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.

 

Anniversary after Death

Death anniversaries and widowed wedding anniversaries have a lot in common. One of the best ways to help grieving friends through both is by letting them know you’re aware of their pain.

What to Say When Someone Dies

Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.

My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)

Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:

  1. It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
  2. It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.

The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).

If you’re wondering whether…

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One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle

I cried over a carton of ice cream. Not while eating a carton — or even a scoop. I cried about a carton of ice cream.

Chocolate Trinity promised to be my grief comfort food (TealAshes.com).

(Yes, my dog eats more carrots than my daughter and I do.)

I cried because I couldn’t find it.  Standing in the middle of the frozen food aisle, my eyes welled up, my nose ran, and my throat got all cry-choke-y. Was it too much to ask the store to have a carton of Chocolate Trinity in stock? It was the only item I wanted for myself when I drove my daughter there.

I’m not usually one to complain, but Publix policy seems to prompt every cashier to ask, “Did you find everything?” I’d never before admitted shopping-list defeat, but as I dried my eyes and sulked my way to the front of the store, I decided this time I’d speak up. The moment someone asked, I’d let my red-rimmed eyes make my petition seem more pathetic: No, I did not find everything I wanted. The only thing I wanted was Chocolate Trinity. And there wasn’t any.

I’m not sure what good I expected it to do. After all, Mom always taught me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” — not that  she could explain why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place — and I’ve tried to follow that approach with people.

For the first time ever in my years of going “Where Shopping Is a Pleasure,” the cashier didn’t ask whether I found everything. Since she didn’t bring it up, I couldn’t. When she bid me a good night, I forced a plastic smile and polite nod, expressions I donned often in the early days after my husband died.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous even to me, but I cried a bit more in the parking lot.  I sniffled while driving home. While unloading the car. And yet again while not putting away the Chocolate Trinity I didn’t get to buy.

Looking back on my ice cream mini meltdown, I realize it wasn’t  the missing ice cream that hurled me into distress at the drop of a hat — er, drop of a flavor. It was the loss — the tiny, little loss — that amplified the grief behind the reason I wanted that Chocolate Trinity.

July is one of my grief minefield months, and I wanted ice cream — that ice cream — as a grief-trigger comfort food.*  When I searched every shelf of that frozen food aisle and looked behind every container but found nary a single carton of the one I wanted, it meant I found no comfort.

My husband died nearly seven years ago. I seldom cry over his death now — after years — but sometimes it still gets to me. Times like the approach of my wedding anniversary. Times when I’m briefly stirred back inside the newly bereaved, cry-without-warning emotions of the first year and a half (or more) of new widowhood.

When grief is raw, grocery shopping hurts. Everyday reminders of the loved one’s favorite foods make meal planning and cooking difficult. It’s hard enough when your body is mourning to remember you need to eat without seeing reminders that your deceased dear ones no longer eat anything.

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

When grief triggers a desire for comfort food, ice cream is ice cream — but vanilla isn’t Chocolate Trinity. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

In Grief and Groceries, Part 1, I shared why it’s so helpful to bring a family food before (and after) a funeral. For a list of specific, food-related ways to offer condolence and comfort to your friends after a death, please see Grief and Groceries, Part 2.

As for me, I’ll have to make do with vanilla. For now.

___

*After my mother’s death, my comfort food of choice was chicken-broccoli-rice casserole — her recipe for chicken-broccoli rice casserole. Is the ice cream I wanted a healthy coping device? Of course not, though I could make an argument that it’s less harmful than some.

 

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.

___

*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.