People Aren’t Interchangeable (and Neither Are Their Pets)

Loved ones can’t be replaced. So please don’t suggest otherwise.

Loved ones can't be replaced, so don't suggest otherwise.

An empty blanket, an empty collar, and an empty ring: Loved ones can’t be replaced, so don’t suggest otherwise.

When people (or pets) expire, mourners can’t scoop up “bargain-priced offspring” from the children’s department; they won’t rush to the store and click a collar around a “brand new best friend” package in the pet aisle; they shouldn’t be driven to the mall for sniffing and squeezing current models in order to select a “ripe new spouse” from the potential mates display window. (At least, for most people it doesn’t work that way…)

Forgive me, please, if it sounds as if I’m making light of the seriousness of death. My intent is to point out the ridiculous assumptions made by well-meaning people who treat the bereaved in this foolish way.

For example, the first variation I heard on “You’re young. You can marry again” was less than 48 hours after my husband’s death. It was an (arguably misguided) attempt to assure me I need not feel lifelong devastation and solitude. But deep as I was in that personal place of raw, recent loss,  life as I knew it had already immersed me in devastation and loneliness.

I could no more have “replaced” my late husband while thus submerged (nor contemplated the idea of it) than I could have inhaled deeply from the bottom of a full swimming pool.

For those who mourn the death of a child, there’s nothing assuring in the agony-increasing comments of those who try to “comfort” them by promises of possible future children. Doing so ignores the life-altering, soul-searing loss of THAT precious, beloved child.

Pet owners face their own grief at the passing of beloved companions. Well-meaning friends might suggest it’s “only a pet” or “you can always get another one,” but the bonds between pet owners and their furry (or feathered or scaly) friends are as unique — and can run as deep as — friendships (and deeper than some kinships) between members of the same species.

More helpful than such “reassurances” of suggested “replacements” are acknowledgements of the loss. Offer comments like:

  • He was such a ____ [kind, thoughtful, funny, interesting…] soul. I’ll miss him, too.
  • I’m so sorry about the death of your ____ [child, parent, friend, sibling…]. I know you’re hurting.
  • Fluffy was a good ____ [cat, dog, hamster, sugar glider…]. She’ll be missed.

In time, grieving parents might have another child; bereaved animal lovers might adopt other pets; mourning widows (or widowers) might date and perhaps even marry again. But they might not. There may be reasons they cannot, reasons that are no one’s business but their own.

In the distant future, even if the mourning parent welcomes another child, even if the grieving owner takes in another pet, even if the bereaved widow(er) finds a second soul mate, each newly loved one finds his or her OWN place within the healing heart once broken by the death of the deceased.

Remember: Beloved souls aren’t interchangeable — even within species. You can’t remove one from a person’s life and simply plop another into the deceased one’s place.

Laughter and Tears–Where Grief Meets Humor

This morning I wrote such a long comment on another blog I realized I’d written a post-length response. Heather O., author of “There are two possibilities” on Segullah.org, wrote,

“Humor. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how you can best use it, or when you should use it, but I still think it’s important. Somehow it fits into the comfort paradigm. Or at least, I think it does. What do you think?”*

Here’s how I answered:

My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: “Tell me the joke about potassium.”
Second scientist: “K.”

Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I’ve known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.

So glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day.

I’m so glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day. (Picture didn’t appear in my Segullah comment.)

My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can’t be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn’t linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there’s a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband’s kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)

On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I’m forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter’s birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She’d even written down “Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room.”
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When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, “You’re kidding!” or “You’re joking!” to the news of my 47-year-old husband’s death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.

On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who’d experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there’s no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you’ll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn’t walked in widowhood’s path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging “you’ll get through this — I did” pats on the back.

(In one widows and widowers group, one of the longest-running, most commented on threads was about leg shaving. If that isn’t funny, I don’t know what is!)

Be very, very careful about using humor while interacting with the newly bereaved. Laughter that has nothing to do with the death can be cathartic. Offer to watch a great comedy with them — if they are up to it — because humor can promote belly laughs that bring sorely-needed oxygen to mourners’ lungs. (See Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance.) Sometimes those who grieve need participation in activities unrelated to their loss, but without an invitation they may not think to on their own.

However, unless you’ve walked a very similar path of loss, tread oh so lightly when bringing humor into conversations about the loss. Laughter over funny memories of the deceased is usually welcome. Laughter over the loss itself is not.

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* I recommend you read Heather O.’s full post. It made me think. http://segullah.org/daily-special/there-are-two-possibilities/

When a Friend Is Grieving

What should you say to someone who is grieving the anniversary of a death that happened a year ago? What about two years? There’s never really a “good” time of year for someone to die, but the timing of any death can be hard on those left behind. Not just in the immediate days and months after the loss, but in the years ahead as well. Anniversaries of death (and other occasions) can make “old” grief feel newly raw again. There’s no time limit on how long a friend will grieve.

For the last week I’ve heard lyrics proclaiming “death and darkness gather all around me.(*See below.) I’m not living my life in gloomy obsession, but I can’t help but feel compassionate awareness. Too many friends (and family) have lost loved ones around this pre-Valentine’s Day time of year. These couple of weeks in my calendar mark days of deep significance — and mourning — to friends and family: Death and/or funeral dates of friends’ children, friends’ friends, and friend’s spouses. Wedding anniversaries of now-widowed half-couples. The day a friend’s beloved pet died.

It’s not only my friends whose grief is reinforced during this part of the calendar. These same weeks include the “angelversary” dates for my father-in-law and for one great-aunt.

At nearly 95 last last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

At nearly 95 last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

Now for two.

Last night, when I drafted this post and went to bed to sleep on it, the next line I wrote described that great-aunt’s sister, “another beloved great-aunt whose nearly ten decades appear to be … slowing.” When I woke up I learned my sweet Aunt Ginny passed in the early hours this morning. Part of me rejoices for the reunion she’s having with her parents and siblings and my mom and my husband! For her sake, I’m relieved her fragile, increasingly confused, and recently fractured nearly 96-year-old body isn’t hurting. But for me and for all of our family, and for all who knew her, having her gone — actually gone — leaves a painful, gaping hole of mourning.

The next words I wrote last night (immediately below) seem even more appropriate in the light of today’s sadness.

Three, four years — or however long — after a death, many of the right (and wrong) ways to support a grieving friend are the same things that apply in brand new bereavement:

1. Remember that grief is a by-product of love. Mourners have the right to grieve in their own ways and times. Grief doesn’t just “go away,” nor is it to be “gotten over.” Rather, it must be worked through, often over the course of a lifetime. Be patient and accepting of your friend’s grief.

2. Acknowledge the loss. Speaking the loved one’s name shows they aren’t forgotten. Their survivors need to know they aren’t the only ones who miss the deceased.

3. Listen — without curtailing or dismissing emotional outbursts or nostalgic reflections about dead loved ones. Ask if the bereaved would like to share stories of their loved ones. Ask if they’d like to hear your stories of their loved ones.

4. Do something. A kind gesture as simple as a text message or a handwritten note or a dropped off casserole or a quick run to the store…

5. Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid any statements including the words “at least” — they do not offer consolation when uttered to the bereaved. (If they say it themselves, that’s fine. Consoling mourners isn’t about you. It’s about them.)

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*Because I’ve had this phrase on my mind all week, and because of the beautiful lives I wish to honor by actively remembering them, I’m adding this excerpt from a YouTube video featuring Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell.” (The lyrics at 2:00 and 2:45 have been especially on my mind.) [Added this morning: Aunt Ginny, “you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell…”]

Super Bowl, Grief, and Offense

A few days ago I had an almost cutesy pre-Super Bowl post half-drafted. Then I learned that a friend’s mother died earlier in the week. All the reasons I’d considered writing about grief and the Super Bowl coalesced in a too immediate way: Death means loss. Loss creates grief. Grief carries sadness. And yet … everybody and their brother seem to be whooping it up in celebration … of a game.

I don’t have anything against football — my dad used to play for his college team. I mean no disparagement of anyone whose livelihoods depend upon the NFL, but I have zero interest in the outcome of this game. Patriots vs. Seahawks … Seahawks vs. Patriots …  Who cares when people are mourning? The loss (or win) of a football game means nothing next to the loss of a loved one.

Whatever your game plan is for Super Bowl XLIX, take  time out now to make sure your strategy avoids offensive moves that sideline mourners:

O — Open your home. If someone among your regular crowd recently lost a loved one, this isn’t the time to leave him or her alone on the bench. Make sure to draw once-coupled survivors near your home field where they’ve always been (or for the first time, if you’ve been more acquaintances than friends). Even a last-minute invitation is better than being ignored or overlooked during the lows and loneliness of loss.

X — X-out penalty terms. Never say “football widow,” (or “military widow,” “grad school widow,” or “hunting widow”) UNLESS you’re referring to a real widow or widower whose spouse died on the football field (or in the military, at a library kiosk, or tracking food for a family). To those whose spouses are dead, using such terms is insensitive and offensive.

O — Offer to carry the ball. Grief is heavy to bear alone. Acknowledge that you know your friend is mourning to help lighten that load. If it’s a loss you also share to a degree, so much the better, as long as you focus not on your own loss but on your friend’s. (If, for example, you also knew and were friends with the deceased, keep in mind that the surviving loved ones’ loss is deeper and more intense than your own.)

X‘ix-nay on the ‘atred-hay. (Nix on the hatred.) Especially for those whose loss is recent, the rancorous animosity of American football fans can grate on the already raw emotions of bereavement. How many times have you heard overzealous fanatics yelling “Kill ’em” or “Destroy ’em” about their opponents? Imagine hearing that shouted if your loved one has been killed or “destroyed” — regardless of whatever caused the death or however long ago it occurred.

O — Offsides is okay. Everyone reacts differently to grief. Like other annual traditions, Super Bowl celebrations can evoke as much pain as enjoyment in the bereaved. For some, attending tailgating parties may serve as a much-needed connection to a ritual enjoyed by their absent beloved ones. For others, attending the same gatherings may intensify their feelings of longing and sadness. Participating may feel great one minute and awful the next. Let your grieving friends know they are welcome — whether they decline, come, or stay — and that they can participate at whatever level is comfortable for them.

XIf your bereaved friend crosses him- or herself off the roster of participants in your game, you can still offer a halftime pep talk. Call (or text) during a commercial (or during a time out, if the commercials are more your thing than the game) to say, “Hey, I miss you, but I understand that you may need the quiet right now. Just wanted to say I’m thinking about you.” Even better, before the game, set aside a plate of whatever gourmet or out-of-the-bag snacks you’re serving. Drop it off either before or after.

Enjoy the game. And the commercials. But keep them in perspective — and don’t let your bereaved friends feel forgotten.