New Year after Death

Illustration of running the gauntlet from "Spiessgasse" (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525. (This image is in the public domain.) Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

Illustration of running the gauntlet from “Spiessgasse” (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525.
(This image is in the public domain.)
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

‘Twas the week after Christmas and ‘fore the New Year,
When partyers gathered to prolong good cheer.
But for mourners it marked yet another milestone
(without absent loved ones) of being alone.
— Teresa  TL Bruce

The holidays are hard for the newly bereaved. (They’re not so easy for the not-so-newly bereaved, either.) Since early fall (in the U.S.), we’ve run the grieving gauntlet of celebrations — Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas — and now we’re facing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. [Please see New Year, New Grief for specifics on grief, the end of one year, and the beginning of the next.]

Sometimes, the cumulative effects of getting through event after event without deceased loved ones can seem like too much to bear. Sometimes mourners become overwhelmed with breathing — with being — in a world whose traditions and commemorations keep going while their lost loves do not.

For weeks now I’ve been reflecting on something I saw on the news the week before Thanksgiving. Former NFL New England Patriot quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents died of natural causes within hours of one another. His father had a fatal heart attack, and then his mother did, too.

It’s been said she died of a broken heart. I believe it.

My sympathies and condolences go to the Fluties’ children, grandchildren, and other extended family this holiday season and as they begin the new year without them. Losing a parent is agonizing. (I know how I felt when my mother died.) Losing a grandparent is painful and life-changing, too. (I miss all of my grandparents.)

I cannot imagine the sorrow and ache of losing both parents (or two grandparents) in a single day.

For their immediate and extended family’s sake, I am sorry. Their pain and mourning will last beyond the initial swells of sympathy and kindness they no doubt received from their friends (and from the public).

But for the sake of the couple themselves, who died within hours of each other …

Losing a spouse is heart-breaking. Literally. It wasn’t until my husband’s death that I understood how physically broken a heart could feel. But it wasn’t just my heart. I had grafted my life to my husband’s — joined in mind, heart, body, and soul. His death ripped, tore at, axed, smashed, and severed our joined mind, heart, body, and soul — my mind, my heart, my body, my soul.

We were one. And when one is halved, the fraction remaining is not whole. The surviving spouse is an off-kilter, walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human.

I remember how awful the first days felt. (First weeks, months, years …) I resented rare couples, like the Fluties, who passed from this life into the next together by peaceful, natural causes.

For the sakes of that late husband and his briefly widowed wife (whose family now doubly grieves their dual absence), I reluctantly admit I held a sliver of envy. (Amid the widowed community, I know I’m not alone in this.)

I’m not the only widowed one who, on hearing of one spouse shortly following the other into death, feels … (I don’t like admitting this) … jealous.

Now, lest any of my friends, family, or readers misunderstand me, let me be very, very clear before we go on from here:  I did not ever, I do not now, and I will not ever contemplate taking any action to hasten “joining” my late husband. No. NOT gonna happen.*

But there were times I would have welcomed a passive exit of my own. There were times when grief was so ever-present, so debilitating, so excruciating, so overwhelming, so lonely … I went to bed hoping not to wake up. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live, because I had three amazing daughters who needed me. I had other family and friends I needed and loved, too. But I didn’t know how to keep going One. More. Hour. — let alone another DAY — in that much pain.

Waking up to a new day was as awful as going to bed alone. (Sometimes.)

Among the newly widowed, dying together can seem preferable to surviving a spouse. (At least for a while.) Over and over I heard others say, “Why did I have to stay behind? Why do I have to keep going? How can I endure hurting this badly?”

There’s nothing you can do to remove their pain, but you can make sure they don’t endure it alone. Include them. Be with them. Validate their loss by acknowledging and accepting their sorrow.

Let them know you’ll be by their side — and not just on New Year’s Eve, but in the unbearably long 365 days that follow.

___

*If you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that “not living” seems like an option, please, please seek professional help. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for the sakes of those around you, get help now.
Visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

 

Merry Christmas Mourning (Death Changes Holidays)

I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)

But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m  shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.

THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)

THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)

THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.

Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.

This year Old Doggie Dear's stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box -- alongside my late husband's stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This year Old Doggie Dear’s stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box — alongside my late husband’s stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.

And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)

Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband,  our 21st without Mom.

At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.

For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)

I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.

This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).

If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.

If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.

___

*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.

They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.

I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!

Trauma after Death

I’m usually calm in crises, but I couldn’t remember how to dial 9-1-1.

lock screen, incorrect pin, dog, emergency call

The red phone icon would have let me dial for help without keying the pin number on my locked screen … if I’d remembered. (Screenshot of photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

I’d seen items in the road and eased the car around them.

Passing the parallel-parked cars — and the things strewn on the road — I realized they weren’t things. I threw the motor into park, blocking the road. My hands shook. I jumped from the car.

On the ground, a backpack hid someone’s back; a baseball cap covered his head. His upper body jutted into the street from between two cars.

“Sir, are you okay?” He was breathing but didn’t respond. I fumbled the numbers to unlock my phone. (I forgot about the red emergency call icon.)

The man lay facedown on the road. His legs and hips hung above the ground, tangled in an upside-down bicycle between the sidewalk and the street.

Another man snaked his motorcycle around my car to see what happened. He quieted his motor and stepped close to the red pavement under the baseball cap.

I entered my unlock code, then tried keying 9-1-1. “Don’t move him!” I yelled as Mr. Motorcycle approached the unconscious man. I knew never to move anyone with possible back injuries — but this passerby didn’t.

An employee from the nearby school hurried over. Calling “9-1-1” felt more complicated than it should have been. Again I hit the wrong combination of digits.

You'd think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy...

You’d think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy…

Mr. Motorcycle laughed, pointing at the spilled beer can nearby. “He’s not hurt — he’s just drunk.”

I finally got through to 9-1-1.

“Sir!” I yelled again. “DON’T MOVE HIM!”

Mr. Motorcycle ignored me. He tugged and pulled the bike from between the unconscious man’s legs, lowering half his body with a thud.

The dispatcher barraged me with questions I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know. I found him like this.” How old was the person, how long had he been there, did anyone else see what happened, did the fall make him unconscious, or was it the other way around … ?

She kept asking, as if I hadn’t already answered.

Meanwhile, my car blocked the narrow street; I needed to make room for the ambulance. I told Mr. Motorcycle and the school employee to stay by the injured man (to protect him from approaching vehicles).

The dispatcher reprimanded me, telling me not to leave the scene — which I wasn’t doing! — and interrupted my disclaimers.

My hands shook as I fastened my seat belt. “I’m putting you on speaker,” I told her. She demanded I not relocate my car but rather return to make sure no one moved the man. (She’d already heard me tell Mr. Motorcycle — and that he ignored me.)

With one hand on the gearshift and one on the wheel, I jumped. Mr. Motorcycle pressed both hands against my window, talking at me through the glass.

The dispatcher fussed at me — loudly — as I lowered the window.

Mr. Motorcycle had to leave before the bank closed (it was barely three o’clock) and would be “right back.” (At least, I think that was what he said — it was hard to hear over the dispatcher’s voice.)

That was the last I saw of him.

The school employee (thank heaven for her!) “stood guard” while I drove (seven whole car-lengths away) to an empty space alongside the curb. (If you’ve never parallel parked while a 9-1-1 dispatcher berates you for making room so an emergency vehicle can reach the emergency, you can’t imagine how long that short drive was.) “I’ve parked and I’m walking back to the injured man now,” I told the dispatcher.

“Don’t give him anything to eat or drink,” she warned.

“He’s unconscious!” (I’d already told her.)

“Paramedics are on the way,” the dispatcher said, “but if he wakes before they arrive, don’t let anyone feed him or give him anything to drink.”

Between the dispatcher’s assurance of help on the way and the siren’s affirmation that it was, a gut-punching thought took my breath: These first responders were coming from that station — the station whose paramedics entered our home that night.

Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let it not be them…

I’d seen them out before — the same team — at the grocery store. I’d fallen apart, emotionally thrown back to the ground of that traumatic night.

Please oh please oh please let it not be them.

But the side of the truck bore that station number.

Please-ohplease-ohplease-not-them!

I turned and faced the prostrate man. I wouldn’t look at the paramedics’ faces.

Too many PTSD triggers of that night…

Behind me a man said, “I remember you…”

Oh, please, no!

My stomach heaved.

“Weren’t you in my radio class?”

I breathed again — How long was I holding my breath? — and turned toward the firefighter who’d taught my CERT group about the science and protocols of amateur radio back when I got my ham operator license. Way back, before the night my husband died.

It’s okay, I told myself. Not them. 

But. What if the others were on duty that night?

I blurted a summary of all I’d told the dispatcher, then asked whether I needed to stay.

“No, we’ve got him now. Thanks for helping out. Good seeing you.”

As I turned away, I heard the injured man respond to the rescue crew. I felt tremendous relief; he was conscious, but I didn’t linger. (I scurried to my car to avoid seeing other rescuers’ faces.)

Then I drove away.

Life went on, for me, anyway. I hope and assume it did for that man…

pavement, stain

“Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it. … Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.” — Teresa TL Bruce (TealAshes.com)

It’s been a couple of weeks since that afternoon. I’ve wondered about the man whose name I don’t know. (Did he have a head injury? Did Mr. Motorcycle harm his back?) And I’ve worried. (Is that his bicycle locked against the fence near where he fell? If so, why hasn’t he come back for it?).

After two weeks in the Florida sun and rain, as of yesterday the pavement still showed stains from that day. I can’t pass the street without remembering.

It’s made me consider other marks on the roadways, discolorations I never thought twice about before. Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it.

How many of us see the behavioral or emotional “stains” in those around us and walk by — or turn our backs — without practicing emotional triage? For those who are grieving, it’s not enough (and often not a good idea) to simply ask, “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”*

Make sure your grieving friends breathe deeply. Stand guard against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. Offer support, even if it comes in a drink of water or a bite to eat. Help them back onto their feet — physically and emotionally. Don’t ride away just because you have other things to do. Listen to their words and their tears and their assertions.

Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.

___

*Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is New