Breast cancer awareness and grief–when seeing pink means seeing red, part 1

This is the first post of several breast cancer awareness experiences to keep in mind during October’s breast cancer awareness month … and beyond.

Last month marked twenty years* since Mom died of breast cancer. More than thirty years ago her mother passed of the same; so did hers.

I’m therefore acutely aware of the importance of women getting regular mammograms and being vigilant about self-exams. That’s how Mom won more than three extra years with our family.

That’s why I got a mammogram — on the twentieth anniversary of Mom’s death, the week after the fifth anniversary of my husband’s.

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

It’s not something I look forward to every year. (Does anyone?) This year I put it off for months, until one day I finally called and made an appointment for the first available opening.

The irony of the timing didn’t hit me until that morning.

By the time I’d sat in the backed-up waiting room an hour after my scheduled appointment, my emotions were all ajumble.

By the second time the technician told me the equipment had a “technical problem” — and the procedure had to be repeated — my pertinent body parts felt all ajumble, too.

I cried — as much from emotional pain as from physical. When the technician assured me (bless her heart) that it would “only hurt for a few more seconds” (for the record, not true), she had no way to know the far deeper, longer-lasting pain came not from the contortions she inflicted on my body but from the losses the date itself smashed against my chest.

For a few moments, I plunged back into the mode of blurting my bereavement the same way I did during the early weeks (months, really) after my husband’s death.

To her credit, the woman tried to comfort me. She put an arm around me to give me a hug — but clad as I was only in the radiology center’s flimsy wraparound top, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. (In an oddly different way, the feeling reminded me how it felt when I was newly widowed and well-meaning men friends offered hugs — which at that raw time I didn’t want from any man I wasn’t related to.)

After the second round of images was taken (this time without technical difficulties), as my hand touched the doorknob, she offered a few well-intended words:  “You’ll be okay. You just have to get past it. Everybody has to die sometime.”

WHAT!?

I’d just bared my soul (among other things) in front of this woman. I was crying because I missed my mom on the anniversary of her death to breast cancer, and missing my late husband, too. And she tried to make me feel better by reducing the validity of my grief? (Not to mention that she ignored my apprehension over the reason for the mammogram she’d just subjected me to.)

Yes, I saw red.

Please don’t say such things to those who are grieving! It’s true that everyone dies, but it’s not helpful or encouraging (or even nice) to make such losses seem everyday or expected or unimportant. 

___

*In an earlier post I rounded up the amount of time (see https://tealashes.com/2014/06/27/comfort-after-moms-funeral/).

Remembering 9/11 can help you understand the bereaved

On September 11, 2001, life in the United States skidded to a stop when nearly 3,000 people perished because of terrorist attacks. If you were the age of a young school child or older, you remember the moment you heard the news.

Dismay.

Shock.

Denial.

Distress.

Panic.

Fury.

It was a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. when the phone rang. My friend’s voice was clipped. “Are you watching TV?”

My husband was sound asleep after his night shift. I’d taken our younger children to elementary school. Back at home I folded laundry while our oldest daughter painted on canvas. Soon we’d delve into the academic part of her seventh grade curriculum. My friend knew I homeschooled during the day, so it was odd she’d call, let alone assume the TV might be on during school hours. “No. Why?”

“Turn it on.”

“To what?”

“Anything. Any channel.”

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

I cried for those whose lives were lost. I cried harder for the loved ones who lost them.

It was a huge thing. A devastation.

A travesty. An assault.

A violation.

In the days that followed, the attacks were all anyone talked about — even when mentioning the heroics of the many, many selfless souls who stepped into the fray to help others.

None of us knew then the long-term impact of that day’s events. First responders from New York City’s police and fire departments, and others, continued losing life and health in the aftermath of the initial casualties.

(Casualties. What a calloused, indifferent word — as if any of those killed or maimed or bereaved came to that definition by casual, effortless chance.)

Families were shattered by death, disability, and despair. Businesses and livelihoods were lost along with the lives they’d once supported.

For those of us living far away, not personally knowing victims or their families, and not having our everyday routines disrupted beyond that first day’s screeching halt, we felt for them and we cried with them and we sacrificed and contributed for them. But our everyday life, for the most part, went on.

The impact of 9/11 changed us all, some more than others. Global news coverage and the scale of the tragedy made it difficult to ignore, and visible memorials and annual commemorations ensure we will never forget.

For those whose loved ones were lost, the personal impact of 9/11 is impossible to forget. Visual reminders of their absent loved ones are everywhere they look. Annual commemorations extend beyond Patriot Day on September 11 to include every holiday, birthday, anniversary, and seasonal tradition.

A decade and a half later, mourning survivors I’ve met since have “moved forward” with their lives. I won’t diminish their losses by claiming they “resumed” life in the same manner as those of us who were not personally impacted. Life, as it was Before, ended that day. Life, as they eventually learned how to live again, evolved slowly in the After.

Of course, other people died that day, too. People all around the world. One was Karl, a sweet, elderly man in my congregation at church. His death received no national fanfare. No acclaim. His kindly widow’s loss was overshadowed by the quantity of publicized loss, but Ruth’s private grief was just as real.

At the time I felt badly for her. I admired her courage and strength as she tearfully expressed her beautiful belief that her husband was needed in heaven to help soothe and greet the many souls who’d been taken from mortality that day. I prayed for her, and I told her I was praying for her, and I sent notes once in a while.

But I was clueless. I had no idea of what her loss meant to her. How could I? That was a decade before I shared the designation of widow. A decade before new bereavement taught me the private manifestations of receiving the news that another loved one was dead.

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

In the months that followed my husband’s death, coping with that was all I could think about, even though there were many selfless souls who reached out to me in compassionate gestures. But their everyday lives went on.

Now, whenever our nation pauses for a moment of silence to honor the victims and heroes of 9/11, my understanding of what they experienced remains fractional, but I am more aware than I was. I will never be able to fully understand what any of them endured. But I do know how I felt in my own dismay-shock-denial-distress-panic-fury grieving. And my empathy for them has grown.

(Ruth, I don’t know where you live now, but please know I think of you and Karl today, as I think of the thousands of others for whom September 11 has such significance.)

I remember.

Anniversary after Death

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 (or how) to mention your friends’ wedding anniversaries after they’ve lost their spouses, here are some tips:

  • Say something before the anniversary if you can. For many bereaved, the days leading up to are as hard as (if not harder than) the day of. Even a belated acknowledgment is better than none.
  • Avoid cheery, cliché greeting-card greetings.
    Don’t say, “Happy Anniversary” as if this year is no different (even though you do wish them happiness).
    Don’t say, “Have a wonderful anniversary” (because without their beloved spouse that’s not likely).
  • Acknowledge the loss. Anniversaries after death are inextricably interwoven with that loss. Phrases like these are helpful:
    • I’m thinking of you as your anniversary approaches.”
    • You’re on my mind this week. I know this anniversary will be different.”
    •  “I know you’re missing your sweetheart.”
    • You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

At the start of the post, I mentioned there are more anniversaries after a death than there were before. Death marks a family’s calendar with its own darkly circled dates.

All the “typical” commemorations are there — holidays and birthdays and, yes, wedding anniversaries.

But for anyone who has lost a loved one (parent, child, spouse, sibling, best friend …) the death-added days are there, too — the death date, the funeral date, the day the death certificate finally arrived, the day the cemetery marker was installed, and (in cases where death was expected due to illness) the dates of first symptoms, first diagnosis, hospice care, etc.  All are anniversaries of their own sorts.

Even when death was expected (and perhaps welcomed) at the end of a long, productive life (ultimately impeded by a painful, protracted illness), such “sadiversaries” or “angelversaries” carry pain for the survivors as much as they bring remembered relief for the release of the sufferers.

(A quick side note here: As “happy” as I was for my 54-year-old mother’s release from the cancer that entrapped her body, and as “grateful” as I was that my 47-year-old husband was no longer imprisoned by the premature deterioration of his mind, I was — and still am — neither happy nor grateful that either of them died so young. I’d have much preferred decades more together. So, please. Please don’t tell me — or anyone mourning — why we should be glad or thankful for our loved ones’ deaths. Grieving is not compatible with Pollyanna’s “glad game.”)

I’d say all such dates are difficult to get through during the first year, but that would do a disservice to everyone who has lost someone close to them. Love has no time limits. Neither does grief. I mentioned not remembering much about my first widowed anniversary, but I don’t remember the second one, either. The shock of widowed fog (and other grief) can — and often does — blur more than a single year’s worth of seasons. 

We will always mourn those we’ve loved, but we won’t always be consumed by that bereavement. Given time and encouragement, we learn to live with the grief. We learn to live in spite of it. We learn to live forward again.

But as anniversaries approach — even years later — we can always use expressions of loving help and caring encouragement from our friends.

"The language of love is expressed in countless caring ways."

Snapshot taken by Mom, tucked in a Hallmark card from my late husband. Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Put a Bandage on Grief

When my daughters were little, they often bruised or scraped themselves in the course of everyday play. A kiss from Mommy or Daddy (and perhaps a Sharpie-drawn smiley face on a Band-Aid — whether necessary or not) was all it took to make things okay again.

Sometimes other tots grabbed toys, knocked over blocks, or cut their Barbies’ hair — oh, wait … it was my child who did that (as practice before “trimming” her friend’s bangs). All it took to reset their emotional footing was distraction — manufactured by word or sleight-of-hand. Almost at once, they got back to the business of learning by play.

As they grew older their minds and hearts grew into increasingly complex, interdependent organs. It became harder to “fix” what upset them. The inevitable day came. A daughter spurned my offer to “kiss it better” as she clutched at the reddened skin on her forearm. “That won’t help,” she pouted, her eyes daring me to contradict her. My offer to read her a story elicited the same response.

She was right, of course. A hug or kiss didn’t take away the sting of the injury. A bandage could cover the wound (at least temporarily) and hopefully keep out germs that would otherwise impede healing, but beneath its plain (or decorated) facade, remained a wound that required time — and the right circumstances — to mend. A kiss of affection, a favorite toy to hold, or a new story to distract might momentarily provide another focal point, but every heartbeat fueled throbbing reminders that all was not well.

It’s the same for grief. Bandages don’t work.

You can't put a bandage on grief to "fix it" or "make it better." Like any wound, it takes time.

You can’t put a bandage on grief to “fix it” or “make it better.” Like any wound, it takes time.

When grief is new (and by “new” I mean the loss occurred within two years — yes, I said years), the bereaved often bruise and scrape their psyches against circumstances of living in the course of everyday survival. Such emotional abrasions include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Significant dates — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (of both positive and negative events). For many within the first 18 months after a loved one’s death, that day of the week (every week) and that date of the month (every month) feels like ripping off a fresh scab, re-traumatizing survivors.
  • The “business” of death — deeds, accounts, titles, plots, medical bills, insurance … The list of accounts can seem endless for an adult or unfairly incomplete for a child. Making each phone call or office visit is excruciating. Every time I called another provider, I sobbed. Removing my husband’s name from each document felt like erasing him. It felt disloyal. It felt violent. Horrible.
  • Routine “first since” appointments — the dentist, the doctor, the pharmacist, the mechanic, the accountant … Anywhere a person has done business in an ongoing manner, that first visit since the death occurred forces yet another face-to-face bout of admitting a loved one is no longer living. As a new widow, I cried every time. Many forms had boxes to check that offered only the options of single, married, or divorced. I wrote in “widowed” on paper forms. Online forms frustrated me so badly I shrieked at the computer (and I’ve never been a “yeller”). If I checked “married,” they required ongoing contact information no longer applicable, but for a long, long time I refused to consider myself “single,” so that option didn’t work, either.
  • Getting groceries — ugh! Walking through the aisles was awful, awful, awful. “His” foods stood out on the shelves. I couldn’t find things I wanted right in front of me (on rare occasions when I actually knew what I wanted). I couldn’t even remember to consult the list in my hand. The first time I saw THE paramedics from the nearby fire station in the store, oh, how I lost it!

Recently, Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief wrote “grief & the grocery store.” If you want to understand what your grieving friend experiences in the ordeal of getting groceries, please read what she has to say:

http://www.refugeingrief.com/groceries/

You can’t cover your grieving friends’ loss with a bandage. You can’t “fix it” or “make it better.” But you can offer them momentary distraction from their pain by including them in your plans (whether they accept your invitations or not). You can aid them in their healing by acknowledging significant dates, offering to fill out paperwork (or make other business calls), accompanying (or taking) them for routine appointments, and going with them to the store to help them navigate the perils of produce.*

Be with them in their grief. Be patient as they heal.

___

*For an in-depth look at one element of grocery-intensified grief, see my essay Eggplant Elegy” in the online journal Segullah.

 

When a Friend Is Grieving

What should you say to someone who is grieving the anniversary of a death that happened a year ago? What about two years? There’s never really a “good” time of year for someone to die, but the timing of any death can be hard on those left behind. Not just in the immediate days and months after the loss, but in the years ahead as well. Anniversaries of death (and other occasions) can make “old” grief feel newly raw again. There’s no time limit on how long a friend will grieve.

For the last week I’ve heard lyrics proclaiming “death and darkness gather all around me.(*See below.) I’m not living my life in gloomy obsession, but I can’t help but feel compassionate awareness. Too many friends (and family) have lost loved ones around this pre-Valentine’s Day time of year. These couple of weeks in my calendar mark days of deep significance — and mourning — to friends and family: Death and/or funeral dates of friends’ children, friends’ friends, and friend’s spouses. Wedding anniversaries of now-widowed half-couples. The day a friend’s beloved pet died.

It’s not only my friends whose grief is reinforced during this part of the calendar. These same weeks include the “angelversary” dates for my father-in-law and for one great-aunt.

At nearly 95 last last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

At nearly 95 last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

Now for two.

Last night, when I drafted this post and went to bed to sleep on it, the next line I wrote described that great-aunt’s sister, “another beloved great-aunt whose nearly ten decades appear to be … slowing.” When I woke up I learned my sweet Aunt Ginny passed in the early hours this morning. Part of me rejoices for the reunion she’s having with her parents and siblings and my mom and my husband! For her sake, I’m relieved her fragile, increasingly confused, and recently fractured nearly 96-year-old body isn’t hurting. But for me and for all of our family, and for all who knew her, having her gone — actually gone — leaves a painful, gaping hole of mourning.

The next words I wrote last night (immediately below) seem even more appropriate in the light of today’s sadness.

Three, four years — or however long — after a death, many of the right (and wrong) ways to support a grieving friend are the same things that apply in brand new bereavement:

1. Remember that grief is a by-product of love. Mourners have the right to grieve in their own ways and times. Grief doesn’t just “go away,” nor is it to be “gotten over.” Rather, it must be worked through, often over the course of a lifetime. Be patient and accepting of your friend’s grief.

2. Acknowledge the loss. Speaking the loved one’s name shows they aren’t forgotten. Their survivors need to know they aren’t the only ones who miss the deceased.

3. Listen — without curtailing or dismissing emotional outbursts or nostalgic reflections about dead loved ones. Ask if the bereaved would like to share stories of their loved ones. Ask if they’d like to hear your stories of their loved ones.

4. Do something. A kind gesture as simple as a text message or a handwritten note or a dropped off casserole or a quick run to the store…

5. Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid any statements including the words “at least” — they do not offer consolation when uttered to the bereaved. (If they say it themselves, that’s fine. Consoling mourners isn’t about you. It’s about them.)

___

*Because I’ve had this phrase on my mind all week, and because of the beautiful lives I wish to honor by actively remembering them, I’m adding this excerpt from a YouTube video featuring Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell.” (The lyrics at 2:00 and 2:45 have been especially on my mind.) [Added this morning: Aunt Ginny, “you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell…”]