New Year, New Grief

You might assume the New Year’s arrival will bring healing relief to friends whose loved ones died during the last year. You might think, “Now that it’s a new year, not the year of their loss, things will be better, right?”

Not necessarily.

For some mourners, replacing their calendar from the year of a significant loss might feel like it offers a “fresh start.” For many of the recently bereaved, though, the New Year marks another level of removal from beloved ones, another severing of increasingly tenuous connections to them and/or their memories. In previous years their loved ones lived; in all the years to come, they won’t. Once that calendar changes, shared years are forever left behind.

New Year’s Eve (just like other holidays) can trigger renewed feelings of loss in those who have already begun the long, long, long process of learning to live while grieving loved ones. From traditions like setting New Year’s resolutions (a.k.a. “goals”), to swapping “Who were you with when the ball dropped?” stories, to serving special New Year’s Day foods (like black-eyed peas), the day — and day after — can be full of painful reminders of grief.

The end of one year and the beginning of another can be difficult for those mourning with anticipated grief, too. If your friends are facing a terminal illness or condition for themselves or their loved one, the imminence of knowing the coming year might — or will — be their last together can be overwhelming.

How can you help your grieving friends through the New Year?

  • Acknowledge that you know this holiday, like others, marks a difficult time of year.  Whether the loss is recently raw or it has been years, with the ending/beginning nature of this worldwide change from one year to the next, New Year’s Eve and Day have the potential to reopen grief’s partly- or not-yet-healed wounds.
  • Invite your grieving friends to join you in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Let them know you’d like them to be with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“I’d like y’all to join me so you won’t have to be alone or plan anything yourselves”). If they decline at once, let them know the invitation remains open in case circumstances change or they change their minds.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer your grieving friends the choice, but respect that they will know best for themselves whether solitude or socializing will help. For some of my widowed friends, going to friends’ homes to ring in the New Year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters and other years I’ve preferred to go out dancing with friends.
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes the bereaved can happily engage with others one moment and feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let your grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can go if they need a few moments to themselves. (Sometimes a private cry is priceless for channeling emotions.)

If your mourning friends choose not to join you, you can still offer an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern. When “life moves on” for the rest of the world on January 1st (and by the way, do NOT ever tell mourners “life moves on”), let your friends know that you know that this year will be different and that you will still be there for them.

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For more on this topic, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

 

Holiday grief–LISTEN up!

Holidays are hard when you’re mourning. Like performing your own root canal with only elevator Muzak for anesthesia. Blindfolded. While wearing oven mitts and running down the middle of Alligator Alley with hungry gators sunning nearby.

I wish I were exaggerating, but that ridiculous example far understates it.

I’m doing well this year, my fifth widowed Christmas.  Last year, my fourth, I was doing “meh.” Okay.

But the first three? (I just shuddered as I typed those four words.I no longer feel that agonizing, raw pain of new grief, but even its memory kept me from posting earlier this month, when it might have helped someone going through the indescribable anticipation of the first holiday season without their parent, child, sibling, spouse, or other dear one.

I couldn’t revisit those feelings — that pain — while heading into my own “doing better” holiday season. Not this year. Not yet.

So if I — a person in every way “moving forward” with my life — shied away from addressing the agonies of “new” grief during the holidays, imagine how much harder it is for your friends who have lost someone within the last year (or two).

Here are some ways you can show you care:

  • Acknowledge the loss. The best condolence doesn’t attempt to “cheer up” the mourner. Rather, it validates the survivors’ feelings of grief. “I know this is/was your first [second, etc.] Christmas [Hanukkah, New Year’s…] without your husband [father, daughter, sister, friend…]. You’ve been in and will continue to be in my thoughts.”
  • Ask, and then listen. This isn’t a time to tell about you and yours (unless the mourner asks). This is a time to offer your bereaved friends the chance to speak of what their aching hearts need to share.
    “Would you like to tell me about how you and ____ celebrated ____ together?”
    “What were _____’s favorite holiday traditions?”
  • Do something. For those who are grieving, even small gestures — a handwritten note, a quick text, a dropped off candy bar or flower, an act of service (like shoveling sidewalks or, for those of us in warmer climates, pulling weeds) — can mean the difference between despair and hope during one of the hardest times of year.
  • Repeat. Once you’ve checked in and done one (or all) of the above, start over. Unlike the holidays, which hit the calendar once in the year and cycle away for a year, grief is ever-present. Moments of sorrow can yield to moments of joy and acceptance in the kindnesses shown by friends, but they are temporary.

It takes time — LOTS of time — before the excruciating fog of new grief lifts, and after the holidays, when the rest of the world seemingly goes back to normal, the contrast between “peace on earth” and the sorrow of the mourning heart can seem even greater. Your ongoing thoughtfulness will help your friends through.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance

Grief is more than an emotional response to bereavement. Grieving impacts every aspect of mourners’ lives — including body systems — in ways they shouldn’t be pressed to discuss. Avoid personal comments about the appearances of mourning friends.* Even if you have a professional, looks-related relationship (as a dermatologist, hairdresser, personal trainer …), or even if the bereaved asks your opinion, guard your tongue. Comments on visible physical symptoms of my loss only deepened my distress.

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners' appearances

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners’ appearances

Avoid “about face” comments.

I’ve always been suntan-challenged, but as a new widow I looked paler than usual. I didn’t benefit from others pointing it out. In shock for weeks (months, really), I was oxygen-deprived from improper, incomplete breathing.  I’d taken only shallow breaths — for weeks. It took conscious effort to fill my lungs. Most people grieving new loss forget to breathe fully. An acupuncturist friend, Natalie Doliner, taught me that in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the lungs are recognized as “organs of grief.”

My skin went crazy. Within days after my husband’s death, my face started shedding. I looked as if I’d suffered a colorless, peeling sunburn. Self-conscious, I preferred not to be seen in public. When I ventured outside, comments like “Do you know you’re peeling?” sent me back into my shell.

My hands, arms, and legs bore scratches, scrapes, and bruises, though in new grief’s fog I seldom noticed what I’d run into or how I’d cut myself. It was helpful to hear “Excuse me, do you know you’re bleeding?” It was never helpful to hear “Wow, what happened to your arms?” I didn’t know.

Avoid “tiresome” reminders of exhaustion.

I never appreciated comments about dark circles beneath (or bloodshot veins in) my eyes. I already knew I looked tired! Hearing “You should get more sleep” didn’t prevent grief-related nightmares from jolting me awake (on the rare occasions grief insomnia allowed me to sleep at all). Such comments felt like unjust scolding and reminded me there was too much empty space in my bed.

Avoid mentioning “weighty matters,” either gained or lost. 

Mourners won’t tell you embarrassing ways grief impacts digestion — and they shouldn’t have to. I hated explaining (as diplomatically as I could), “I can’t keep anything down,” or “Everything I eat rushes out the other end.” Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (I later learned) are common in bereavement. Mourners shouldn’t have to justify why they do (or don’t) want to eat or how that impacts their appearance. 

This should be obvious (but my experiences proved otherwise): I didn’t appreciate reminders that I’d lost or gained weight while grieving. Unless mourners mention their weight to you (and perhaps even then), keep weight-related observations and opinions to yourself. 

I lost more than 20 pounds in a few weeks as a new widow, more than 30 in a few months, but it certainly wasn’t a healthy (or sustainable) way to lose weight! I despised everything about the grief-induced “death diet” inflicted on me, including well-intended reminders about how “good” I looked because of it. Over and over I endured conversations like this:

“Wow, you look great! How’d you lose so much weight?”
“Umm … I forgot to eat.”  Or couldn’t keep it down …
“No, really. How’d you find the willpower? I’d kill to lose that much.” [Yes, someone said that.]
“My husband died.”
“Oh … [insert awkward pause and/or dismissive shrug] Well, at least you look good.”

There was nothing “helpful” about being urged to eat more when I had no appetite — or to eat less when my appetite resurfaced with a vengeance that was (pardon the pun) “fed” by grief. Within months I gained double the amount I’d lost. It took a full year of hard work to reach a zero net weight change before I began moving toward a healthier range.

Picture the whole person before you click.

I still seethe over one  against-my-protest  snapshot taken during my first year as a widow. It wasn’t about my bad hair day or ill-fitting outfit (though if it had been, even those concerns should have warranted better respect). It was about the PAIN of LOSS I saw EVERY time I couldn’t avoid a mirror. My eyes reflected bereavement, and (like people who believe cameras steal souls) I felt that shutter sever my gossamer connection to my surroundings that day — and (even though I’ve long-since forgiven the snapshot-taker, sort of) I still feel the reverberations of that click. If mourners balk at having pictures taken (of themselves or the deceased), LISTEN — and honor their requests! 

When it comes to personal comments about bereaved friends’ appearances, “no comment” is the best option.  Instead say, “It’s good to see you,” and leave it at that.

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*I talk about other taboo topics — politics, religion, money, and legal status — in other posts. (And yes, I still appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)