Grief Talk: Blurting Nonstop about a Loved One’s Death

I blurted “my husband died” to every stranger I encountered in the earliest weeks after it happened. No matter the setting — church, the frozen foods aisle, in the pharmacy checkout line … No matter where I was, I had to say it. I hated saying it. I hated hearing it. But I had to.

It wasn’t as if I walked into any business thinking, “I’m going to announce to the world I’m a widow.” Most of my grief blurted out in unbidden bursts prompted by the piercing pressure of dull-looking (yet deceptively sharp) questions like “How are you?”*

I am grieving, that’s how I am, thank you very much. Whether a person meant the question or said it as a greeting synonymous with hello, if I was asked, I would tell. And even if I wasn’t asked, my body had to express its inexpressible sadness in tears, shallow breathing, gut-wrenching anxiety at the sight of products my husband used — no, used to use — and sometimes in words, inadequate as they were.

Perhaps my pattern of blurting was set from the first moments after the hospital doctor delivered his pronouncement, when an orderly leaned inside the doorway of the tiny waiting room. “‘Scuse me,” he said to the doctor, “the medical examiner’s office is on the phone.” He crossed the room in three steps and while extending the cordless phone toward my hand said, “How ya doin’?”

I regret to say I raised my voice at the man. “My husband just died. How do you THINK I’m doing!?” (I can only hope my outburst did some good in the long run; I hope he never, ever addressed a grieving family in that way again.)

The gentle gauze of acknowledgement will better slow verbal grieving than the poky prodding of a cotton swab. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The gentle gauze of acknowledgement will better slow verbal grieving than the poky prodding of a cotton-tipped swab. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sometimes the people I blurted to were sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” they’d say while looking me over carefully. (One asked, “Are you okay to drive? Do you need me to call someone for you?”) I appreciated the kindness of their sympathy and felt slightly better for the interaction. Their gentle acknowledgement acted like an embracing gauze to hold my wounded soul together.

Often people appeared embarrassed, averting their eyes as if I’d bared too much skin rather than too much of my soul. “Oh,” they’d say (if they said that much) before altogether turning away or, in the case of cashiers locked into position, turning their full attention back to the buttons at their fingertips. I left such encounters feeling the kind of social embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since my children were tiny and bled or threw up (or worse) in public places. In this case there were no surfaces to clean up and nothing to apologize for, but it felt much the same.

The harshest, most damaging interchanges happened when strangers (or much worse, people I knew) chastened me for speaking (or crying) about my husband’s death. “Stop crying,” they’d say, or “You already told me,” or “But that was last month, so why are you still crying about it?” or “Everyone has troubles, so you need to get over it and move on.” I walked away from such encounters feeling deep shame for my feelings and my inability to keep them to myself, as if I’d just offered a messy, inappropriate blood sacrifice in someone’s all-white living room.

In hindsight, with five-plus years behind me, I can forgive myself for committing such “offenses” against those whose own insecurities prompted their harsh or embarrassed responses. Looking back on the way I felt when newly bereaved, I can see how my wounded, lacerated soul and psyche bled orally. Applying pointed pressure to stanch the flow of grieving words was no more effective than holding a Q-tip to a deep cut.**

It was about a year before I managed not to blurt, “My husband died,” long after his death faded to “old news.”

For our family, though, every day we lived with the new, unwelcome reality of “firsts” without him. Time had to thicken and slow the verbal and emotional bleeding. Gentle acknowledgement of loss had to wrap around me and take hold. The raw edges of my wounded psyche had to begin their healing.

If your mourning friends seem never to stop talking about the death of their loved ones, don’t shove a poky cotton-tipped swab into their wounds. Wrap them with the consoling gauze of your acknowledgement and absorb the mess of their blurting with your acceptance and understanding.

___

Feel free to share ways you blurted — or listened.

___

*Please see these suggestions for Better Questions to Ask than “How Are You?”

**I don’t have any affiliation with (or aversion to) the Q-tip brand of cotton-tipped swabs.

 

 

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 

Silence. 

She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.

___

(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)

Valentine Loss — A Love Story

Donna and Owen were school sweethearts, but she wanted to be a missionary before she’d settle down to marry him.

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine's Day (Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine’s Day (family photo, ca. 1930, Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

As a young woman, she left her small-town Utah home to teach (and preach) as a volunteer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She traveled 2,000-plus miles to North Carolina, a state where few Mormons then lived. While serving the people there, Donna roomed in a home with three daughters near her age: Lala, Gertie, and Leone. At the end of her time in the South, Donna and her “Carolina sisters” half-joked that someday they’d introduce their future children to each other — and have them marry so they could become “real” family.

Donna went home and married Owen on Valentine’s Day.*

They built and ran a business together — an auto service center and motel — and brought three beloved children into the world. When their little ones were seven, five, and three, Owen went hunting in the mountains with friends and cousins for food for their families. An out-of-season blizzard stranded them. Only one returned.

Widowed Donna went back to school so she could earn a living to support her children. She taught elementary school and raised her sons and daughter. She became a principal and also worked for educational publisher Allyn & Bacon.

When her kids were grown, she taught English in Japan.

Eventually, Donna dated and married Wally, a widower with a young son — the bonus son whom she delighted in raising and claiming as her own. She later became the first woman to sit (and vote!) on her city council.

When Donna’s second son met Leone’s daughter at college, everyone later agreed it never would have worked if “the Carolina sisters” had orchestrated it as they once planned. (I’m glad it worked out for them, since Donna’s son and Leone’s daughter became my parents!)

I never knew my dad’s father, Grandpa Owen, but I liked the way Grandpa Wally spoke of him, though he never met Owen, either.

Donna and Wally had an unusual second marriage. They each had a sense of responsibility and accountability to the other’s long-dead love. They spoke of taking care of one another for the one who was absent — and also playfully “blamed” them for household mishaps (“Donna, Owen must have mislaid my book…” “Wally, Bertha must have let your dinner burn…”).

For the rest of their lives, Donna and Wally celebrated three wedding anniversaries every year: Donna and Wally’s, Wally’s and Bertha’s, and — on Valentine’s Day — Donna and Owen’s.

From her decades-later hindsight, she didn’t tell me about the hardship of losing her husband when their children were so young. She didn’t describe the loneliness of losing her mother (hit by a drunk driver) within a short time of becoming a widow. But I’d heard the stories.

In college I lived near Grandma Donna and Grandpa Wally. Whenever I mentioned going on a date, Grandma worried. “Don’t get serious with anyone until you have a way to earn your own living. You never know what’s going to happen.” However, the first time I mentioned my future husband’s name, she changed her script. “When are you bringing him to meet us?”

Whoa, I thought. Our courtship was still in early days; it gave me pause that instead of reminding me to keep my distance, Grandma Donna wanted to meet him.

Fast forward two and a half decades.

In my early days of widowhood, I yearned to ask Grandma the important things I needed to know:

Grandma, how did you get through it?

When your heart was ripped in half, how did you become the optimistic, faith-filled, compassionate person I knew and loved?

How did you raise your children to be that way, too?

Grandma, how can I get through it?

Valentine’s Day isn’t easy on anyone who has lost a loved one — to death or otherwise. Hearts ache over severed connections. When all the world (in the media, anyway) seems paired up in love, it can be easy to rename February 14 as Single Awareness Day or Sorrowing After Death Day; it can be a very SAD day.

The first few Valentine’s Days after my husband’s death hurt horribly. I did what I could to serve others who I knew were also sorrowing, but it didn’t alleviate my own sadness.

This is my sixth widowed Valentine’s Day, and I’m trying to view it more as my Grandma Donna’s wedding anniversary than as a day without my own husband.

Grandma Donna survived — and thrived — after widowhood.

Valentine's Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Valentine’s Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So will I.

(But I still wish I could ask how she did it.)

*For ways to help your grieving friends through this holiday (and others), please see Valentine Greetings for the Grieving.

Super Bowl, Super Grief

Super Bowl 50 may be a big deal to some folks out there, but for those who are grieving it may or may not matter. If you have friends who’ve lost loved ones within the last couple of years (or so), keep in mind:

  1. Invite grieving friends to watch the big game at your house with you.

    This is the most Super Bowl that gets watched at my house.

    This is the kind of Super Bowl that gets watched at my house.

  2. If you and yours don’t watch the Super Bowl, invite your grieving friends to join you in whatever you do — or don’t.
  3. If you’re having a tailgating party, invite them there.
  4. Mourning leaves people feeling bronco-bucked. They may need to immerse themselves in occasional fun to escape their pain for a while.
  5. Grieving makes your friends feel panther-mauled. They may need to curl up in their dens to recover in solitude.
  6. Living after losing a loved one is harder than you know, so cut them a bit of slack. Mourners may need a replay or do-over.
  7. Crowds storm the field after the game, but eventually the stadium empties. Well-wishers surround the bereaved up until the funeral, but eventually everyone else goes home, leaving the bereaved alone in their loss.
  8. When you’ve lost the highest-stakes championship — with death on the line — getting riled up over a football game can seem pointless.
  9. Mourners need fans to cheer them on with encouragement and support — whether they seem ahead of their game or whether they seem to be running behind.
  10. After the game, the losing team needs fan support and continued training. After the funeral, bereaved friends need ongoing support, too.
  11. If you’ve already asked mourning friends to join you but they said, “No thanks,” ask again (GENTLY). Invite them to change their minds at any time.
  12. Honoring traditions (such as pre-game parties with friends) can make the bereaved feel more connected to their departed loved ones and their living friends.
  13. Honoring those same traditions can make the bereaved feel more disconnected from their dead loved ones and their living friends.
  14. Mourners can feel happy and involved with their friends while also feeling sad and isolated from their friends at the same time in the middle of a party.
  15. Not being invited because they’ve lost loved ones makes mourners feel like they’re being unfairly punished.
  16. Just because your friends have lost loved ones doesn’t mean they can’t laugh at funny things. Sometimes mourners need to laugh.
  17. Laughing while mourning can feel so good it makes you cry.
  18. If players are sidelined due to injuries, they need medical treatment but still belong to the team; if mourners are sidelined by grief, they’re still your friends — so treat them that way.
  19. Sometimes players’ numbers are retired, never to be worn again; people sometimes see that as sad, but the team carries on with new players signed on. Mourning friends’ loved ones have gone beyond retirement, never to play or work or interact again; their family team will never, ever be the same.
  20. Super Bowl teams train and work out long before they set foot on the televised field in front of the world. Whether mourner’s have advance notice of bereavement’s demands  or they’re tackled by it without warning, grievers often feel vulnerable under spectators’ scrutiny.
  21. Mourners don’t need would-be coaches who’ve never mourned their loss telling them how to play through their grief.
  22. If you haven’t already asked your grieving friends to join you for the game, it’s not too late. (If you’re reading this after the game, it’s still not too late to get together doing something — anything — else!)
  23. Game day snacks might be the most wholesome meal your mourning friend has eaten since their loved one died. (Mourning appetites are weird.)
  24. Players sidelined with concussions are never told to get back out on the field to play again too soon. People concussed by the death of a life partner (or other loved one) should also never be told to get back out into relationship fields to play again too soon. (They’ll know when — and/or if — they’re ready again, so don’t give your input UNLESS they ask.)
  25. Tailgating means shopping ahead and prepping food before the big event; mourners may have trouble shopping or prepping food at all.
  26. Even if you don’t usually invite friends over for the Super Bowl, please invite your bereaved friends anyway. You don’t have to do anything fancy; just being there as a friend will help.
  27. Have a box of tissues nearby for commercials. Sometimes touching ads will touch off emotions of grief. Let your friends know you are okay with them expressing their feelings.
  28. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk (grieving or not). So don’t. Ever.
  29. Whether your friends lost their loved ones recently or long ago, keep in mind that annual events may strengthen and stir up traumatic losses.
  30. Last-minute invitations are better than no invitations at all. If you haven’t already done it, please, call, text, or message your grieving friends — NOW.

Whether you’re reading this hours or minutes before the big game, halfway through it, or long after, tell mourning friends you’re thinking of them. Acknowledge that even though they may feel alone, they aren’t forgotten and they don’t have to be alone all the time.

Let them know you care.