More about Hugs–and Tears

A couple of weeks ago, two women at my doctor’s office offered  much-needed hugs — for opposite reasons that both connect to my widowed status. Here’s what happened:

When I check in at the front desk, the young woman behind the chest-high counter asks me to review my medical records. Routine stuff, right? Wrong.

I glance at the page and feel my forehead go pale. In the seconds it takes to process the written emergency contact and financially responsible party, my fingertips already dampen the page. My lungs feel as they did when a year-older bully punched me in elementary school. My stomach lurches as it did  three years earlier, the first time my trembling hand scrawled “widowed” between the mutually exclusive yet equally accurate options of “married” and “single.”

Between blinks at those small, inked symbols, I’ve been transported back to the most traumatic period of my life.

With the offensive paper shaking in my hands, I lean forward, resting my forearms on the countertop. I hate that tears rim my eyes — Snap! — just like that. Three years of progress in learning to “handle” and “manage” my grief — gone.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?”

I nod-shake my head in an indecipherable up-side-to-side-and-down gesture, still unable to draw in breath enough to speak. I feel badly for the poor girl (about my oldest daughter’s age) staring up at me from her monitor and keyboard. It isn’t her fault that three years’ of “updated” information never made it into the office database. I feel the impatient stares of other patients in the growing line behind me.

When I finally manage to inhale, my first words come as unfiltered as they did three years ago, back when I  began nearly every conversation  the same way. “My husband died.” Now I add, as if needing to justify my display of emotion, “I already changed it on the forms, but he’s still written here.”

The young woman stammers out, “I’m sorry.” She looks nearly as distressed as I feel.

Once I manage to cross out  my husband’s name and information — Ouch! — and write in my current contact and ID numbers, she promises she’ll input it immediately — so I won’t have to face that again.

Fast forward 30+ minutes later, inside the exam room.

In walks the doctor, who does a double-take when she sees me. “You’ve lost weight [16 pounds so far!]. You look terrific! And you don’t have the cane with you anymore? Tell me what’s been going on.”

I share the miracle of healing that let me ditch my cane after 10 years and 5 months. I show her the story I wrote in my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids and tell her of my other published work. I answer questions about my daughters’ well-being.

My doctor beams at me with unfallen tears glistening. “You’ve come so far after such a hard load of grief. May I give you a hug?”

Earlier in my grief (as I stated in “To comfort the bereaved, give hugs–but ask first!”) I was prickly about being touched. Sometimes I craved the embrace of a friend almost as much as I craved my husband’s hugs. Other times, I couldn’t stand any hugs that were not his — especially not from unrelated men.

Now, though, I welcome her hug as much as the compassion that prompts it.

Fast forward again, this time back in the lobby,  standing in another line to check out. The young woman who witnessed my tears earlier leaves her desk and approaches me. “I’m really sorry about before,” she says. “Would it be okay if I give you a hug?

Again, I welcome it.

Whether in celebration or sorrow, whether accompanied by tears of rejoicing or despair, a hug is a wonderful gift and healing tool — when asked and applied appropriately.

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Wait! I promise this won’t be morose.

Growing up, I thought my mother coined the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” After a rough day at school she’d hug me and listen to every ranting word. She let me go on (and on) until I’d vented my frustrations. But then … [I’m smiling and shaking my head at my little-girl-self as I type this.] Then Mom always (and I mean always) said, “Now tell me three good things that happened.” She’d sit beside me, with patient stillness, until I’d squeezed three good things from my heart through my (sometimes clenched) reluctant lips.

As much as I wanted her consolation, there were some days I stifled my complaints just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge “three good things.”

I’ve heard it said that you can’t feel badly while expressing gratitude, but through grief I’ve found that isn’t so. After Mom died, I felt simultaneous, deep gratitude for the time I spent with her — and despondency that there was no more time together. I felt grateful, humble joy that (of all the women on the planet) she was my mother — but I lamented over how few my almost-eight- and three-year-old daughters’ memories of their grandma would be and that my yet-unborn third child would not know her at all. I thanked heaven aloud and in my heart that Mom no longer suffered the indignities of cancer’s claws — while I sobbed over the gaping absence of her presence in our lives.

Gratitude and Grief (which runs deeper than “sadness”) walked beside me, both holding my hands.

A few hours after my husband’s sudden death, in the awful stillness that was yet hours ahead of dawn, on the darkest night of my existence, I opened a spiral notebook and began to write. That content is too personal, too sacred to share, but on those pages (starting, inexplicably, on the last page and working my way forward) I listed blessings, all the things I had to be thankful for, all “the good things” in my life. Doing so brought me forward into that day’s light.

In the hours, days, weeks, months, and years that followed, those grateful truths have played a key role in my efforts to move forward through each day. Whether I spoke my grateful truths aloud, wrote them in my journal, or offered them in silent prayer, each soothed my aching a little more as I sent them out from the core of my soul. However, like so much of “recovery” from grief, their effective balm only worked applied in one direction. When others told me the same things, the same ideas rankled worse than driving the wrong way over the tire-piercing spikes in a parking lot exit.

So please, please, don’t tell the bereaved what they have to be grateful for, unless they ask you to.

As you comfort your friends through their grief this Thanksgiving, remember to listen with patient stillness. Let your grieving friends rant and vent. Then, after calm returns, gently invite them to share “three good things” from memories of their loved ones.

I think they’ll be grateful you asked.

***

Note:

I’d already begun drafting this post when I discovered the following article, geared more for the bereaved themselves than for those offering them your support. If you’re trying to understand what to say and do to help console grieving friends, family, classmates or coworkers, read it for yourself. Consider passing it along to them.

Megan Devine offers practical advice  to those experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one: “The grieving introvert + the holiday season: a different survival guide.”

To Comfort the Bereaved, Give Hugs–But Ask First!

Offer hugs, but ASK before embracing.

In the first year after my husband died, sometimes I needed — but sometimes I couldn’t stand — hugs. The one person I most wanted to hug me was no longer around — and never would be again. I didn’t want “substitutes.”

There were times our daughters didn’t “feel like” hugs, either, and although my arms ached to offer them a mother’s comforting embrace, I learned they each needed to grieve their father on their own terms and in their own ways.

Most days, though, I accepted and found strength in other women’s hugs, especially from widows. (Their silent squeezes conveyed I understand better than words.) I found solace in my male relatives’ hugs, too. We’ve always been a “huggy” family on both sides, so sharing their (often wordless, occasionally bear-like) embraces felt familiar and comforting.

However, I did not, repeat, did not enjoy hugs from male friends and acquaintances, not even a little bit in the first year … or two. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe not. For me, when I made my marriage vows 24 years earlier, I took the “forsake all others” portion to heart, hands, and arms. My husband was the man I hugged — the only man I hugged — other than kin (and a very few close-as-kin-to-us-both friends), because that was what I chose. That was one way I honored him — and our vows.

I wasn’t in the habit of hugging other men when my husband stepped from the room or went away on a trip. Why, after death took him “away,” would I suddenly do so? I still felt the same connection and commitment to him — and to our vows. To me, hugging other men after he died felt as “wrong”  as it would have felt while he lived.

However, for many widowed friends, hugs from friends of the opposite sex helped! Such hugs made them feel better connected to their late spouses. The hugs that disconcerted me brought them a semblance of peace.

These days, three years into widowhood, I’m no longer raw with the shock and newness of my loss. I willingly accept and return (almost all) embraces.

I even initiate hugs — but I ask first, unless I’m offering virtual (((hugs))) like these.

(((Hugs))) to you for reaching out to your grieving friends, coworkers, and family members.

For Grieving Children, Wear BLUE on Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Image from the Children's Grief Awareness Day Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=346620602055569&set=a.121173784600253.18290.121173094600322&type=1&theater)

This HOPE Butterfly image is from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildrensGriefAwarenessDay

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is November 21 this year.* Please wear blue to show your support for grieving children!

Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings. Their needs and attention-demanding behaviors may be overlooked or misunderstood by their own surviving family members, friends, teachers or other school officials.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child (of any age):

  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving!
  • “You need to take care of your [surviving parent or siblings] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older teens) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children, no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do!
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of a child’s loss, this (and every other “at least” statement) demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child (of any age):

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief. A child also needs “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of processing difficult feelings!
  • “Would you like to talk about your [friend, sibling, parent, grandparent, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways. The bereaved–including children–should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

For more on how you can support Children’s Grief Awareness Day, visit the website: http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad/index.shtml

You can also show your support by visiting and clicking “Like” on the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildrensGriefAwarenessDay?fref=ts

Tweet awareness: #CGADHOPE

*Children’s Grief Awareness Day is held the third Thursday each November (one week before Thanksgiving) as a way to build awareness for the special needs of grieving children, particularly during the holiday season.

Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals

Typhoons. Tornadoes. Terrorism. Turmoil. Large-scale disasters all, impacting dozens, hundreds, thousands of souls.

Life-shattering, publicly viewed, world-watched tragedies, displaying agonies of individuals: children, wives, husbands, parents, siblings, relatives, friends.

Fragmented sentences, fragmented lives.

I admit, I seldom watch the news. Not anymore. Not since my husband’s death.

It’s not that I don’t want to be informed. I do. But I’m now expertly informed in the one area the glowing rectangle cannot convey, no matter how eloquent its writers, nor inspired its photographers, nor supernal its composers, nor gifted its news gatherers and broadcasters may be:

I know how grief feels.

And when I see the shocked, huddled faces of survivors’ physical pain and discomfort …

And when I see the decimated rubble  of one-time homes, hospitals, and houses of worship…

And when I see the eyes of those whose loved ones are no more…

…I see their grief, their public grief,
and I feel a degree of it.
I remember the excruciating feel of
my own, private anguish.

Large-scale grief-events require large-scale generosity and cooperation (to rebuild community infrastructure and provide day-to-day resources for residents to live on). They also require one-on-one generosity and compassion (to refashion–not rebuild–individual survivors’ lives).

Please, as much as you are able, help.

Image from the Children's Grief Awareness Day Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=346620602055569&set=a.121173784600253.18290.121173094600322&type=1&theater)

Blue butterfly image from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day Facebook page

Donate time, money, or expertise. Give a little or give a lot, but please also give from your heart. Though emergencies have an impact on everyone, with Children’s Grief Awareness Day coming this week, please consider the affected children’s needs, too. Already grieving children (and parents) not directly touched by today’s tragedies will nevertheless feel for–and with–those who are.

You Shouldn’t Say “You Should”

When you want to  help someone whose friend, relative, or coworker has died, avoid saying “you should” or “you shouldn’t.”

Grieving is some of the hardest work people ever undertake — perhaps the hardest. When the loss is new and raw, when bereaved parents  or widowed spouses or parentless children face the realities of never seeing loved ones again, the pain is beyond description. In the grief-laden, foggy-minded months after my husband’s death, someone told me the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to imagine that kind of pain. Though I still can’t remember the context (whether written or spoken) nor who said it, the accuracy of the assertion burned itself into my core.

Grief doesn’t affect mourners 24/7; it lurks 48 hours a day, 14 days per week. (Whether “the math” agrees or not, that is how it feels.) Grief doesn’t visit the homes or workplaces of those who have lost; without permission it becomes an unwelcome squatter inside the cells and hearts of the bereaved. It tosses beloved furnishings out onto rainy streets while arranging its own dark goods in every corner of memory and thought.

Already facing such life-altering changes, the bereaved don’t deserve to be told they “should” or “shouldn’t” … anything.

Don’t say, “You should be…” or “You shouldn’t be…”
Don’t say, “You should feel” or “You shouldn’t feel…”
Don’t say, “You should already…” or “You shouldn’t yet…”
Don’t say, “You should have…” or “You shouldn’t have…”

Instead of helping, these and other shoulds and shouldn’ts send the bereaved the message they are not grieving the “right” way, that their best efforts are inadequate, that those best efforts fall short.

Telling the bereaved what they should or shouldn’t do (unless you’re a professional whose advice they are seeking) is like whipping a horse with a broken leg because it refuses to run — pointless and cruel.

A Rude Awakening by Dog and Grief

This week I had a rude awakening– a literal rude awakening — because of  widowhood’s impact on one area of my life.

The dog whined — loudly — at 4:10 a.m. (I’d finally slipped into sleep after 12:30.) I wasn’t thrilled.

I told her it wasn’t time to get up. “Go back to bed,” I grumbled. Unfortunately, she ignored the cushy doggy bed beside mine.

My doggy woke me at 4:10 a.m., but she had a good reason.

My doggy woke me at 4:10 a.m., but she had a good reason.

I screamed when 50 pounds of unwashed mutt landed on the bed above my pillow — startling her back onto the ground and me into no-more-sleep mode.

“Maybe she really, really needs to go out,” I thought. On the way to the back door she wove between my legs — more like a cat than a dog — nearly tripping me several times.

Halfway there she blocked me from going farther. (Again, I was not thrilled.) Within seconds, the smoke alarm directly over my head chirped its shrill low battery alert, sending her into more frenzied circles around my legs.

“O-oh. That’s why you got me up. Okay, girl. I get it now.”

I let her outside to do what she needed to do, climbed a chair, and pulled down the chirping device and its housemates. Then I retrieved the batteries I’d  purchased a couple of months earlier just for these alarms.

A few minutes later the dog was back inside and the smoke alarms all had fresh batteries.

(Stay with me. There really is a point to how this relates to grief, grieving, and recovery!)

My literal “rude awakening” happened at 4:10 a.m., but the greater, figurative “rude awakening” followed as I reflected on what brought me to the top of the chair in the wee hours. In one sense I “lost” my husband twice — first to the mental illness that took his mind and then to the … whatever-it-was … that took his life.

Before he became ill, I taught emergency preparedness seminars  (emphasizing  hurricane readiness) at civic and private functions throughout our area. The woman who always, always, always urged participants to change their smoke alarm batteries when they changed their clocks for Daylight Savings Time forgot. (*See below.)

That I remembered to buy 9-volt batteries shows I’m “moving forward” again.

That I forgot to install them (after preaching preparedness for years!) shows how slow the grief recovery process can be.

That my dog reminded me of the task shows she is priceless, no matter how annoying at that hour.

(*Use and replace the foods and medicines in your emergency kit twice a year, too.)