Grief, PTSD, and Empathy

It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me … I chanted aloud when alone, silently while surrounded. The reasoning side of myself knew this grief wasn’t about my grief — no matter how much it felt like it was.

I didn’t know the man who died as last year ended and this one began, but his brother and sister-in-law are my friends.

Shortly after I heard the news, I spoke with my friend. With her was a woman I’d never met before, but my soul recognized her expression, an affect exuding the shock of sudden loss. Just a day and a half earlier, her beloved life partner had collapsed — without warning — in their bathroom. Died without reviving. (As did mine, six years earlier.)

I knew nothing I could say would make it better. How could words — any words — alleviate the agony of their loss?

They couldn’t.

But say something to this newly bereaved woman I must. Must. MUST. MUST. MUST! Must approach — even in her in her unapproachable grief. Must extend sincere condolences — even in her inconsolable situation. Must … say … something …

Yet I — after facing my own similar loss; after networking, conversing with, being befriended by multitudes of widowed and differently bereaved souls; after writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words on the subject of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say) —

I struggled for what to say (and what not to say).

So, I said very little.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, then listened.

After a while, when it seemed appropriate, I said, “My husband also died suddenly.” Remembering the widows who spoke similar words to me, I added, “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know it hurts. I’m here to listen.”

She held herself — and her grief — with a quiet dignity. She spoke of her faith in God and how she’s trying to rely upon Him. I admired her attitude even in her anguish.

I remembered similarly drawing strength from my faith during raw, early mourning. My absolute knowledge of God’s love kept (keeps) me functioning. Yet I felt unconsoled and discomforted by those who tried to preach away my sorrow, as if they implied Godly love should negate — rather than enhance — my love-grief for my husband.

I nodded and listened. When she asked me to pray for her, I did. Promised to continue. I still do.

When she apologized for crying, I reassured her she need not. I acknowledged that tears of grief are tears of love. That as she mourned, she need not be ashamed of showing her love in that way.

When we parted, she knew another person outside her family cared about her bereavement.

When I got into my car, I cried for her and all the pain I know she has yet to face. (And I cried for myself as my body and soul felt again the raw pain and shock that enveloped my life six years earlier.)

A few days later, the Saturday morning skies loomed gray the day of the funeral. (As they were for my husband’s, six years earlier.)

Three steps inside the church hallway, my feet slowed. My hands shook. Lungs shrank.

PTSD threatened to do worse if I continued. Empathy insisted I proceed.

I could have turned around. Left the building. Driven away.

The funeral setting felt too familiar.

Like six years ago.

Again.

But it felt like few attended my husband’s funeral.

And I’d gained emotional strength from those who did show up.

And I’d gained physical strength from those who provided food for our family after the burial.

So, I stayed to offer what little support I could.

Despite the uplifting, sometimes hilarious anecdotes shared in the public celebration of this man’s life, and despite the beautiful, spirit-soothing music, my body recognized this was a family’s final, physical farewell to one they cherished.

During the service, I sometimes shook so hard I wrapped my wide scarf around my arms to hide them. My body insisted these traumatic triggers were mine to feel again now (and seemingly forever), but I didn’t wan’t to draw attention to myself.

It’s not about me, not this time. It’s not about me.

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

After the funeral, while the family and closest friends attended the graveside service, several women from two congregations prepared and set out platters of donated food. Sometimes I worked alongside the others in the kitchen. Sometimes I stepped away, seeking solace in solitude.

In the multipurpose cultural hall, empty chairs waited around linen-covered tables. On each stood a vase of cut flowers, also lovingly donated.

I thought about the exhausted relief and despair and closure and uncertainty I felt after my own husband’s funeral. How feeding myself had felt irrelevant until then, but feeding my extended, gathered family after this event became both impossible and essential — and I couldn’t have done it without my church sisters stepping in and caring for us all …

… as my church sisters and I were now doing. When this grieving family returned, we had a buffet large enough to feed the extensive group.

I watched their expressions — grief, relief, exhaustion, hunger, shock, sorrow, fatigue, appreciation — and remembered seeing the same on the faces of my family six years earlier. Many expressed heartfelt gratitude.

Did I thank the women who served my family following my husband’s burial? I’d like to think I did, but much of that day blurs in memory — it’s possible I didn’t. (If so, I’m sorry. Belated thanks to you all, whoever you were that day.)

It would have been easier — emotionally and physically — to leave before the service or not show up at all. But empathy, as painful as it can be, is a wise leader when interacting with the bereaved.

When you have the chance to step forward to comfort your grieving friend, listen. Listen to your friend. Even if it hurts, because it’s not about you.

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at soon after your friends’ loved ones died, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends may need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months.

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did not know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For friends approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

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(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)