Grief on the Fourth of July

I’ve always loved the U.S. holiday called Independence Day, but for twenty years I’ve struggled to enjoy the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate it. Contradictory? Perhaps, but holidays after a loved one’s death can become complicated, contradictory things.

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“Stars and Stripes Fireworks over Orlando” photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

On the one hand, maintaining annual traditions can give survivors a lifeline of continuity in a time when their lives have been demolished by death. Things will never be normal again, so holiday celebrations and commemorations can — for some mourners — offer the comforting familiarity of ritual. For the first couple of years after my husband died, only at the last minute did I remember to buy hot dogs, potato chips, dip, and soda (our family’s traditional Fourth of July junk food)  — primarily because our kids expected it.

On the other hand, for some who grieve, carrying on with past traditions (as if nothing has changed) hurts more than it helps. Also in the first year (or two) after my husband died, I felt raging jealousy and resentment for those going about their days as if everything was okay — because to me it wasn’t. I couldn’t make myself display any of our household Independence Day decorations I’d made and/or purchased during our twenty-four years of marriage. (In fact, on this my sixth widowed Independence Day, that bin remains untouched. Maybe next year.)

If your friends have lost loved ones recently, please be sensitive to their grief this Fourth of July (and in holidays yet to come):

  • Acknowledge that this holiday will be different (if not downright difficult) for the bereaved. Don’t be afraid of reminding them of their loss or “making” them sad; they already remember their loss every minute of every day. What they need is to know someone else does, too.
  • Invite them to join you in cookouts, picnics, beach trips … whatever you usually do to celebrate. Tell them the invitation remains open if they decline. Don’t push — they may really need space — but do make certain they are welcome to change their minds later.
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down, won’t RSVP, or don’t return calls or messages. In the early months after my husband died, sometimes I answered the phone only for my immediate family but let other calls go to voicemail. (It wasn’t them, it was me.) It took me more than six months to be able to even think about attending social gatherings (and it took longer to actually go).
  • Ask them how they usually celebrated the holiday with their deceased loved one. Most mourners are grateful for the chance to speak about the ones they grieve.
  • Tread lightly with greetings like “Happy Fourth.” Of course you want your friends to be happy, and happiness is possible even while grieving, but when grief is new and raw, a safer, more considerate message might be “Thinking of you on the Fourth.”

(To find out why I’ve had an aversion to July 4th since the 1990s, see Fireworks of Grief.)

One more thing. While you’re enjoying whatever it is you like to do on this national holiday, please take one moment (or more) to reflect on the gift it is to be able to celebrate as you wish. The freedoms we too often take for granted were purchased by the labors — and the lives — of many to whom we owe a debt our gratitude can never repay.

 

 

Healing and Grief — “Well under Way” or Not?

A  reporter covering one of the funerals for a victim of the Pulse nightclub shooting a couple of days ago said “healing is well under way.”

I disagree. 

photo provided by and with permission of https://www.instagram.com/harmonyebee/ #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

photo at Orlando vigil provided by and with permission of harmonyebee #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

I don’t dispute that in the wake of this tragedy, kindness and generosity abound. The outpourings of support proclaiming #OrlandoUnited and #OrlandoStrong reveal facets of the goodness surrounding my city and, in fact, the world.

That’s as it should be, and it will aid future healing.

But this — scarcely a week later — is far too soon to say “healing is well under way.”

Grieving is a journey without shortcuts. Mourning takes time, but right now, the traumatized and injured survivors and the victims’ families are in shock. (As a community, we all are.)

The grief that comes with the first onslaught of knowing your loved one has died is a loud, brutal bullying earthquake. It rattles your body and soul so hard you are forever altered. You may resemble yourself on the outside, but you know that’s not you anymore. The cells inside you have tumbled, twisted, crumpled into positions and shapes nature never intended.

That kind of upheaval takes time to recognize, time to adjust to, time to heal into. Note, please, that I said “heal into,” not “heal from.”

When author C.S. Lewis’s wife died, he vented his grief in a series of journals meant only for himself. Later published as A Grief Observed, it was one of the most healing, cathartic books I read after my husband died. The agony Lewis poured unfiltered onto the pages reflected the scattered, shattered state of my own emotions.

He compared grieving his wife to an amputation. In time the wound itself would stop bleeding, the tissues would seal, and he would learn new ways of “walking” as a widower — but that accustomed limb would always be absent, and that different way of moving about would never be the same.

He would heal but never again be whole.

How long before it’s acceptable to say Orlando’s “healing is well under way”?  I can answer only with another question: How long does it take to heal from the sudden, traumatic, much-publicized loss of your loved one? (Go on. Pick a figure. Decide how long you think it might take until you’re healed or “over it.” Double it. Double it again. For good measure, triple it. You might be getting closer — or not.)

My mother died as peacefully as possible after a brave and dignified battle with cancer over 20 years ago. My husband died without warning due to medical causes never fully identified over five years ago.  I no longer actively mourn them every day, but for years I did.

For years.

Every day.

I think I’d been widowed about a year and a half before I realized — for the first time — I hadn’t cried over him that day (which realization, of course, made me cry again). A year and a half.

To say “healing is well under way” at less than two weeks is inaccurate at best, injurious at worst. No one should be made to feel rushed in their grieving or as if they’re “failing” by not following another’s expectations.

My life now is rich and full and I love it — though five-plus years later I still face obstacles and hurdles my late husband’s death raised, challenges which, frankly, I’d much rather not have to deal with.

And there will always be days and dates that make “healed” wounds ache and reboot the pain of loss — like Father’s Day, with the father of my children no longer alive, or my would-have-been-30th wedding anniversary next month …

For mourning families and friends, for recovering injured (and traumatized) survivors, for the LGBTQ community who were targeted by the evil shooter, for the employees at Pulse and surrounding businesses, for the first responders and medical personnel, for the greater Orlando area at large — life will never be the same again.

In time and with nurturing care, there will be healing, and every kind act aligns us in that direction.

But it does take time. If you know someone who has lost a loved one, find out birthdays and other significant dates. Enter them in your calendar. And commit to keep reaching out — not just now when the tremors are still visible but in the weeks, months, and even years to come — when mourners are settling into their shifted foundations.

Your long-term acknowledgment will help healing begin to get better under way.

 

 

Grief after Shooting in Orlando

Early Sunday morning, people were slaughtered in Orlando, my hometown. Forty-nine victims died on-site at Pulse Nightclub; more than 50 were hospitalized due to serious injuries inflicted in the attack; countless others’ lives are forever altered — traumatized survivors, witnesses, first responders, and their families. All of them. All of us.

It is tragedy. It is horror. It is pain.

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My first, panicked thoughts were for of one of my daughter’s dear friends, a young adult who has not come out to blood family but who (like many of my children’s friends over decades) has called me a second mom for years. My fingers shook as I texted, “Are you okay?”

I’m grateful — so grateful — this friend of ours replied immediately, was not at Pulse at that time, is physically okay. But this adult kid who calls me Mom … this young soul’s roommates lost many friends.

Being “okay” will never be the same again.

In the aftermath of most tragedy, we witness the best and the worst of humanity. At church hours after this happened, everyone I encountered spoke with tears in their eyes, with broken voices (and hearts), with compassion and pain for those impacted. Congregants were vocal in prayer for the victims and their families, of course, but even more vocal about the need to reach out in tangible help — to give blood, to be of support, to offer healing help and comfort. To love our neighbors.

I was proud, too, of the statement Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer emailed to residents:
“Despite the fact that this crime will have a lasting effect on our city and country, Orlando is a strong community. We will be grieving together in the upcoming days, weeks and months. We need to support each other and love each other. This tragedy will not define us, but will bring us together.”  Well said, Mayor Dyer. Well said.

But I was appalled by other reactions — as if the hateful, terrorist acts of murder and mayhem weren’t appalling enough.

As I scrolled through social media after church — searching (like everyone else in and/or with ties to Orlando) for assurance regarding those I know — I couldn’t believe what I saw:

People were politicizing these lost and shattered lives.

I’m a proponent of free speech, and there’s a time and a place for most forms and reforms, but immediately after a tragedy —within hours, or even days! — is not the time or the place. Death does not invite discussion about dogma. Murder does not mean it’s time to moralize. Loss is not linked to knee-jerk legislation.

Loss should be only about loving the bereaved, mourning the missing, healing the hurt. Period.

Unless you are in the inner ring of mourning, it is not your place to voice your political or moral views on those who have been injured or who have lost loved ones. Significant others, immediate family, closest friends — these are the people who have the right to state (or not state) their views from within the LGBTQ community targeted by the shooter. These are the souls whose lives have been altered by the killer’s evil actions, who have the right to state (or not state) their positions on gun laws and ISIS and every other blame-relevant topic.

For everyone else, everyone not directly impacted, it is our place — and time — to offer love and support and help and presence while listening. (The time to legislate and protest and reform will come … but not at the cost of depersonalizing individual loss into broader causes. Not yet.)

People are mourning. Reach out to them. They will need your love and support not just now but in the weeks, months, and years to come. (In the meantime, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.)

I was standing surrounded by many people. I was surrounded by men, women, children, and even dogs. I was surrounded by people from every faith, every sexuality, every race. And we stood together. We stood together with grief in our hearts, tears in our eyes, and hope in our minds. We will stand together, through tragedies or triumphs.. In the end, love wins. We won't be broken by hate. Thank you to all those who made it out tonight, to those 5,000 people who stood waiting to give blood Sunday, the people who have volunteered their time to the community, those who donated their money from all around the world.. Thank you for your support and love. #orlandostrong #standtogether #hatewillneverwin #lovewins #lgbtq #gay #gaypride #strength #courage #grief #pulseorlando #oneorlando #love #orlando #florida #prayfororlando #youarenotalone

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photos on this post provided by and with permission of harmonyebee

 

Friends and Grief

“Your address book will change,” another widow told me.

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends' address books? (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends’ address books?
(photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

“What do you mean?”

“Some of the people you thought would always be there for you … won’t. They’ll disappear.”

My mind replayed one of the most-heard phrases at and after the funeral: “Call if you need anything.” I’d known the people saying it meant the sentiment (or at least thought they did). But while I nodded acknowledgement of their intention, I also knew — really knew — I wouldn’t call. I couldn’t.

“It’s not their fault,” I told my widow friend. “They’d be here if I asked.”

As if she read my mind, she said, “And how many have you asked?”

My silence answered.

“I get it,” she said. “As much as you need people around you, it’s physically and emotionally impossible to reach out to gather them to you. It takes every bit of energy just to muster the have-to calls for paying the bills and tending to all the business-of-death matters.”

“You mean it’s not just me?” I’d thought I was especially weak and inept at dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s death.

“Teresa, it’s hard for everybody,” she said, “but this is still early for you.  I don’t know anybody who could call people back if they needed anything so soon. It took me a couple of years. You’re only a couple months out, still in shock.”

Two months, one week, and three days, I corrected in my head, incapable of turning off the infernal count ticking off the time since he died. “It seems like it’s been forever, but it also feels like it just happened.”

“Have any of your friends tried to make you feel like you should be ‘over it’ by now?”

Frustrating memories surfaced: The first time (a whole 36 hours after he died) when someone said, “Don’t worry about anything. You’re young enough to remarry.” The people who (the day of the funeral) pressed to know what my immediate, short-term, and long-term future plans were now. The woman who (about six weeks after he died) insisted, “I wish you wouldn’t cry anymore. I makes me feel sad to see your tears.” (To her credit, she apologized soon after.)

“After the funeral,” my widow friend continued, “your friends’  lives went back to normal. But yours will never be the way it was before. They can’t understand, not unless they’ve also lost someone as much a part of your life as your husband was to you. They’re not trying to shut you out. They’re just … getting on with their lives.”

I nodded. I’d learned to scroll past friends’ status updates about sweet marital bliss — or stupid squabbles — that sliced and salted my grief. How unfair. Don’t they know they should be grateful for what they still have? But it still hurt to see illustrations that “life went on” for them when it hadn’t for me. (Side note: Never say “life goes on” to anyone grieving. Just don’t.)

“And then there are the ones who step away because they’re too uncomfortable around your pain.”

I let out a brief, one-syllable bark-laugh, thinking of the neighbor who instead of waving hello now turned away at the sight of me.

“But you’re going to make some amazing new friends, too. And there will be people you didn’t know well who will reach out with compassion that makes up for the others’ neglect.”

“You’re right.” I smiled and nodded at thoughts of those who’d reached out, people I’d known only casually before: A note card in the mail. Text check-ins. Dinners (or desserts) dropped off. Emails. His angelversary date acknowledged. 

I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since. It reminded me of a song round I learned as a Girl Scout:

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

Dear new friends have shown up and written themselves into my life’s address book in gold and silver inks during the five-plus years since my husband died. My life now is richer for knowing them.

Among my friends who mourn, I understand why some have erased entries from their contacts. Rejection and neglect are painful at any stage of life, but they are brutal while grieving. If a trusted friend criticizes or ignores your bereavement, why continue to rely on them?

For my part, I didn’t trust my own grief-shrouded judgement enough to erase the time-worn entries from my contacts. Even when I was too wounded to reach out to them. Meanwhile, those who didn’t ink themselves into my widowed life have faded: gold to silver to ink to pencil.

In future, who knows? Maybe one of those barely legible names will tell me a story of my husband or let one of my kids know they remember their dad. If so, the faded lines will become traced over, easier to distinguish.

Even if they don’t ink themselves back into my treasured contacts, I’ll keep them written there.  If I could rewrite the world to exclude grief, I would. But I can’t. So I’ll try to remember when faded contacts’ time comes to join the ranks of those who “get” grief.

I’ll try to reach out, because there’s no such thing as too many friends — even faded, friendly acquaintances — when you’re grieving.