Friends and Grief

“Your address book will change,” another widow told me.

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends' address books? (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends’ address books?
(photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

“What do you mean?”

“Some of the people you thought would always be there for you … won’t. They’ll disappear.”

My mind replayed one of the most-heard phrases at and after the funeral: “Call if you need anything.” I’d known the people saying it meant the sentiment (or at least thought they did). But while I nodded acknowledgement of their intention, I also knew — really knew — I wouldn’t call. I couldn’t.

“It’s not their fault,” I told my widow friend. “They’d be here if I asked.”

As if she read my mind, she said, “And how many have you asked?”

My silence answered.

“I get it,” she said. “As much as you need people around you, it’s physically and emotionally impossible to reach out to gather them to you. It takes every bit of energy just to muster the have-to calls for paying the bills and tending to all the business-of-death matters.”

“You mean it’s not just me?” I’d thought I was especially weak and inept at dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s death.

“Teresa, it’s hard for everybody,” she said, “but this is still early for you.  I don’t know anybody who could call people back if they needed anything so soon. It took me a couple of years. You’re only a couple months out, still in shock.”

Two months, one week, and three days, I corrected in my head, incapable of turning off the infernal count ticking off the time since he died. “It seems like it’s been forever, but it also feels like it just happened.”

“Have any of your friends tried to make you feel like you should be ‘over it’ by now?”

Frustrating memories surfaced: The first time (a whole 36 hours after he died) when someone said, “Don’t worry about anything. You’re young enough to remarry.” The people who (the day of the funeral) pressed to know what my immediate, short-term, and long-term future plans were now. The woman who (about six weeks after he died) insisted, “I wish you wouldn’t cry anymore. I makes me feel sad to see your tears.” (To her credit, she apologized soon after.)

“After the funeral,” my widow friend continued, “your friends’  lives went back to normal. But yours will never be the way it was before. They can’t understand, not unless they’ve also lost someone as much a part of your life as your husband was to you. They’re not trying to shut you out. They’re just … getting on with their lives.”

I nodded. I’d learned to scroll past friends’ status updates about sweet marital bliss — or stupid squabbles — that sliced and salted my grief. How unfair. Don’t they know they should be grateful for what they still have? But it still hurt to see illustrations that “life went on” for them when it hadn’t for me. (Side note: Never say “life goes on” to anyone grieving. Just don’t.)

“And then there are the ones who step away because they’re too uncomfortable around your pain.”

I let out a brief, one-syllable bark-laugh, thinking of the neighbor who instead of waving hello now turned away at the sight of me.

“But you’re going to make some amazing new friends, too. And there will be people you didn’t know well who will reach out with compassion that makes up for the others’ neglect.”

“You’re right.” I smiled and nodded at thoughts of those who’d reached out, people I’d known only casually before: A note card in the mail. Text check-ins. Dinners (or desserts) dropped off. Emails. His angelversary date acknowledged. 

I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since. It reminded me of a song round I learned as a Girl Scout:

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

Dear new friends have shown up and written themselves into my life’s address book in gold and silver inks during the five-plus years since my husband died. My life now is richer for knowing them.

Among my friends who mourn, I understand why some have erased entries from their contacts. Rejection and neglect are painful at any stage of life, but they are brutal while grieving. If a trusted friend criticizes or ignores your bereavement, why continue to rely on them?

For my part, I didn’t trust my own grief-shrouded judgement enough to erase the time-worn entries from my contacts. Even when I was too wounded to reach out to them. Meanwhile, those who didn’t ink themselves into my widowed life have faded: gold to silver to ink to pencil.

In future, who knows? Maybe one of those barely legible names will tell me a story of my husband or let one of my kids know they remember their dad. If so, the faded lines will become traced over, easier to distinguish.

Even if they don’t ink themselves back into my treasured contacts, I’ll keep them written there.  If I could rewrite the world to exclude grief, I would. But I can’t. So I’ll try to remember when faded contacts’ time comes to join the ranks of those who “get” grief.

I’ll try to reach out, because there’s no such thing as too many friends — even faded, friendly acquaintances — when you’re grieving.

 

 

Wedding Anniversary and Grief

When my husband died, our wedding anniversary was forever changed. The looked-forward-to date that used to celebrate the joining of our two lives became a date I dreaded. It was another sharp reminder that the man I’d shared my life with would no longer be part of our future plans, that the father of my children — the only person who knew and loved them as much (and as well) as I did — was gone.

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Wedding anniversaries have been on my mind a lot lately. One of my daughters recently married — a joyous occasion!– and my own 30th anniversary is approaching.

So when Shellie posted this comment (see Anniversary after Death) …

My father-in-law passed away March 31 and this June would have been my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary. I want to acknowledge the day, but I am unsure what would bring my mother-in-law any peace or happiness on this difficult day (I feel I should have some kind of idea since my husband and I have lost two children but a wedding anniversary is completely different, and I am at a loss), any advice would be greatly appreciated.

… I had to give more than a brief reply.

Shellie, I hope you’ll forgive my turning your request into a public post. (Everyone else, I hope you’ll forgive me for addressing the rest of this post directly to her.)

I’m sorry for the loss of your father-in-law. I remember how it felt to me (and still feels) after my father-in-law passed, but I can only begin to imagine how much harder it must be for you while also feeling for your husband in his grief. (My late husband passed before his father.)  And I’m deeply sorry to learn that two of your children have died. That’s a degree of loss I cannot fathom.

But I can speak as a widow. Thank you for already looking for ways to reach out to your mother-in-law as her anniversary approaches. You are right that “a wedding anniversary is completely different,” but loss is loss.

Chances are, the kinds of things your friends and family say or do that have brought you peace after your children’s deaths (as much semblance of peace as is possible) are the same kinds of things your mother-in-law needs from you.

Keep in mind, though, that whereas you and your husband share the devastating loss of your two children, your mother-in-law now shares her wedding anniversary with no one.

love is the richness people find as they share in each other's lives

It’s possible the days leading up to the date may be as difficult for her as the day itself. With her loss so recent, “peace or happiness” may or may not be yet within her ability to appreciate while shock is still ever-present.

You’ve already expressed your desire to acknowledge the day, and that’s one of the best things you can do. Let her know ahead that you’re aware the anniversary is coming. Let her know you realize it will be a difficult, emotional day. If you live near enough to be with her in person, be there. Regardless of your distance or proximity, send her a card or handwritten note that will arrive on (or before) the anniversary. (“Thinking of you on your anniversary” is a better greeting choice than “Happy anniversary.”)

Above all, listen to her.

If she says she needs space or solitude, respect whatever boundaries she expresses, but keep communication open. (So far, solitude is what I’ve most wanted on my widowed anniversaries, but not everyone feels as I do.) If your mother-in-law says she wants to spend the day by herself, be sure you call to let her know you’re still available if she changes her mind.

Ask if she has ways she’d like to remember or reminisce on that day — IF she wants to discuss them. For some newly widowed, sharing memories is a comforting, healing process. For others, it’s too painful for a while. Again, listen to what she says.

Your mother-in-law might be too overwhelmed by grief to initiate suggestions, so consider offering ideas. Suggest a favorite (or new) restaurant with a friend, a quiet dinner with family, an afternoon involved in a favorite hobby, looking through old photo albums, reminiscing … The options will vary based on what you know of her and her late husband.

Some widows and widowers spend their anniversaries doing service activities in their late spouses’ memories or visiting places they once enjoyed together for old times’ sakes. I know others who spend their wedding anniversaries trying something new, just for themselves.

If your mother- and father-in-law made plans for how they would commemorate their golden anniversary, find out whether she wants to fulfill them (in whole or in part). Doing so might give her a sense of carrying his memory forward with her — or it may be too painful without him. (Again, listening to her is essential.)

Unless she requests it, a party is probably not something she will be up to this soon after his death. (I had difficulty mingling in public for most of the first year after my husband died — and at times it is still hard five and a half years later.) Avoid surprise parties. Emotions are too on the surface. Of the thousands of widows and widowers I’ve networked with, I have yet to hear of any appreciating surprise parties of any kind.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to help your mother-in-law through her 50th anniversary, Shellie, but you were already on the right track before you posted your comment. You already knew she needs acknowledgment that she and her husband spent half a century together.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

 

St. Patrick and the Green Grief Monster

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (or not) isn’t the same when you’re grieving. Nothing is. The day itself commemorates the death of Ireland’s patron saint — originally it was a religious observation. But in recent years its solemnity appears all but forgotten as popular culture makes it into a day for people to celebrate their Irish heritage (whether real or adapted for the day).

In my family, with Irish ancestors on both my side and my late husband’s side, our St. Patrick’s Days were all about the green. When our kids were little, I’d add green food coloring into milk, pancakes, cookie dough — whatever I could think of — just to infuse the day with a bit more color.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick's Days.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick’s Days. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

We wore green, of course, because nobody wanted to get pinched.

I made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for dinner. A few times I made Irish brown bread from a magazine or cookbook recipe.

And that was it — St. Patrick’s Day at our house.

After my husband died, memory and timekeeping did an agonizing push-pull dance.  For more than a year, I knew exactly how many days, weeks, and months had passed since his death. The awareness wasn’t something I tried to keep track of — it just was.

I also knew when holidays loomed ahead of me, but I backpedaled from them, dragging my feet as the calendar funneled me toward them. Maybe I thought if I didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t prepare for them, didn’t commemorate them … Maybe by ignoring those yearly occasions, I could avoid the pain of experiencing them without my husband.

I also felt guilty for the unwilling resentment I felt toward couples I saw enjoying such days together. I wanted to walk up to them and say, “Whatever you do, don’t take each other for granted. You’re together. Not everyone has that.”

I’d felt similar pangs of green-eyed jealousy after my mom died when I’d see grown daughters with their mothers. It was especially difficult at church, watching women I grew up with visiting home and spending that time with their moms. Of course I was happy for them, but it hurt that they had what I no longer did.

More than a few times, when I overheard women (of various ages) griping about their moms or snapping at them with harsh words at the store or a restaurant, I butted in — completely unbidden. “Excuse me,” I’d say. “You don’t know how long you get to have her in your life. When she’s gone you are going to regret acting like this.” Then I’d walk away. (I’ve tried to keep my own words in mind when interacting with my grown daughters. Every day together is precious.)

It hurt to remember my husband and my mother during holidays. It hurt worse when others didn’t acknowledge their absence during those same days.

Although it wasn’t my intention to walk around under a cloud of doom, I couldn’t help resenting well-intended “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” greetings, along with every other “happy this” or “happy that” greeting in the first couple of years after each new loss. Sure, I wanted to be happy, but I was mourning. And grief is not a  happy process.

The best support friends gave me during holidays, on anniversaries, and on other tender dates was to acknowledge my loss.

It may seem contradictory, but speaking of the deceased loved one can offer better cheer than saying “Have a happy [whatever] day.” Instead, tell your grieving friend something like, “I’m sure you’re missing [SAY the name!] today. I’m thinking of you.”

This is my sixth widowed St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no corned beef and cabbage on the menu, but I’ve made green milk and cookies again, and I no longer scowl when wished a “happy St. Patrick’s Day.” For now, that’s enough.

 

 

Valentine Loss — A Love Story

Donna and Owen were school sweethearts, but she wanted to be a missionary before she’d settle down to marry him.

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine's Day (Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine’s Day (family photo, ca. 1930, Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

As a young woman, she left her small-town Utah home to teach (and preach) as a volunteer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She traveled 2,000-plus miles to North Carolina, a state where few Mormons then lived. While serving the people there, Donna roomed in a home with three daughters near her age: Lala, Gertie, and Leone. At the end of her time in the South, Donna and her “Carolina sisters” half-joked that someday they’d introduce their future children to each other — and have them marry so they could become “real” family.

Donna went home and married Owen on Valentine’s Day.*

They built and ran a business together — an auto service center and motel — and brought three beloved children into the world. When their little ones were seven, five, and three, Owen went hunting in the mountains with friends and cousins for food for their families. An out-of-season blizzard stranded them. Only one returned.

Widowed Donna went back to school so she could earn a living to support her children. She taught elementary school and raised her sons and daughter. She became a principal and also worked for educational publisher Allyn & Bacon.

When her kids were grown, she taught English in Japan.

Eventually, Donna dated and married Wally, a widower with a young son — the bonus son whom she delighted in raising and claiming as her own. She later became the first woman to sit (and vote!) on her city council.

When Donna’s second son met Leone’s daughter at college, everyone later agreed it never would have worked if “the Carolina sisters” had orchestrated it as they once planned. (I’m glad it worked out for them, since Donna’s son and Leone’s daughter became my parents!)

I never knew my dad’s father, Grandpa Owen, but I liked the way Grandpa Wally spoke of him, though he never met Owen, either.

Donna and Wally had an unusual second marriage. They each had a sense of responsibility and accountability to the other’s long-dead love. They spoke of taking care of one another for the one who was absent — and also playfully “blamed” them for household mishaps (“Donna, Owen must have mislaid my book…” “Wally, Bertha must have let your dinner burn…”).

For the rest of their lives, Donna and Wally celebrated three wedding anniversaries every year: Donna and Wally’s, Wally’s and Bertha’s, and — on Valentine’s Day — Donna and Owen’s.

From her decades-later hindsight, she didn’t tell me about the hardship of losing her husband when their children were so young. She didn’t describe the loneliness of losing her mother (hit by a drunk driver) within a short time of becoming a widow. But I’d heard the stories.

In college I lived near Grandma Donna and Grandpa Wally. Whenever I mentioned going on a date, Grandma worried. “Don’t get serious with anyone until you have a way to earn your own living. You never know what’s going to happen.” However, the first time I mentioned my future husband’s name, she changed her script. “When are you bringing him to meet us?”

Whoa, I thought. Our courtship was still in early days; it gave me pause that instead of reminding me to keep my distance, Grandma Donna wanted to meet him.

Fast forward two and a half decades.

In my early days of widowhood, I yearned to ask Grandma the important things I needed to know:

Grandma, how did you get through it?

When your heart was ripped in half, how did you become the optimistic, faith-filled, compassionate person I knew and loved?

How did you raise your children to be that way, too?

Grandma, how can I get through it?

Valentine’s Day isn’t easy on anyone who has lost a loved one — to death or otherwise. Hearts ache over severed connections. When all the world (in the media, anyway) seems paired up in love, it can be easy to rename February 14 as Single Awareness Day or Sorrowing After Death Day; it can be a very SAD day.

The first few Valentine’s Days after my husband’s death hurt horribly. I did what I could to serve others who I knew were also sorrowing, but it didn’t alleviate my own sadness.

This is my sixth widowed Valentine’s Day, and I’m trying to view it more as my Grandma Donna’s wedding anniversary than as a day without my own husband.

Grandma Donna survived — and thrived — after widowhood.

Valentine's Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Valentine’s Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So will I.

(But I still wish I could ask how she did it.)

*For ways to help your grieving friends through this holiday (and others), please see Valentine Greetings for the Grieving.

Thanksgiving and Thanks-Grieving — Serving Mashed Gratitude with a Side of Grief

In previous years I wrote about grief and gratitude intermingling during Thanksgiving.* Whether someone died recently or long ago, the holiday season is forever altered for surviving family and friends.

For families who have lost loved ones within a few days, weeks, or even months, the shock of new grief might mask the sharpest pain of the first holiday season — or not.

The pain can be overwhelming. Getting through my first widowed Thanksgiving (only a couple of months after my husband’s unexpected death) was like waking up in a surgical recovery room. I was groggy with grief, unable to focus on anything but the faces of my family, too aware of the open wound where half my heart had been removed without my consent.

Our post-death holiday menu abstained from all things traditional. Instead of cooking favorite dishes, we went out to eat. Instead of verbalizing what we were grateful for as a family, I privately listed my many blessings in a notebook. Instead of putting up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving for the 25th year in a row, I forgot. (I even forgot we’d bought an artificial tree two years before he died.)  I forgot Christmas was coming.

Seasoning my every acknowledgement of personal gratitude was the GAPING HOLE of his absence. My husband — my children’s father — WAS NOT THERE … and would NEVER return.

Sometimes the pain of loss can be motivating; not every loss means all tradition must be avoided. Mom died two months before Thanksgiving a decade and a half earlier. (Yes, my husband’s death was the same time of year as my mother’s.) Our family did everything we could that first Thanksgiving and Christmas to serve up “sameness” — as much as was possible without her presence. (Though we did have her presents, sort of. She left behind — or more accurately purchased ahead — ornaments for her grandchildren.) Thanksgiving and Christmas were bittersweet commemorations (not exactly celebrations) that year; her sweet reminders and attitude of gratitude surrounded us, tempered by our distress and longing for her, softened and lightened by everyone’s anticipation of her third grandchild’s birth between the two holidays.

These examples from my household illustrate one of the most important things to remember if you want to support a bereaved friend or if you are yourself grieving: There is no “right” way to grieve, and (short of recklessly dangerous behaviors) there’s no “wrong” way to grieve, either.

Every loss is unique. Everyone’s journey of adjustment after a death takes its own time. Like people attending an all-day Thanksgiving buffet, no two plates of grief will hold identical quantities, and few will eat all their items in the same order or at the same time.

Let your friends know you’re aware of their losses. If you haven’t said it lately, say it again. (Grief is ongoing; your concern should be, too.) Invite them to share your table. Reassure them they’re going about it the best they can.

___

*Here are links to my other posts on this topic:

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude