What to Say to a Widow or Widower

When you learn a friend or co-worker is newly widowed, what do you say? What can you do?

Think first. 

Listen to widowed friends. TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

When you learn a friend or co-worker is widowed, reach out — and listen. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Are you rushing to say the first (clichéd) thing that pops into your mind?
    • Most trite sayings sting rather than soothe, but sincerity reaches hearts.
    • Avoid phrases like “in a better place” and “better off” in your attempts at consolation.
  • How will your words sound to the person grieving their life partner?
    • Are you offering validation of their pain and showing you recognize the unique nature of their loss? Great. Proceed.
    • Or are you rushing to minimize the loss in the misplaced hope of making the mourner feel better? Think again.
    • Avoid saying “at least” about anything related to the death or what preceded it.
  • Are you adding to or draining from the strength of the bereaved?
    • Avoid asking, “How are you?” — because when acutely grieving, they’re not doing well enough to know how to answer — unless you’re tying the question to a solution for your friend (“How are you getting your family from the airport? May I pick them up for you?”).
    • Avoid asking, “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?” Most mourners are too overwhelmed by grief to know.
  • Neither blame nor shame the bereaved or the deceased.
    • This isn’t the time to lecture suicide survivors about mental health issues.
    • This is not the time to say the person who died should have known better than to smoke or to drink and drive or to cross the street or to neglect regular checkups or to eat as they did …
    • This is not the time to blame the now dead firefighter, policeman, or military service person for choosing that profession.
  • Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about reaching out in support of your friend, co-worker, or relative who’s mourning.
    • It’s helpful to remember your own losses and how they made you feel, but never compare your loss to the bereaved unless you’re doing so in a way that validates theirs.
      • I found it comforting when older widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it would be like to still be raising children as a widow. It was hard enough with mine already grown. Bless you.”
      • And it felt validating when younger widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be widowed after 24 years. It was hard enough for me after our 12 years together. I’m so sorry.”

Speak up next.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.” (Follow this up by being there.)
  • “I want to help, but I don’t know how, so may I come sit with you in the meantime?”
  • “May I do this [specific task] for you?”
  • “I will miss him [or her] too, though I know you’re hurting much more.”
  • “I wish you had more time with [speak the name of the deceased].”
  • “I’d love to hear more about [speak the name of the deceased] when you feel like talking.”
  • “I’m sorry.” (Yes, I repeated this, and it’s okay for you to repeat it too.)

And act.

  • Do (or send) practical help: pull weeds, shovel snow, bring food, pick up dry cleaning, tend children, make phone calls, wash dishes or laundry (BUT do NOT touch items belonging to or last used by the deceased without first getting explicit permission from the mourning, widowed partner) …
  • Follow up. If you promised to check in next week, do it. If you offered to have lunch together, set it up and don’t back out. If you mentioned a book you found helpful when you were grieving a similar loss, and if your mourning, widowed friend seemed interested, bring a copy to him or her.
  • Set reminders. Offer support throughout the weeks and months following the death. Note significant dates in your calendar (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, diagnosis dates, etc.), and let your friends know you’re thinking of them as those dates approach.
  • Don’t take it personally if grieving friends don’t return messages or phone calls. Sometimes grief is too overwhelming for such seemingly simple tasks.

Repeat.

When friends are grieving, they get to decide what is helpful or what is offensive. Again, it’s not about you. If they say you’ve done something hurtful, own it. Apologize rather than defending yourself, and do better in the future. (And be proud of yourself for reaching out despite the discomfort of acknowledging death and loss. Thanks for reaching out to your friends.)

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

___

*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

The Seven-Year Glitch: When Grieving Gets Easier

It — That Day — snuck up on me this year. Granted, I’ve had a lot on my mind the last month:

Teresa TL Bruce, newborn, baby hat, teal glasses, TealAshes.com, teal blanket with flowers

My New Granddaughter and Her Teal-Wearing Grandma (family photo, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Waiting for the birth of my first grandchild in another state
  • Helping my daughter recover from the birth of her daughter
  • Rushing home to prepare my house for Hurricane Irma’s attack on my state
  • Cleaning up after Irma smacked Florida up one side, across the middle, and up the other side as well
  • Juggling the usual stuff — editing, writing, paying bills, tending to family needs …

    Free Irma Souvenirs sign, branches, hurricane Irma, TealAshes.com

    Some residents displayed humor in the aftermath of massive cleanup following Hurricane Irma. In worse-hit areas, there’s not much to laugh about as residents try to reassemble their lives. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So it makes sense that I felt distracted while attempting to work last week. I missed my precious baby granddaughter (and her parents) while I dealt with Irma issues. Even so, I’m usually better able to tune out distractions while polishing prose — whether my clients’ or my own.

As that long, long week drew to an end, realization hit me. All at once, I understood what kept my attention blowing aside, why my mind felt muddled, where the eye of my inner storm hit a wall:

In a handful of days I would complete my seventh year as a widow. I once again faced the anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death.

Odd and disrespectful as it sounds to admit this, I laughed when I recognized how few days remained before this year’s deathiversary. (Yes, I know that sounds awful!)

But I couldn’t help it. In fact, I felt almost giddy. (That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?)

That the date snuck up on me felt like a victory of sorts. This year, I’d finally functioned (reasonably well) through the early days of September. Mild distraction — easily attributed to gratitude and gladness over becoming a grandmother as well as the harried hurry of hurricane hassles — proved a gazillion times better than the overarching, insurmountable, emotional maelstroms of previous Septembers.

I remember the acute pain of new, raw grief: Loss hollowed my gut and battered my brain. Sleep channeled nightmares instead of rest, and waking meant the worst nightmare was real. Simple, familiar tasks required impossible concentration and dexterity. Memory melted. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think. Didn’t want to exist.

People tried to rush me through the grief. “Don’t worry. You’ll feel better in time.” But in that new grief I didn’t need to be told my life-changing loss didn’t matter. The best consolation came from those whose honesty acknowledged my life would never be the same. I needed to hear that the devastation I felt made sense.

But I also heard hope — hope I couldn’t yet believe but needed anyway — from other widows (and widowers) who’d lost their spouses longer ago than I had. I felt validated when they said things like, “It’s okay that you’re falling apart” — and I really had fallen apart at the time — “because this is the worst thing that could have happened.”

Or they’d caution me by saying, “Sometimes it might feel even worse than it does right now, but it won’t always feel this bad.”

Then I asked the naive question only someone desperate not to feel so awful will plead: How long? How long will this grief tear me up? How long until I feel like myself again?

Their experienced, widowed answers varied, but they ran along similar, appalling, prophetic lines: Three years. Five years. Seven years.

It seemed impossible to survive with grief’s ache for three hours at at time, much less three years. But their frankness assured me it was okay that I didn’t “bounce back” right away (despite other folks’ well-meaning, ill-informed attempts to urge me to “get over” my mourning).

Time and experience certified their counsel as reliable. Starting over takes time — emotionally, physically, financially, socially — and learning to live onward after the death of a loved one requires starting over. At my husband’s three- and five-year angelversaries, I knew I still had a long way to go, but I could see how much progress I’d also made.

Now, heading into the completion of year seven and the beginning of year eight, I more than see that progress — I feel it.

No doubt there will be setbacks. Life and love and grief are built that way.

And I might yet want need to dive into a carton of Publix Chocolate Trinity on the day before and the day of his death, if any of the local stores have started receiving ice cream in their post-Irma shipments again, that is. (See Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle for more about this yummy flavor.)

But today … today I’m feeling fine. And that’s a good sign.

I laughed again while I typed the lines just above. In the background, I heard this song by The Piano Guys with Sir Cliff Richard. A  few years ago, maybe even last year, I wouldn’t have believed the words these great artists sang. Back then, I couldn’t, but now, I do believe “It’s Gonna Be Okay.” 

 

 

 

Grief, Guilt, and Hurricanes

Almost a year ago, I posted about getting ready for Hurricane Matthew in Grief Before and After the Storm. Now Hurricane Irma’s bullying her way toward swallowing my state.

empty battery shelf, TealAshes.com

Batteries were in short supply before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

With Irma following so closely on the horrible heels of Harvey, people in Central Florida took this storm’s approach seriously.  Usually, by the time most folks start preparing — a day or two before a hurricane — supplies become scarce. I went to the store Wednesday to freshen my supplies (read: to buy chocolate-covered cookies and Cheetos) and stopped by a few aisles just to see how they looked in advance of Sunday afternoon’s anticipated rough weather. As you can see by my photos, options were already limited.

It’s awful to admit I smiled when I saw the emptied shelves — not that I felt happy the supplies were gone. Far from it. Many people still needed essential items, and I hadn’t a clue whether they’d be able to find them elsewhere. A part of me even felt guilty that I’d tucked them away months ago when hurricane season began. (I used to teach emergency preparation seminars at public and private events around our area; I generally keep necessary emergency kit items current.)

empty flashlight shelves, empty lantern aisle, prehurricane, tealashes.com

Anyone who waited until four days before Irma’s arrival to purchase flashlights at this store might be spending many hours in the dark (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

I sighed with relief that so many of my fellow residents weren’t waiting until the last minute this time.

Once-upon-a-lifetime ago — my husband’s lifetime, to be precise — I was active in my neighborhood CERT program*. I even got licensed to operate ham radio so I could check in with others in the event of phone failures.

But the first time I tried to reconnect with my CERT peers after my husband died, the triage refresher course cut too deeply. I shook as the instructor stressed the potential for “life over limb” decisions that offered “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

I couldn’t handle the reminder that sometimes you can’t save people no matter how hard you try. That I couldn’t save my husband no matter how hard I’d tried. That despite my training and efforts, he died.

It took years to forgive myself for failing him. My inability to save him left me as empty as the bottled water aisle before Irma.

Hindsight (and seven years) tells me it wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could.

empty water aisle, pre-Irma, pre-hurricane

The bottled water aisle emptied quickly before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Now, as all of Florida holds it breath in the hours and days to come, I’m again telling myself I’ve done everything I could to make ready for this storm. Whatever Irma brings, it’s no one’s fault.

(Yet that didn’t stop me from grumbling at my late husband while sandbagging and hauling things into place. Was my anger logical? Of course not. But neither is grief.)

___

*CERT — Community Emergency Response Team — a great program in which private citizens receive training to help their neighbors in emergencies

What to Say to Grieving Parents after a Child Dies

Parents mourn their lost babes of every age. Whether children died in utero or during infancy, whether they perished as toddlers or tweens or teens,  or whether death took them by surprise accident in young adulthood or inch-at-a-time illness in middle age, they died out of order. As humans, we’re wired to expect that children won’t die before parents, so when it happens, it’s unthinkably cruel, indescribably painful.

If you’ve wondered how to console friends who’ve lost a son or daughter, bless you. Too often, bereaved parents lament over deepened, inflicted pain from ill-thought comments. Or, when grieving parents most need support, they feel the added ache of uncomfortable, abandoned absence from those who avoid them.

I’ve not suffered the death of a child, although I’ve witnessed friends in such agony. I’ve listened to them and sat with them in their losses. But seeing and hearing and sitting isn’t knowing. Empathy extends only so far.*

Here’s what my friends have taught me as they’ve grieved their dear children’s deaths: 

weeping photo, cemetery, Babyland, grief, TealAshes.com

“Weeping Angel in Cemetery’s Babyland” (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You can’t fix grieving parents’ pain, but you can avoid worsening it.

  • Don’t tell bereaved parents “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand.” You don’t.
    • Losing your loved one may have introduced you to the pain of grief — and it’s good for you to remember that pain to help you attempt to empathize — but your loss didn’t teach you the intimate rending of self that happened to your grieving friends when their child died.
    • Few bereaved parents tell other grieving parents they know how the others feel — even if their losses seem similar. (Some might remember how they felt when they lost their own child while acknowledging the deep, unique, rawness of the newly mourning parents’ pain.)
  • Stop saying “at least” in any context. There’s nothing “least” about the loss of a child.
    • “At least” minimizes the significance of the loss, which grieving friends need validated and acknowledged, not diminished.
    • This includes not saying “at least your child lived x long …” or “at least your child won’t have to …” or “at least you have faith in the hereafter …” or “at least” anything.
  • Allow grieving parents the right to express (or not express) their faith in their own terms. Friends who believe in hereafter reunions with their beloved children nevertheless agonize over their here-and-now separation until then. (Those who preach or sermonize at them often counteract the comfort they intend to convey.)
  • Never suggest how “lucky” the parents are they won’t have to endure the hard parts of parenting their deceased child. They would gladly endure sleepless nights, endless diapering, terrible twos tantrums, teen angst, college costs, and every other parenting so-called hardship with their beloved child.
  • Never speak of replacing the deceased son or daughter. Loved ones aren’t replaceable.
  • Avoid telling mourning parents they “should” anything.
    • Not how they should …
    • Not what they should …
    • Not when they should …
    • Not why they should …
    • Their loss requires their timing and readiness and processing and coping and surviving.
    • Only they will know when they are capable of accomplishing more than breathing — which will be hard enough for months.
  • Avoid asking “How are you?”
    • It’s impossible to answer. Grief hurts too much. It’s in every cell. It overwhelms and overrides.
    • “Hello” works as a greeting. “How’re you doing?” does not.
    • If you catch yourself uttering the habitual “How are — ” turn it into “How glad I am to see you.”

You can offer increased support to your grieving friends by saying:

  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’m here.”
  • “Would you like to tell me about [speak the name of the deceased child]?”
  • “When you feel up to it, I’d love to share some of my favorite memories (or photos) of [name the child who died] with you.”
  • “It’s okay to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong.”
    • Telling bereaved parents they have to be strong (for each other, for other children, etc.) only reinforces how weakened and fractured they feel. Let them know you and others are there to pick up the pieces they can’t lift.
  • Acknowledge that mourning hurts without claiming you know how your friends feel. Acknowledging grief’s powerful, painful paralysis validates your friends’ pain.
  • “I know grieving hurts and saps your strength. Please let me ___ for you.”
    • Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help with anything,” be precise. Fill in the blank with specific tasks or services you can render for your friend.
    • Say: Please let me …
      • … bring you a drink of water, an aspirin, a soda …
      • … take your other kids to the park, out for ice cream, to buy funeral outfits, to school …
      • … walk your dog, clean cages or litter boxes, gather eggs, groom horses …
      • … breathe alongside you, take a walk with you, drive you to …
      • … call funeral homes, come to the cemetery, house- or pet-sit during the funeral …
      • … make phone calls to friends, family, employers, creditors  …
      • … mow the lawn, weed and water the garden, shovel the sidewalk, sweep the porch …
      • … fill the gas tank, check the tires, drive to the airport to pick up or take back family …
      • … bring a meal or a snack [where culture and tradition permits] …
      • … take you to lunch or bring you to my house for dinner …
      • … cover your mirrors [for those who sit shiva] …
      • … wash dishes, make beds, vacuum floors, wash windows, clean bathrooms, do laundry …
        • However, please DO NOT TOUCH anything belonging to the deceased child without explicit permission to do so. Parents (and siblings) might need to see the bed left a mess or smell their child’s scent on a dirty shirt or keep a tower of blocks in chaotic disarray where they last fell.

You can also offer comfort to grieving families through these actions:

  • Follow through on the activities you offered to do in the list above.
  • Listen to your bereaved friends — parents, grandparents, siblings, and other kin to the child who died. All are hurting. All need the safety of being able to vent without being judged or disciplined for expressing their emotions.
  • Mark the child’s birth and death dates in your calendar, and then …
    • A month before, a week before, and the day of, let your friends know you’re aware of their child’s upcoming birthday.
    • During the first year (and beyond), be aware that most bereaved parents dread the death date’s day of the month every month as it ticks off another milestone of their child’s absence.
    • Let your friends know you are thinking of, praying for, and hurting for them — and remembering their absent child — around these dates, especially near the sixth-month and annual death dates. The death anniversary will be difficult. Reach out.
    • Feelings will also be tender near the start and end of the school year when your friends will continue to be aware of what grade level their child would have entered or graduated from. Reach out in acknowledging support.
    • Repeat every year — unless your friends ask you not to bring it up anymore. Respect their wishes while continuing to reach out in nonspecific, loving support.
  • Listen again.
  • Listen later.
  • Listen longer.
  • Listen in silence.
  • Listen over the phone.
  • Listen in person.

Cut mourning parents some slack if they ignore phone calls, bail on social engagements, or don’t seem like themselves. They aren’t themselves anymore. Part of their self-identity (as Son‘s Mom or Daughter‘s Dad) was shattered.

  • They are still parents to their deceased child — and always will be — but will never again have the opportunity to physically parent that beloved child. That’s not something anyone “gets over.” Ever.
  • In time — much, much time — and with understanding support, your friends will eventually learn how to live onward again despite their grief.**

If you have children the same age as your friends’ deceased child, be aware that bereaved parents might seek more interaction with you and your family — or less. Continue reaching out either way.

And listen.

___

*Please forgive me, my dear friends who’ve mourned children, if I’ve tread on tender feelings or gotten this wrong. You’ve taught me more about endurance and living with loss than I’ve learned on my own, and my intention is to honor the grief you’ve borne for the children you’ve lost and continue to love.

**The title of my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them, came to mind as I wrote of living “onward again.” I’d planned to type “move forward,” but her better word landed at my fingertips instead.