When Will Things Be Back to Normal for My Grieving Friend?

When will life get back to normal for a grieving friend? The short answer is simple: never. It won’t ever be the same.

The long-term answer is more complex. The reality is that when their loved ones died, so did the “old” life they knew. Almost as soon as the funerals end, friends of the bereaved settle back into “normal” routines. For them, “life goes on,” but for the bereaved it does not. (Please see my earlier post: Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On”.)

A couple of month after my husband died, I came across an old copy of a Life Change Index Scale.* It was a chart listing the “points” attributed to various stressful life changes. (Not life pauses or hiccups or bubbles. Changes.) For each pertinent event I’d experienced within a year, I was to add up the associated numerical ratings. At the bottom of the page, the scoring caution went something like this:

  • under 150 meant 30% chance of illness in the near future
  • 150 – 299 meant 50% chance of illness in the near future
  • 300+ meant 80% chance of developing illness in the near future

I actually laughed at my result. My score was over 750.

The reason I bring up this scale is that in every version I’ve seen since, the highest stress point value (100) is attributed to the death of a spouse. The deaths of other close family members are also highly ranked (63). For me, seeing those numbers on a black and white chart validated how off-kilter I felt. The first two words of the title — Life Change — acknowledged the irrevocable shift from my “old normal.”

Eventually, your grieving friends will forge a “new normal” path through life. This will likely take years. Yes, I said years. The minute by hour by day by week by month by year adjustments are huge, and the human mind and body can only handle so much at a time. Be patient with your friend, who probably won’t seem like himself or herself for a long time.

Early in my raw grief, I wondered when I would feel like myself again. Most people who’d been widowed much longer than me assured me that it would happen, but they alerted me not to expect it too soon. At first, I felt despair when they cautioned it took about three years for most of them. Three years?!? I didn’t know if I could make it feeling so horrible for three more days — how could I fathom feeling this way for three years?!?

The first year was difficult beyond description. My mind and body were so overloaded I have huge gaps in my memory. I look back over the things I wrote for myself in journals and in correspondence with other widows and widowers and, until I read my own words, I have no recollection of how I got through some months.

The second year was also brutal. During the second year I no longer felt the numbing effects of “widowed fog.” I’d thought the Year of Firsts was hard as I went through the first of every holiday and family commemoration without my husband. I’d experienced the same every-event renewal of loss the first year after Mom died, too. But during my second year as a widow, I was more aware of the increased responsibilities on my shoulders. I was more aware of how their father’s death impacted our children’s lives. I was beginning to learn to process the emotions I’d tried to ignore for the sake of getting through year one.

For me, the shift into “new normal” clicked into gear a couple of months before the third anniversary of his death. I’d known all along that — eventually — I’d be okay again. My faith had been at the core of that understanding, but it was an ethereal assurance. It took 34 months for me to begin to feel I was actually becoming okay again. That doesn’t mean I no longer dissolve into a puddle of tears from time to time, nor does it mean I don’t miss him anymore. I do both. Sometimes I still slip back into non-functioning hours when mustering the strength to hide in the pages of a good book is my best self-preservation tool. But even as I turn each page, I know when I reach the end of the chapter I’ll be able to step back into my life, my different life.

Please understand this about your grieving friends. They need time. They need your patience. They need your acceptance of how their grief impacts their lives.

I will always be grateful for those who didn’t rush me that I “should” feel or do what they thought appropriate. I will always appreciate those who did not shame me by inflicting “by now” or “already” assumptions upon me. I will always be indebted to them for listening to me without judgement. Please, do the same for your friends who’ve lost someone they love.

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*One such scale is available at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf

Ethan Rediske Act Supports My Grieving Friend and Many Other Families

When a grieving friend asks for your help, give it. Until now, I’ve not shared this growing media story here, though I’ve linked Facebook and Twitter accounts to published articles;  until now it’s been too personal for me to publicize in an ordinary post.

Ethan Rediske (photo used by permission of his mother, Andrea Rediske) #EthansAct

Ethan Rediske (photo used by permission of his mother, Andrea Rediske) #EthansAct

My friend’s son, Ethan Rediske, died February 7. Today his mother, Andrea Rediske, asked her friends to share this plea from her Facebook wall:

“Today, members of teacher and education activist groups all over the country are changing their Facebook profile picture to Ethan’s picture in support of Ethan’s Act and the battle we’re fighting for students with disabilities and students suffering as the result of high-stakes standardized testing. I’m unbelievably grateful for the outpouring of love and support. Thank you all for taking up this dragon-slaying sword for us so that we can have some time to rest and grieve. Bless you all.” #EthansAct

Why is this a national issue and not just a Florida concern? Andrea also said this:

“There have been whisperings that part of the reason why the state of Florida was recalcitrant to give Ethan and other children like him a waiver from standardized testing is because the federal government withholds money for each student granted a waiver. This suggests that the problem of disabled children being forced to take standardized tests is not just an issue in our state and district — it goes all the way to the federal level. We have to fight this with a grassroots effort. No family should have to go through what we have gone through. Help us carry on Ethan’s legacy by writing to your school district, your state legislators, and your congressmen and congresswomen to change these laws and policies that abuse the most helpless under their stewardship. I will continue to fight, to talk to every news outlet that I can, and to lobby in any way that I can to expose this travesty. Please help us in this fight.” #EthansAct #theypissedoffthewrongmommy

Though I’ve suffered my own losses in life, I cannot fathom the depth of my friend’s pain. Nothing I can do will lessen it. However, in sharing her plea, I can help her spare other families the agonies forced on hers by senseless regulations.

Please join us in sharing the Rediskes’ story and in supporting HB 895, The Ethan Rediske Act.

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To learn more about Ethan’s story and why change is so important, check out the news articles linked below:

Supporting Those Who Are Grieving–Video Clip

Julianna Sellers, a friend from one of my widow and widower support groups, created this five-minute video called “Supporting Those Who Are Grieving.” She answers the questions of what to say when you go to a funeral and what to say and do when you know someone who has lost a loved one. She also provides examples of what the grieving process is like. If you haven’t been through such a loss yourself, you’ll be especially surprised about what happens “after the one-year mark.”

In preparing this project, she researched many sites with similar themes, including this one (Thanks for the TealAshes.com mention, Julianna!) and Megan Devine’s refugeingrief.com (also referenced in the clip). Additionally, Julianna compiled the responses from an informal poll of the 1300+ members of our “W/W” group of all ages from around the world.

There are brief religious references in the clip, but all the suggestions she offers apply universally to the bereaved (and to those of you wishing to help grieving friends) regardless of religious affiliation or outlook.

If you know someone who has lost a loved one, please listen to what Julianna has to say.

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To learn more about Julianna, visit her blog at http://chaostamingmomma.com/.

Give Grieving Friends Breathing Room, but Stick Around

Be patient (but persistent) when grieving friends don’t answer, and give them room (and reminders) to breathe.

After my husband died, a maelstrom of emotions consumed my energy and focus. What little coherency I had went into consoling and caring for my daughters and poorly completing the most basic household tasks. (I seldom remembered — or bothered — to care for myself.) It probably seemed like I was ignoring friends’ efforts on my behalf, but social niceties were so far off my emotional radar they belonged to another plane of existence, another lifetime.

Many caring people reached out to offer support, to see how I was doing, and to let me know I was loved. I was aware of every phone call, handwritten note, text, and Facebook message, but as if from a great distance. I knew etiquette rules (and common sense) required I acknowledge them, but I lacked the ability, the energy, the will to respond.

When people said, “Call if you need anything,” I knew they meant it — but I also knew that I would not call. I couldn’t. Could not. Even if I’d been able to identify what I needed–and for a long time I had no idea — it was beyond my capability to pick up the phone and ask for help. A couple of times I almost called back, but my cell phone felt like an anvil whenever I tried pressing the call button. It was weighted down by the reality of my husband’s death.

Kindhearted folks offered, “Let’s go to lunch one day.” On a rational level, I knew it would be good — and good for me — to get out of the house with a friend when I was ready. Unfortunately, the rational part of my mind was overloaded by the irrationality of emotion. Picture standing in a shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Hear the roar of voices and competing store soundtracks and crying children? Now imagine a friend waving at you (from the other end of the mall) to listen to the tune of an antique music box she just wound. That music box tune across the mall was the rational part of my mind in the earliest weeks and months. The highest, hardest-to-hear notes were my social skills.

Some offers were too soon for me, but for another bereaved soul they might have been perfectly timed. Most were not repeated. I’d like to think that was out of misguided (though well-intended) respect for the privacy and space I’d needed earlier. A handful of folks asked again — a few days or weeks later — but I still wasn’t ready. I appreciated their invitations even when I didn’t accept them.

The friends whose invitations and contact offered the greatest support and strength were politely persistent:

  • They never asked why I hadn’t returned earlier messages. (The last thing mourners need is the added grief of blame or guilt.)
  • They didn’t give up. They waited a bit, then contacted me again, whether I’d responded or not.
  • If I asked them to call again next week (or whenever), they did. Promptly.
    If they offered to call me two days or three weeks later or a month later, they did. (And no, I didn’t mark their anticipated contacts on my calendar, but yes, I was fully aware when they demonstrated I could count on them. I also recognized when others failed to make their promised callback.)
  • Instead of asking, “How are you?” they asked concrete questions like
    • “What time can I drop off a [plant, dessert, card…]?”
    • “Can we get together __-day for [lunch, a movie, a workshop …]?”
    • “You asked me to wait a while before [calling, coming, inviting …]. Are you ready for that now?”
    • “Are you remembering to  [eat, sleep, drink water, breathe (yes — breathe)* …]?”

As weeks passed into months and I became more willing–and able–to interact, I learned about the importance of patient friendship through grief-clouded days. By the time I was ready to step out, so to speak, many of those who’d invited me to do so no longer reached out. I still wasn’t strong enough to call on them, but one by one I began answering those who still contacted me.

It took a long, long time for me to return phone calls. It took much longer for me be able to make them. (It’s been over three years, and sometimes it’s still hard to do.)

I will always remain grateful for the patient friends who kept reaching out to me when I couldn’t yet reach back.

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*A note on breathing: A couple of weeks after my husband died, another widow asked, “Are you breathing?” At first I thought the question ridiculous. Of course I was breathing. Then she asked if I was emptying and filling my lungs completely. I took a deep, deliberate breath — and was shocked. After that one lungful, I understood what she’d meant. I’d been barely breathing, existing on shallow breaths ever since the shock of that night. The difference was invigorating, but it took months of conscious effort to learn to breathe normally again out of habit. Since then, I learned that in traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are recognized as the primary organ of grief.

In Support of a Grieving Family

My friend’s son died yesterday morning.

In the final days of his life, his name became well-known beyond the circle of his immediate family and their friends. I hope there will be an equally widespread outpouring of support for his family. Please forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, but I’d like to reiterate principles to remember for anyone who may be reaching out to his grieving family.

[Note: Right now I’m too close to the emotions of the topic, so I’m modifying excerpts from two previous posts. (*For links to the original blog entries, see the end of this one.)]

Grieving the death of a loved one — especially a child — defies description.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins face. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called “6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/).

I’ve summarized her main points below, but please, please see her full article!

  1. Do NOT say Time heals all wounds.
  2. Do NOT say Let go … Move on.
  3. Do NOT say Have faith.
  4. Do NOT say Everything happens for a reason.
  5. Do NOT say At least…
  6. Do NOT say Be thankful.

I’ve not experienced the death of a child or sibling, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be.

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Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings.

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

  • “You need to take care of your [surviving family members] 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 ones) 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 (and to many adults), 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.
  • “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.
  • “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 the 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.
  • Children need “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of how kids process difficult feelings.
  • “Would you like to talk about your [sibling, cousin, friend, 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.

Thank you for taking the time to read what is and isn’t helpful to mourning families. While nothing you can do or say will make things “better,” you can make an uplifting difference by showing that you care.

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*See the full original post texts here: https://tealashes.com/2014/01/28/do-not-say-these-to-a-bereaved-parent-or-any-other-mourner/

and here: https://tealashes.com/2013/11/20/for-grieving-children-wear-blue-on-childrens-grief-awareness-day/

Valentine Greetings for the Grieving

Holidays and other special occasions hurt when you’ve lost someone you love. Valentine’s Day is no exception.

When the love of your life has died, pre-Valentine’s advertising seems cruel. Perfect gift boxes from Jared and kisses beginning with Kay mock survivor’s lonely wedding rings and abandoned lips. Hallmark video vignettes leave tear marks. Plush teddy bears (or lace teddies), chocolate-covered strawberries (or chocolates), intoxicating aromas of roses (or colognes), intimate dinners out (or in) for two … Whatever romantic traditions a couple may have shared, reminders are everywhere that two are now halved into — rather than joined as — one.

Anyone who has lost somebody they love — parents, children, siblings, friends — not just romantic partners, can feel agonizing resurgence of “old” grief around the most heart-oriented part of the year. In my childhood home, Mom made heart-shaped pancakes and colored my milk pink every Valentine’s Day. She died nearly two decades ago, and I still ache for her — as well as for my late husband — every February 14.

For those whose grief began more recently, the already excruciating pain of loss is sharpened by the onslaught of all things about the holiday. Almost as devastating as the loss itself is the sensation of being forgotten, abandoned, or overlooked.

So what can you do to help your friends whose loved one has died? By telling your friends you’re aware of their pain on this holiday (and others!), you’ll alleviate some of that loneliness.

Instead of wishing a grieving widow(er) or other mourner “Happy Valentine’s Day,” express something that better reflects your awareness of the loss. 

Here are some helpful things to say to those suffering any bereavement — not just to those who’ve lost a life partner:

valentine-candy-heart

There’s a piece missing from this candy-filled heart. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • I know this is a difficult Valentine’s Day for you. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
  • You are in my thoughts this Valentine’s Day.
  • Thinking of you this week.
  • Avoid saying “at least,” which diminishes the importance of the loss. Never, ever say it. Your purpose is to acknowledge the source of the grief, not gloss it over or otherwise minimize it.

Gestures are great, too, and they don’t have to be big. If you can’t bring yourself to address the loss directly in words, you can indeed show your concern and awareness — literally, in deeds:

  • invitations to lunch/dinner at your home or a restaurant
  • invitations to do ____ [something!] with you
  • small gifts (a flower, a plant, a candy bar, a funny card … whatever you think may be of interest)
  • completion of a chore (rake the yard, wash the car, walk the dog, shine shoes together, do a load of laundry or dishes …)

Whatever you choose to do for your grieving friends this Valentine’s Day, thank you for doing it. Thank you for acting to comfort their broken hearts on this day honoring love.

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Please note: I have no relationship of any kind with Hallmark or Jared or Kay jewelers — beyond my deep seasonal aversion to their advertising campaigns (as explained above).

“How to Help Others” by Hope for the Broken-Hearted

This morning I discovered one of the most comprehensive pages I’ve yet seen in my search for others’ writings about what to say after someone dies — and what not to say. Although I add such links to my “Helpful Grief Resources” page whenever I find them, such updates aren’t publicized the way regular postings are.

The page I found this morning offers so much information I just had to “shout it” here:

“How to Help Others” by Debbie Kay
at Hope for the Broken-Hearted
http://hopeforthebrokenhearted.com/how-to-help-others/

The page is a long one, with many, many ideas. I hope you won’t let its length deter you from studying the suggestions offered by its writer. Included in the subheadings are:

  • Comments to avoid
  • Suggestions for practical assistance
  • Taking the initiative in offering help
  • Holiday support for grievers
  • Warning signs (where grief and depression overlap)
  • Misconceptions about suicide
  • Many, many resource links to sites specializing in grief (including both general and specific “types” of grief, such as military-related, loss of a child, widowhood, chronic illness, and end of life care)

If you’re reading this because someone you care about has lost a loved one, you’ve already taken a great step toward offering comfort. You care enough to learn what will help — and what will not.  Now take another step (or two). Browse through my posts, and please visit the links on my Helpful Resources page*. Then take the most important step: show your friend you care.

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*Please note: I do not receive any tangible compensation by posting the links I share on my site and on my “Helpful Resources” page. I have, however, benefited by friendly correspondence with some of the writers whose works I’ve admired and shared — and who have also shared mine.