Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

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

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old 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 those 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 aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

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

Bereavement and the Post-Holiday Blues

After the holidays, when parties are over and visitors have stopped dropping in, someone who has recently lost a loved one may face new lows of loneliness. While some may find the new year an open gateway to a fresh start, others may find it a slammed door of separation from shared experiences and future dreams with their deceased dear ones. For some, the post-holiday blues may reflect the bereavement faced not long after a death.

How long has it been since your friend’s life changed forever? A few days? A couple of weeks? Half a year?

In the beginning, a newly grieving, raw-hearted mourner may be nearly as overwhelmed by outpourings of support as by the loss itself. Picture a parched child trying to sip from an open fire hose. The analogy is imperfect, but I hope it conveys the idea. By all means,  do offer your support and your presence! (But be understanding if your friend “backs away” at first — or even after repeated gestures on your part.)

Later, the initial shock of death wears off and day-to-day realizations and adjustment difficulties set in.  Sadly, as friends and loved ones return to their “normal” lives, their life-sustaining (though drenching) support often wanes to a trickle. Picture the same open-mouthed child now waiting beneath a stalactite for quenching water — one drop at a time. The mourning soul still thirsts, but expected sources of hydration have all but dried up.

Just as the post-holiday ebb of socializing may leave you feeling the loss of interaction with your friends and coworkers as your life gets back to “business as usual,” the decrease in holiday-minded activities can usher in a newly darkened period of social “dehydration” for those in mourning.

Here are some ways you can offer life-sustaining, soul-quenching “water” (in manageable quantities) to your friend whose loved one died:

  • Acknowledge the absence. (“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re missing her today.”) I appreciated (and still do appreciate!) expressions of acknowledgement.
  • Be dependable. (If you say you’ll call Friday at at 8:00 p.m., be sure you call Friday at 8:00 p.m. — no matter what.) When everything in my life seemed upside down, having friends follow through on promises kept me anchored.
  • Invite interaction. (It doesn’t matter whether you ask your grieving friend over to play with your new holiday pet, meet for lunch, or take a walk around the block, as long as you act to include him or her.) I turned down far more invitations than I accepted, but I needed to hear each one — even those I wasn’t able to accept.
  • Think about your friend — and share that you’ve thought it! (Text, private message, email, write, call, or speak face-to-face to say, “You’re in my thoughts,” or “Thinking of you today.”) You may think it silly to send such simple words, but it’s not! Your message doesn’t have to be eloquent. Just heartfelt.