Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Washington Mudslide, and Other Tragic Headlines Bring Grief Home Again 

One look at grieving faces on the TV news sucks me backward to 3 1/2 years ago. The agonized sobs in sound bites shove me once more into that bleak, table-sized, hospital waiting room. Again I feel the doctor’s unthinkable, impossible, unbearable words rip into my heart and shred my world. In the days, weeks, and months that followed that moment, one odd symptom of my grief was that I couldn’t bear looking in the mirror. It only took a glance to see the grief that covered my features more completely than any mask could do. Mourning permeated my pores and rewrote the face they formed.

In earlier years I’d known families forever altered by publicly acknowledged deaths. Unavoidable traffic accidents and, in one case, intentional homicide, made their personal, private bereavement subject to local news coverage.* I’d witnessed their grief up close, but I shared only a thin shadow of a sliver of the pain of their losses. I remembered how I’d felt after the expected passings of my grandparents — and my mother — and after the unexpected death of my young adult cousin. I knew my own pain, but I also knew it differed from those families’ pain in their losses.

Now, in the present, I don’t know any of the  passengers and crew who went down with Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370; I’m not acquainted with any Washington residents impacted by the massive mudslide. Yet I recognize the faces of the survivors. I once wore similar expressions of shock and horror. I’ve felt that intense, disbelieving grief that colored both the appearance and the perceptions of my eyes.

Even so, I do not claim to understand their losses. I do NOT understand their losses. Even other survivors who share the same tragic circumstances alongside them do not fully understand one another’s losses, because every loss is unique.

Let me repeat: EVERY loss is unique. Some aspects of grieving are universal, though. Remember these points when your friends grieve lost loved ones:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. (A simple, sincere expression of “I’m sorry” is one way.) Follow up with them over the lonely weeks, months, and years ahead, particularly around the date of the death. Let them know you remember their loved ones, too, and that you remember the significance of the timing.
  2. Don’t make their loss about you and your woes. Supporting the bereaved means listening, not counseling, advising, comparing, or admonishing. Every person grieves differently, and such un-listening communications invalidate the bereaved for their ways. Don’t feel the need to fill contemplative silences, either. (What you perceive as uncomfortable may be comforting simply because you are there.)
  3. Find specific, physical ways to show your support, then act on them. Whether families are in shock over a sudden death or drained from the exhaustion of care-taking prior to an expected death, survivors will find it difficult (if not impossible) to carry out the day-to-day tasks of living. Even if they realize they need help, they may not be capable of asking for it. Asking, “Do you need any help?” is likely to get a negative reply, even if the need is dire. Lend a hand (with meal preparation, grocery shopping, laundry, child care, transportation, yard work, car maintenance, dish washing …). Don’t ask, “Can I help you with ___?” Instead say, “I’d like to help you with ___. Is today okay, or would it be better [give a specific alternative time]?”
  4. Avoid platitudes; bite your tongue on most of the “condolence” phrases that come to mind. To grieving ears they sound trite and insincere. (Some are even offensive, though their speakers intend them kindly.) To the bereaved, life does not “go on” as it did before, the cemetery or crematorium is not “a better place” for their loved ones, and whether or not the deceased is “at peace” does not diminish the survivors’ sense of loss.
  5. Let them know your thoughts are ongoing. Grieving is difficult, painful, lonely work, and it can help to know others are aware of that. Be specific in expressing your support:
    “I’m thinking of you and your family daily.”
    “You’re in my prayers.”
    “My Thursday morning prayer group will pray for you every week.”
    “I’m sending positive energy your way during my daily walks.”
  6. Where appropriate, offer financial support. Even small sums can make a big difference for families struggling to pay funerary costs and adjust to a lost source of income, too.
  7. Ask if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. Give them “permission” to talk about them and say their names. Sometimes people fear that bringing up the name(s) of the deceased will bring sorrow, but in most cases the opposite is true. Offer the bereaved the chance to talk about their feelings if they wish, but don’t badger them into conversation.
  8. Don’t push your expectations of timing onto grieving survivors. Avoid words such as “still,” “already,” “yet,” “by now,” or “when.” Grief has no timetable, and grieving takes much longer than most people realize unless they’ve experienced a similar loss. Even then, some relationships, because of private concerns, may leave more complex grief issues to be resolved than others.
  9. Remember that nothing you do will “fix” their grief. You can’t bring back their loved one or make their lives “normal” again. Normal is gone. All you can do is offer your unconditional support, understanding, and strength as they make the most difficult adjustments of their lives.
  10. Repeat all of the above. The so-called “stages” of grief wax and wane. As bereaved family members slowly adjust to the shock of their losses, new situations and circumstances will arise that send them back to earlier, more intense phases. Your long-term, ongoing support will be as important in the future as your immediate actions will be now.

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*See Grief Is Not a Spectator Sport

 

Why My Grieving Friend “Still” Cries–A Walkthrough

Do you worry that a grieving friend or loved one still cries?*

It’s true that time will help, but it takes longer than you expect. Your friend’s 2013 loss is “still” very recent. That she still cries is normal. She’s still stepping through the year of “firsts.” Every season, every holiday, every public (and private) anniversary, birthday, or commemoration has to be re-framed without her loved one’s presence. Some of it may be on a conscious level, but much of it is a visceral adjustment.

Until August I walked with a cane for 10 years after a misstep — a very costly misstep.** (Stay with me, please. You’ll see how this relates to grief by the end.) When I first injured my ankle, it hurt all the time. All. The. Time. When it didn’t keep me from sleeping, pain invaded my dreams and awoke me from them. It wrought tears I didn’t realize I was crying, and it happened as often when at rest as when I tried using it.

I did all the right things — ice (at first, then heat), anti-inflammatory medicine, elevation, and rest. When days brought no improvement, I sought professional treatment. X-rays ruled out fractures and physicians confirmed the appropriateness of what I’d already been doing. I hobbled around in a pressurized walking boot for nearly nine months, but when my ankle emerged from its plastic-and-Velcro womb, I’d delivered only atrophied muscles, tired tendons, and limp ligaments. Months of intensive physical therapies followed, and TEN spinal nerve blocks later … I still needed medication 24/7 to manage the pain.

I can’t remember how many prescriptions doctors had me try before finding one that let me go about my day-to-day mom duties. Some were ineffective or made me so loopy I could scarcely walk down the driveway, much less drive from it. One worked fairly well (for a few weeks) before painting my leg with a red, itchy please-scratch-with-sandpaper rash. Another worked perfectly — I felt almost zero pain and I could drive safely — until the day my hands began shaking and my hair abandoned scalp by every brush- and finger-stroke.

It was between the second and third years after my missed step when I found medicine that relieved enough pain for me to function without involuntary tears — as long as I walked only upon 100 percent flat surfaces and carried nothing as heavy as a full milk jug. Stepping across grass, sidewalks, parking lots, dirt and/or sand, ramps, the slope of my bathtub, and thick carpeting still overrode my damaged ankle badly enough to alter my life every hour of the day — even with the more effective medicine — and the pain still invaded my dreams by nightmares and awakenings.

In the eighth year I tried acupuncture. Friends had recommended it earlier, and I’m not sure why it took so long for me to try it considering all the other methods and approaches I’d embraced. I wasn’t ready until I was ready. After the first treatment I cut the dosage of pain medicine in half. After the third treatment I stopped using it altogether.

That doesn’t mean I no longer felt pain in my ankle — far from it — but I became better able to handle it. Even so, I still had to tread lightly and carefully using my cane over all but the smoothest indoor surfaces — until this 10th year’s miracle allowed me to step freely again.

My grief as a widow has been similar, though the emotional pain was/is/was far worse than the physical. I consulted with experts (other mourners) and sought treatment (with a grief counselor) and I still face many sleep-interrupted nights due to grief. At three and a half years into my healing, I’m still figuring out how to balance my “dosage” of day-to-day living with my adapted way of walking on the uneven surfaces of widowhood.

At less than (or more than) a year since your friend’s loss, she is still adjusting the Velcro straps on her walking boot with every hobbled step she takes. Time will help her toward healing, but she must also maneuver through the emotions and realities along her altered footpath. She’s got a long road ahead as she learns to walk with a new gait. Offer her your arm — and your ear — in patient support, but “still” your tongue about how long it’s taking her.

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A couple of important notes on this post:

*I adapted this post from my answer to a friend’s query on behalf of a loved one.

**The miracle of how I got rid of my cane is a separate story, one for which I am truly grateful!

Why Daylight Savings Time (Still) Gives Me (More) Grief

I don’t know anyone who likes the twice a year body-clock havoc wrought by Daylight Savings Time. I never did — even before my husband’s death.

I thought it would get easier with time, but here I am, not long before the “official” hour to reset my clocks, writing about how much this spring’s time change “still” hurts. This will be my eighth widowed shifting of the digits. I thought I’d be used to it “by now.”

Changing my clocks hurts for two main reasons. The first is as personal to me as my grief is (and let me be clear — all grief is personal). The second applies to bereavement in general.

My husband was a stickler for timepiece accuracy. I am not. He liked having the seconds on the clock line up with “official” time. I prefer clocks set at least three minutes early to nudge myself toward being on time. Our first Daylight Savings Time weekend as newlyweds brought confusion — and comedy — as we both set and reset our few shared timepieces. As the number of clocks in our household grew over the next 24 years, so did our semi-annual scramble to set them according to his time or mine. It became a twice-yearly game (except when we lived in sensible, non-DST Arizona), and it was a fun prelude to the discomfort of adjusting our sleep-wake cycles.

The first time I changed our clocks by myself after he died felt wrong. It felt like cheating on our game. I couldn’t bring myself to change them all. How I wanted to walk into each room and find that room’s clock set to exactly the right time!

It felt just as improper the following spring — and the fall after, and the spring and fall after that. It felt equally wrong last spring and fall. It still feels awful.

Tonight’s anticipation of Daylight Savings Time brings me to the second, more general reason why DST and Standard Time changes make “the grief monster” more fierce.

When grief is new, every event that marks the passage of time — including the semi-annual time change — lands like a portcullis between life Before and life After the loved one’s death. Each event is a mile marker documenting the ever-increasing distance separating one soul from another.

With time markers such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries of all sorts, there are usually emotional histories and future plans connecting them. They each carry a particular pain of their own. But the regular shift from Standard to Daylight Savings Time happens year after year after year … just because legislators decided it should.

For those less new to their grief, it’s true that time will help it become less raw, but don’t try to tell them that unless they ask. Instead, listen to them. “In time” their grief will become seasoned. “With time” their grief will soften. “Over time” their grief can heal–but only in the way a deep, lacerating cut can heal — with a big, permanent scar. “Recovering” from bereavement doesn’t mean the bereaved will ever be able to turn back time to life Before, but it does mean they’ll someday be able to “spring forward.”

“Springing” may be a bit much. Reassure your mourning friends they’ll eventually move forward when they’re ready. Meanwhile, even “inching forward” shows progress.

How to Filter What You Say for Others’ Comfort

The ones at the center of the ring of loss/grief/suffering can dump whatever they want into outer rings. Those outside the core may dump into larger rings, but ONLY COMFORT goes from an outer to an inner ring.

Ring Theory of Kvetching, Illustration by Wes Bausmith

When you’re upset over the death of someone dear to you and dear to others around you, it can be difficult to filter what you say to whom. A little over a week ago, a reader on another blog* shared this illustration of “Comfort IN, Dump OUT” as expressed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the Los Angeles Times post “How not to say the wrong thing.”  (Please read the full article at http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407)

The concept is simple. The center of the “Ring of Kvetching” is the person to whom the bereavement, illness, crisis, or other distress belongs — the patient, the dying, the widow(er), the orphaned, the laid-off, the divorced, the ripped-off, etc. People affected in peripheral ways — immediate family, extended family, closest friends, other friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.–are in the outer rings.

Quoting the post by Silk and Goldman:

“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don’t say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.'”

If everyone applied such a “comfort IN, dump OUT” filter, it would be much easier to support one another through all kinds of grief, not just due to the death of a loved one but to other losses as well.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

Within grieving families, though, it isn’t always easy to figure out — or remember — whose pain is at the center of the rings. Families are filled with primary relationships that could all be seen as the innermost rings:

  • spouse — spouse
  • parent — child
  • sibling — sibling

Also important are these other familial relationships:

  • grandparents — grandchildren
  • aunts/uncles — nieces/nephews
  • cousins
  • godparents
  • “like family” or “family by choice” friends

Loss is loss. If you’re in the inner rings, try to remember that those closest to you and your departed loved one are also hurting. Be gentle with each other’s feelings. Try to think before you speak, especially in response to comments that seem hurtful or insensitive to your own loss. If you’re not sure whether the person you’re about to unload on is in a broader, more “distant” ring than you, err on the side of caution, offering only your condolences and willingness to listen.

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*Many thanks to Ana of the Nine+Kids for sharing the Los Angeles Times story and graphic in her comment on my guest blog post at The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love