, Politics

Faked Deaths and Distracted Driving: Distrust and Distress

I couldn’t believe the news story. Officials at a small-town high school announced four students were killed in an automobile accident. I was horrified, deeply saddened for the loss of those families and for the shock and anxiety of their peers.

Seconds later, the newscaster explained the school’s announcement was a hoax, a trick, a ploy to teach students the dangers of distracted and/or impaired driving. No kids died — thank goodness! For a brief moment, they’d been “dead” to their peers yet were now “alive again.”

My initial relief — joy, even — on behalf of these students flashed into disbelief and then burned into anger.

How dare their school pretend such a thing!

I understand that the school administrators in Brodhead, Wisconsin, wanted to impress the students with the gravity of distracted-driving consequences. I realize they wanted to prevent students from the fatal errors others have made. I agree with and applaud such motives.

I also understand from news reports that the idea for the fake death announcement came from the student council itself. Concerned teens thought this would be an effective way to scare their peers into safer driving habits — a worthy goal.

But.

Doing so in this way was a terrible, counterproductive idea, and the adults at the school should have had the sense to see it. 

The Washington Post video clip of the edited announcement showed two adults alternating the following lines:

“We have some bad news. Four students were T-boned, as they ditched school, by a drunk driver …”
“Further information on this accident will be coming…”
“… four students who had the accident, the T-bone by a drunk driver, uh, the unfortunate news is that they did not make it…”

Never, never, NEVER let these turn your car into a lethal weapon. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Never, never, NEVER let these turn your car into a lethal weapon. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Bad news. Unfortunate news. It went far beyond that.

Students at the high school and their parents (who received distraught texts from their children) were understandably distressed by the “news” of their peers’ deaths. For those who had already lost family members to the violence of drunk or distracted drivers, the shock of such an announcement surely rebooted their grief-induced post-traumatic stress.

And the made-up report of the “deaths” was a slap in the face that trivialized the reality of such incidents for those whose loved ones have died in such ways.

For them — and for everyone with similar backgrounds hearing the news story — the trauma of the untrue announcement had no easy off-switch. Trauma triggers don’t stop sending fight-or-flight chemicals surging through the body and brain just because someone says, “Just kidding. Didn’t happen. All is well.”

My immediate thoughts went to those  who have actually lost loved ones due to selfish acts of texting drivers or drunk drivers. Many are open about telling their stories and do so with eloquence. Their genuine emotion and conviction reaches hearts, convincing their audiences to never inflict such harm on those who cross their paths.

Why didn’t the adults at Brodhead High School steer the inexperienced, young student council’s good intentions toward a more responsible, truthful message delivery? Why didn’t they invite real survivors into their school to truly tell the life-long impact of losing loved ones to distracted drivers?

It’s one thing to tell the truth, which can be difficult and even distressing to hear. That is a part of life.

It’s another thing altogether to inflict distress that’s dressed up as if it’s true by those who should be trustworthy.  That’s shameful.

I cannot understand why school officials thought lying to students about their peers’ death — THE most irrevocable human condition — would instruct these teenagers. How will these kids trust their school in other matters?

Stop fake scare tactics. Tell the truth. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Stop fake scare tactics. Tell the truth. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If, heaven forbid, Brodhead ever encounters an incidence of violence such as those that have happened elsewhere, will any of these teens trust directions given for their safety? Or, will they smirk in a fooled-me-once way and say, “Lockdown? Sure. Like there’s really any danger this time. Remember when they told us …”

Do we need to teach our youth (and adults) to exert greater care when driving? Absolutely. Do they need to understand the consequences of taking someone’s life or limbs by distracted driving? Yes. Is the best way to do that by pretend scare tactics which traumatize without teaching truth? Absolutely not.

 

Good Grief, Halloween! (It’s Not All Good)

For anyone mourning recent losses, Halloween can be painful. Good, clean, costumed, candy-consuming fun too often fades behind gruesome, in-your-face depictions of morbid, glorified, sinister portrayals.

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Pumpkin (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Halloween was the first store-pushed celebration after my husband’s death. With newly widowed eyes, my gut clenched at the fake tombstones, skeleton parts, and decayed zombie costumes shouting from store shelves and “decorating” — but certainly not enhancing — my neighborhood.

Don’t these people know my husband died?

Of course they didn’t know (except when I blurted it to store clerks who’d made the mistake of greeting me with rushed variations of “how’re-you-today” which they’d not really meant to ask). The whole world, it seemed, went back to normal after his funeral — the whole world except for me and my grieving household.

If your friends have just buried a loved one, they aren’t likely to nominate your plastic cemetery and zombie yard decorations for lawn-of-the-month. If they’re mourning loved ones who died by violent means, they will not thank or applaud you for costumes and makeup which call injuries to mind.

I once met a couple whose entire home — outside and inside, every room — could have furnished the gift shop inventory for a haunted house, spook alley, or nightmare on any street. From my new, widowed perspective, I couldn’t help wondering what one of them will someday think when surviving the other and walking through their once-shared front door. What will their prominently displayed tombstones and bones and coffins and skeletons mean then? Perhaps they will offer continuity and connection to items once loved by their departed beloved. But perhaps not …

Everyone reacts differently to bereavement. Children, for example, often cling to continuity after a loved one dies. The same activity, such as trick-or-treating, which agonizes one family member may act as a bridge between bereaved upheaval and tradition’s normalcy for another.

Instead of wishing your grieving friends a “happy Halloween,” invite them into your life. Invite their children to go trick-or-treating along with yours (especially if the adults aren’t up to it). Invite teenagers to costume parties. Invite the adults, too.

If  they turn you down, don’t take it personally. They may not be able to abide socializing or celebrating in any way for a while yet. But they’ll appreciate that you wanted to include and acknowledge them. Try asking them again next time. And the next.

But please, at Halloween, be thoughtful about your costume and decor. And the car you park outside your door.

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.)

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 in August, long before Halloween’s approach. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

___

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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Your Grief and My Grief Might (or Might Not) Become Friends

From the earliest days of my widowhood, I found it surprising how few widows said, “I know exactly how you feel.” Instead, they acknowledged the unique individuality of my loss. They said, “I can’t imagine how it would be to have lost my husband without warning,” or “My kids were already raised when my husband died. I don’t know what you’re going through.”

The irony is they did know — at least to the degree of understanding the upended world of mourning a spouse — but instead of comparing our losses in a way that placed them on the same level, they emphasized what made my newly raw, current loss their focus.

Their acknowledgment offered comfort in a comfortless condition.

Last weekend at the Florida Writers Association annual conference, among the hundreds of attendees writing in every genre imaginable, I met several authors whose own grief deepens the portrayal of their characters. As we visited, I again recalled the differences in how people I know and love process their grief — and their nearly universal reactions too.

Hurricane Meets Hibiscus (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When Hurricane Matthew barreled through Central Florida, my neighborhood was nearly unscathed. (My prayers continue for those whose homes were damaged and destroyed.) Before that storm, two hibiscus plants grew in my yard. The winds and tropical rains stripped all but a few leaves from one and shoved it almost to the ground with its root ball loosened from the soil.

The other hibiscus, though less sheltered by the shape of my house, kept all but a few leaves, and although it no longer stands quite straight, its roots hold so firmly I haven’t been able to push it fully upright again.

The winds of grief blow some of us sideways and sometimes uproot us altogether. Stripped of our loved ones, we gasp in the vacuum of mourning. We flail in sorrow’s storm surge, and we recognize that — whether by downed tree or lifted roof or flooded foundation — our individual and collective lives will never be the same.

We learn to bond, repair, and rebuild by what we share — the bereavement of severance from dear ones or homes or livelihoods or health — and we mourn with one another even in those different conditions.

Rebuild we do, but in ways we’d never planned and in time frames only we can determine. Meanwhile, we appreciate those who are willing to sit with us in silence, hearing us wail and mourn and cry. And we appreciate those who keep checking in with us (even when we are “moody”) and who step in to help us lift and mop and hammer and bandage our lives back together.