Good Grief, Halloween! (It’s Not All Good)

For anyone mourning recent losses, Halloween can be painful. Good, clean, costumed, candy-consuming fun too often fades behind gruesome, in-your-face depictions of morbid, glorified, sinister portrayals.

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Pumpkin (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Halloween was the first store-pushed celebration after my husband’s death. With newly widowed eyes, my gut clenched at the fake tombstones, skeleton parts, and decayed zombie costumes shouting from store shelves and “decorating” — but certainly not enhancing — my neighborhood.

Don’t these people know my husband died?

Of course they didn’t know (except when I blurted it to store clerks who’d made the mistake of greeting me with rushed variations of “how’re-you-today” which they’d not really meant to ask). The whole world, it seemed, went back to normal after his funeral — the whole world except for me and my grieving household.

If your friends have just buried a loved one, they aren’t likely to nominate your plastic cemetery and zombie yard decorations for lawn-of-the-month. If they’re mourning loved ones who died by violent means, they will not thank or applaud you for costumes and makeup which call injuries to mind.

I once met a couple whose entire home — outside and inside, every room — could have furnished the gift shop inventory for a haunted house, spook alley, or nightmare on any street. From my new, widowed perspective, I couldn’t help wondering what one of them will someday think when surviving the other and walking through their once-shared front door. What will their prominently displayed tombstones and bones and coffins and skeletons mean then? Perhaps they will offer continuity and connection to items once loved by their departed beloved. But perhaps not …

Everyone reacts differently to bereavement. Children, for example, often cling to continuity after a loved one dies. The same activity, such as trick-or-treating, which agonizes one family member may act as a bridge between bereaved upheaval and tradition’s normalcy for another.

Instead of wishing your grieving friends a “happy Halloween,” invite them into your life. Invite their children to go trick-or-treating along with yours (especially if the adults aren’t up to it). Invite teenagers to costume parties. Invite the adults, too.

If  they turn you down, don’t take it personally. They may not be able to abide socializing or celebrating in any way for a while yet. But they’ll appreciate that you wanted to include and acknowledge them. Try asking them again next time. And the next.

But please, at Halloween, be thoughtful about your costume and decor. And the car you park outside your door.

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. (Although I can't imagine what those good reasons may be ... I snapped this photo in August, long before Halloween's approach.)

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. Although I can’t imagine what those good reasons may be … I snapped this in August, long before Halloween’s approach. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

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Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

Halloween Grief

Belated Halloween Reprise (including a link to Megan Divine’s HuffPost Healthy Living “Halloween and Grief: When the Nightmare Is Real“)

 

Your Grief and My Grief Might (or Might Not) Become Friends

From the earliest days of my widowhood, I found it surprising how few widows said, “I know exactly how you feel.” Instead, they acknowledged the unique individuality of my loss. They said, “I can’t imagine how it would be to have lost my husband without warning,” or “My kids were already raised when my husband died. I don’t know what you’re going through.”

The irony is they did know — at least to the degree of understanding the upended world of mourning a spouse — but instead of comparing our losses in a way that placed them on the same level, they emphasized what made my newly raw, current loss their focus.

Their acknowledgment offered comfort in a comfortless condition.

Last weekend at the Florida Writers Association annual conference, among the hundreds of attendees writing in every genre imaginable, I met several authors whose own grief deepens the portrayal of their characters. As we visited, I again recalled the differences in how people I know and love process their grief — and their nearly universal reactions too.

Hurricane Meets Hibiscus (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When Hurricane Matthew barreled through Central Florida, my neighborhood was nearly unscathed. (My prayers continue for those whose homes were damaged and destroyed.) Before that storm, two hibiscus plants grew in my yard. The winds and tropical rains stripped all but a few leaves from one and shoved it almost to the ground with its root ball loosened from the soil.

The other hibiscus, though less sheltered by the shape of my house, kept all but a few leaves, and although it no longer stands quite straight, its roots hold so firmly I haven’t been able to push it fully upright again.

The winds of grief blow some of us sideways and sometimes uproot us altogether. Stripped of our loved ones, we gasp in the vacuum of mourning. We flail in sorrow’s storm surge, and we recognize that — whether by downed tree or lifted roof or flooded foundation — our individual and collective lives will never be the same.

We learn to bond, repair, and rebuild by what we share — the bereavement of severance from dear ones or homes or livelihoods or health — and we mourn with one another even in those different conditions.

Rebuild we do, but in ways we’d never planned and in time frames only we can determine. Meanwhile, we appreciate those who are willing to sit with us in silence, hearing us wail and mourn and cry. And we appreciate those who keep checking in with us (even when we are “moody”) and who step in to help us lift and mop and hammer and bandage our lives back together.

Grief Before and After the Storm

“Feeder bands” of grief-tinged déjà vu arrived ahead of the hurricane.

Hurricane Matthew surges toward my state after devastating the Caribbean and taking lives there. My ties to the islands are indirect — a young friend’s anxiety for the family in Haiti she hasn’t been able to contact; a daughter’s concern for students she worked with in the Dominican Republic; local friends’ worries for people within their ministries on the island of Hispaniola …

24-hours before Matthew's arrival, Central Florida grocery staples disappear (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty bread aisle 24 hours before Matthew’s arrival in Central Florida (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Here in Central Florida, I’m stocked up (water, food, dog food, and battery-operated fans). I’ve lowered and secured window awnings and stowed away outdoor items — I’m as ready as I can be.

Wednesday night, on the way home from a writers meeting, I stopped at a grocery store to top off my supply of stress foods (chocolate chip cookies and crunchy cheese-ish snacks). I’m glad I had already purchased the basics; as you can see by these photos, the staple aisles were depleted.

But my heart is heavy for the families of those who’ve already lost loved ones. I too clearly remember how new, raw grief felt — and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

48 hours before Matthew's arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty water aisle 48 hours before Matthew’s arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The advent of this monster storm also brought back memories of the years when my late husband and I weathered earlier hurricanes and tropical storms. This is the first BIG storm I’ve prepared for without him.

Six years after his death, “firsts” still punch me in the gut. Not as hard as during earlier years, but enough to make me suck in my breath, feel a moment’s panic that my wedding ring isn’t on my finger, and revisit the anger I felt so often while adjusting to widowhood.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but as I stowed away outdoor items and braved the general icky-ness of our backyard shed, I wanted to tell off my husband. (WHAT was that thing skittering past my foot? It looked like a short, striped snake with legs.) I wanted to gripe at him. “This isn’t fair. You’re supposed to be here. How dare you leave me here to get ready for this storm — and for everything else I’ve had to do — since you died.”

It’s not fair to blame him (and his absence) for this storm. It’s not reasonable to be angry with him for it. It’s not nice to wish him here in harm’s way with the rest of us.

But grief isn’t nice, or reasonable, or fair. It’s a monster that sweeps the ground out from under mourners, floods them with confusion and distress, empties them of planned-for futures, and blows over the concept of “normal.” 

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

After someone dies, life does not “go on” the same for the bereaved as it does for everyone else. It takes years to build what most of us call a “new-normal” life plan without the loved one who figured prominently before.

I don’t know what this (or any) hurricane will do to the physical landscape around me. I didn’t know what grieving my husband would do to the landscape of my life, either. 

If your friend or coworker or neighbor has lost a loved one in the last two years, please be patient with them as they rebuild their new normal. Stand close beside them, and let them know you are aware of their grief. Lend them your strength as they sort through the debris of dead dreams.

If you’re in the path of this storm — or others — please, please, please help each other be safe.