Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.

 

 

 

 

A Widow’s Thoughts on Father’s Day … and Star Trek

I’ve written and discarded more than a handful of pre-Father’s Day posts this year.* Early attempts gushed, dripping with enough emotion to make the Enterprise‘s empathic Counselor Deanna Troi  seem unfeeling. Later drafts evoked so little sentiment they could have been dictated by the most stoic members of the Vulcan High Command.

You might be asking, why the Star Trek references on a grief website about Father’s Day?

My three daughters — my next generation — grew up with the sounds and culture of Star Trek in our home. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com.)

I introduced my late husband to Gene Roddenberry’s world(s), and over the years he learned to love Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation as much as I did. (Well, almost, anyway.) The Next Generation debuted weeks before the birth of our first child, and he watched (at first) only to placate his very pregnant wife. It’s the series I most associate with him becoming a new father.

A few years (read: show seasons) later, I went into labor with our second child (during the first commercial break) while watching a new episode. I hid my increasing discomfort (read: pain and silent attempts at Lamaze breathing) until the end of that hour. I knew he and my mother (who’d come to help with the baby) would insist I hurry to the hospital the second they realized I was having contractions — but first, I had to see how The Next Generation episode ended! (Besides, the contractions started at twelve minutes apart. When they soon skipped to five, I couldn’t exactly call the doctor as instructed at seven minutes apart, could I?) Better to wait until the end of the show …

In early grief, I wished I could click a magic device and say, “Beam me up.” (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

In these days of DVDs and streaming, its easy to binge-watch not just one installment but all the Star Trek spin-off series. Yet, in the nearly seven years since my husband died, I’ve probably seen fewer than seven episodes of the seven hundred-some spanning six series not to mention the movies. It took time to win my husband over to the sci fi shows, and it has taken time to win me back to that shared interest.

Grief takes time. Lots and lots of time. Moving forward with everyday life while mourning happens only one step — sometimes one inch — at a time. (So, please, be patient with your grieving friends.)

During the first couple of years after my husband died, sometimes I wanted to say, “Beam me up, please,” but I knew my children, my dad, and my dog needed me (not always in that order).

As it was, grief stresses kept me on 24-7 red alert: single parenting, mourning, shifted family resources, altered finances, revamped career moves, overturned short- and long-term plans, sleeping, eating, paying bills, doing home maintenance … Those around me may not have seen the red strobes flashing behind my eyelids, and they may not have heard the sirens blaring in my ears, but my body and brain could not turn them off. Relentless fight-or-flight feelings brought on by bereavement drained my reserves at warp speed.

The future — the unplanned-for future without my husband — seemed vast, cold, and dark as I explored the “strange, new world” of widowhood.

I feel more upbeat about this Father’s Day than I have in years. Maybe it’s just easier this seventh year. More likely, it’s because I’m about to enter a new frontier of my own as the cast and crew of my family expands to include our next generation — my first grandchild.

The original crew of the Enterprise expanded into multiple series — not counting the red-shirted extras. (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

Do I still miss my husband and grieve over him? Yes. Will there be moments of sadness in Father’s Days to come when his grandchild grows up without ever meeting him? Doubly yes. Will I fall apart at church on Sunday when the children sing to their fathers? Yes, yes, and yes.

But I think (and hope) I’ll shed fewer tears this year.  Even as I “boldly go where no” husband of mine has gone before … from widowhood into grandparenthood.
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* For specific things to do for and say to someone grieving this Father’s Day, please see Another Father’s Day — DANG IT!

(A few years ago I also wrote Father’s Day Non-Scents for the Segullah.org blog.)

First Anniversary of Grief after Pulse Shootings

One year ago, June 12, 2016, a man with evil, hateful intent entered Pulse nightclub in my Orlando hometown and shot into the crowd of innocent friends and family members enjoying a night of dancing. Of the many he struck down that night, 49 never rose again.

In the weeks and months following that cowardly assault, local manifestations of support showed humankind at its best: Donations poured into the OneOrlando Fund for the shooting victims and their families. Murals, T-shirts, and business markees displayed messages of encouragement and unity. Scholarships honored the memories of the fallen. Neighbors stood alongside strangers in solidarity while acknowledging differences.

Painting outside Orlando’s Zebra Coalition honors the 49 who died in the Pulse shooting (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Media coverage — initially 24-7 — ebbed over the year but has resurged as we’ve approached the first anniversary.  Much has been tasteful and sensitive, though I observed one broadcaster recently say something that revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about grief: “As the anniversary approaches,” the person said, “it may even be possible some Pulse families and survivors will feel upset again.”  (I’ve written that in quotes, but I paraphrased the actual words to avoid embarrassing the speaker.)

One fallacy of that statement is the implication that mourners might be upset again about their loved ones’ deaths — as if they’d had ample time to no longer be upset about it. But grieving, adjusting, and building new lives takes much, much longer than a mere 12 months. Even when, eventually, surviving loved ones manage to move forward in life without the deceased present in their lives, the absence will remain present and painful in survivors’ hearts.

The other fallacy in that well-meaning newscaster’s statement assumed that some Pulse families (and therefore not all) will find the first anniversary difficult.  From the thousands of mourners I’ve interacted with, all expressed increased anxiety, sorrow, anger, irritability, and longing for their deceased loved ones in the days leading toward the first anniversary after death. All. Even among those whose deaths were peaceful and anticipated, the first anniversary brought with it more pain than resolution. Where death occurred via such senseless, hate-infused violence as was inflicted at Pulse, mourners’ minds and bodies especially rebel at reliving the date when their loved ones died.

With rare exceptions, grieving individuals and families find reaching the first anniversary of a loved one’s death offers an elusive, hoped-for, impossible, unfulfilled promise of relief from the bitter agony of bereavement. The hope is that if one makes it through that horrendous first year, one will be okay from then on. 

The reality comes as an aftershock when the bereaved realize the beginning of the second year often brings renewed heartache and struggles in coping. Compounding the difficulty is the perception — and assertion — by friends and coworkers that mourners should be better by now or get on with their lives already. (If you hear such thoughts trying to work themselves into your words, erase them!)

For soul mates and partners, parents and siblings, cousins and other kin (by blood or law or choice), when it comes to the first year, grieving will never be one and done. Neither should the support and encouragement we offer, which should remain ongoing for as long as the loved ones are missed.

In other words, it’s never too late to let survivors know you are aware of their loss, and it’s never too late to show you care.

Full width of painting outside Zebra Coalition (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)