Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

What to Say When Someone Is Dying at Christmas–or Anytime

A few days ago I was asked what to say to a friend whose boyfriend is dying.

My first thought was, “No!” My second was, “Not at Christmas. Not during the holidays,” as if any time is a “better” time to face the death of a loved one.

I responded as well as I could (not knowing her friends) from my experiences and from what others have shared with me about theirs. I cried as I typed, aching for families I know also facing the holidays with their own heart-breaking questions this year: parents, children, cousins, spouses, friends.

Here’s an adaptation of what I answered:

I’m so, so sorry for what you’re going through right now. Yes, it is about your dying friend and about your other friend, the already bereaved partner about to be left behind, but — oh, you’re going through the pain of grief, too!

For you to best help your friend, the first thing to understand is you can’t “fix” anything — for either of them. They’re both experiencing unbearable, inexplicable pain. This may sound awful, but the sorrow of your dying friend will be short-lived. [And no, I don’t mean that as a pun. As inappropriate as it seems, it’s the only word that feels right to convey what I mean.Be available to hear his feelings and share his memories — while you can.

For the loved ones he leaves behind, sorrow will linger and stretch into a festering mist that surrounds, drenches, and permeates their beings. You can no more “cheer them up” than you can point to the sky at midnight and command a noonday sunshine to dissipate early morning fog. Acute grief must wait for the earth to turn before “sunlight” dispels its “fog.” You can’t change the weather of your friend’s grief, but you can sit alongside her in the dark and the damp.

You will be hurting along with her, but yours will be an awful, salt-rubbed, vinegar-spritzed laceration; your surviving friend’s will be an unskilled, dull-bladed, un-anesthetized amputation. In time — much, much, much time — her skin and bone and other tissues will heal — but that limb will always be missing. Acknowledge her life is forever altered. Even when it “looks” better, your friend is going to have “phantom limb” pain that returns. This time of year (the time of “knowing” and the time of “losing”) will ache for years — years — to come. (Jot the dates in next year’s calendar. Ink in a reminder during the month leading up to it, too. Plan now to “be there” for the long term!)

For now, what your surviving friend needs is your presence and your willingness to listen to whatever feelings need airing. No judgement, no filter.  Just acceptance, hugs, and tears.

A practical suggestion: Show up with a box of lotion-infused tissues. They really are softer, and when you’re using them over and over and over and over again all day and night, they chafe less. (Crying is normal. In private and in public. Anytime. Everywhere.)

Know that your friend’s emotions may — scratch that — will run all over the place. Survivors may feel the need for “permission” to laugh again. Or to feel very, very angry. Your friend may become despondent and depressed. These and other contradictory emotions may cycle within a matter of minutes and repeat relentlessly, or any of them may “settle” upon your grieving friend for long periods. Validate and honor the intensity of their emotions by acknowledging them. Never tell grieving friends not to feel what they are feeling. (I’m not a physically aggressive person, but sometimes I thought I’d slap the next person to tell me “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “Don’t cry.”)

Your friend will probably become woefully forgetful and distracted.* This may mean forgetting to eat — or becoming unable to stop eating. The same all-or-nothing  reaction may apply to sleep. Extremes of emotion and body are “normal.” Reassure your friend that it’s okay to experience whatever reactions are surfacing.

It will help your friend for you to verbalize how horrible the loss is. “Ugh. This is so awful. It stinks. It sucks.” [I never, ever use that last phrase, except relating to loss and grief.Survivors need frequent validation of their feelings.

It is painful watching a friend grieve when you carry your own grief over their loss, too. There may be times your friend will want to talk about the lost loved one and about their time together. Or, doing so may be too painful at first. Make sure your bereaved friend knows that if (and when) ready to talk about the departed loved one, you are willing to share those memories.That you also miss the deceased can only help your friend, but be sure you let her know you are there for her, not the other way around. Approaching the bereaved widow or parent or child with how terrible the loss is for you does not show your support for them.

When a couple of weeks or more have elapsed after the death, you may wish to tell your friend about local or online support groups. [One such site was among the first places I felt “understood.” I can’t put words to how “embraced” I felt when I read of others experiencing the onslaught of physical and emotional symptoms of my grief.] Often, viewers can browse postings without having to join.

My heart goes out to you. It hurts, mourning your friend and mourning for your surviving friend’s bereavement. It is hard. It is exhausting. It is important.

___

*How distracted was I in the first few months after my husband died? Although I’ve lived — and driven — in the same neighborhood most of my life, I got lost four times on the way from my house to the interstate!  (The route takes only two turns — at the correct intersections — once I’ve left my driveway.) In hindsight, it’s probably better I couldn’t find my way to the highway on any of those occasions.

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.

___

*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]

Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

Grief can’t tell time, but it obsesses — I repeat — obsesses over calendars. It highlights dates better than a Fortune 500 CEO’s social secretary. Grief tracks anniversaries better than hungry jungle cats on a grey-muzzled gazelle tending a newborn.

I thought I was going crazy. Without hesitation I answered anyone who asked me how long it had been. I told them exactly how long since my husband died.

My answers unnerved people, but I wasn’t sure which aspect disturbed them.  Was it because I already knew the answer (perhaps I’d channeled my inner-psychic to anticipate and answer their question)? Or was it because my too precise answer was detailed to the point of confusion?

I couldn’t answer a simple, “It’s been four months,” and leave it at that.  No, I had to say, “It’s been 4 months and 2 days (if you go by the date) but it’s been 4 months and 5 days (if you go by which week of the month and day of the week it is). If you’re counting a month as 4 weeks , then it’s been 4 1/4 months, plus another 5 days, but it might be easier to call it 4 months and 12 days.”

(By this point the kind soul who’d bravely addressed the calendar-crazed widow probably remembered the snarky adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mistaking my pause for an end while searching for escape , my poorly rewarded friend would back away slowly, probably recalling Boy and Girl Scout merit badges earned for escape from rabid creatures. Avoid eye contact. Don’t make sudden moves. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention!)

Alas for my friend, I’d paused only to catch my breath. “It’s really been more than 4 months, because that night of the 3rd week of the month was earlier this week and because the date of the week was a couple of days ago. It’s actually been 17 weeks and 5 days. But it’s  been 124 days, so that makes it more like 4 months and 4 days, counting 30 days per month.”

As much as I needed and appreciated hearing the question, the same person seldom asked “How long has it been?” twice. (Can’t imagine why …)

From this side of a little over 3 years later (Aren’t you relieved I left it vague this time?), it sounds a little nutty.  Okay, I admit it sounds nuttier than a jumbo bag of mixed varieties, most with slightly cracked shells.

It was obsessive, yes, but here’s the part you need to understand for the sake of your grieving friend:

My compulsive calendar counting  was as normal as  it was essential.

It wasn’t until I connected with a network of thousands of young widows and widowers that I realized it wasn’t morbid for me to know — and yet be confused by — the exact number of days, weeks, and months that had passed. I wasn’t alone in my obsession over “how long” it had been! I. Wasn’t. Alone.

It took time — more than 17 months (or more than 68 weeks, or  476 days …) — before I understood why this was so important and automatic for me (and perhaps for the others).

Think of traveling before September 11, 2001. Now think of the trauma of that day (or any other “big” date that impacted your life). Think of traveling immediately after that day as compared to today.

Everything changed.

The loss of my husband did that. It destroyed my internal packing and security checklists. It rummaged through my heart’s luggage and tossed it onto the Tarmac. It permanently rewrote my itinerary.  Everything shifted into the Departure column. Grief reset my life schedule.

No wonder my brain couldn’t let it go.

“Other” Grief (Not Triggered by Death)

For a while I’ve mentally composed this post about “other” grief triggered not by death but by different forms of loss. Not every person has experienced the death of a loved one (yet), but anyone mature enough to read these words has likely suffered their own significant losses, perhaps even grieved them.

If you’ve lost a job, you may have grieved the loss of income or the loss of stability. You may have grieved losing access to the company car (or to the “hottie” in the next cubicle). It didn’t matter that you–or your friends– “knew” you’d find another (source of funds, transportation, or “admiree”). What mattered in your moments of pain was that the situation was awful. It hurt. Long after you may have found your dream job, memories of that loss can still bring pain.

If you’ve lost your health, you may have grieved that loss. Whether illness impacted the whole sum of your parts or injury impaired the function in some of those parts, you might’ve grieved its physical (and/or emotional) pains. Even temporary conditions (a broken leg, a bout of the flu during vacation, a severe allergic reaction …) can trigger acute grief, though it soon fades. More life-altering diagnoses (an amputated limb, a loss of sight or hearing, a metabolic or mental condition, or the awful C-word — cancer …) can cause feelings of grief and despair that may take years to overcome. Life-altering means just that: life is never the same again.

These sources of grief are no less “real” than the death of a loved one. Your friend, relative, neighbor, coworker, random acquaintance or even your arch enemy who stumbles into such sources of “other” grief needs your kindness and understanding. You can apply tips from my related posts — and from sites listed on my Helpful Grief Resources page — to help you support them through whatever crises they face.

In some instances, their grief will be short-lived. They’ll find a better job or have their cast signed by a favorite celebrity. They’ll schedule another “once in a lifetime” trip in place of the one they spent puking instead of parasailing. They’ll heal. In other cases, the grief may linger long after you have “gotten over it” in their behalf; they are the ones still working their ways through the traumas. In either case, the most important grief to your grieving friends is whatever loss they are are feeling right now.

By all means, when comforting your friends, remember how you felt when you grieved your own “other” grief. You may not be a cat person, but you can remember the loss of your childhood dog to help you console the friends who mourn their cat. Draw upon the pain you once felt to help you relate to theirs. But don’t compare it aloud. Comforting them is about them and their pain, not about you and yours.

Has this reminded you of your own “other” grief? If so, please scroll down and share what it was (or is). What helped (or didn’t help) you deal with your “other” loss?