Walking on Eggshells When Someone Dies

Does knowing what to say when someone dies feel like walking on eggshells?

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

(Walking on Eggshells photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You wouldn’t knowingly step barefoot into a kitchen littered with sharp, slippery shells. Who wants to walk on a surface that’s messy at best, hazardous at worst? But you can’t ignore what’s there. Before entering to clean up the unacceptable disorder, you slip your feet into shoes and grab supplies to help you remove the rolling shell-shards and wipe up the white-and-yolk smears.

Mourning friends’ emotions can seem as hard, thin, fragile, slippery, or sharp as broken eggshells, but you shouldn’t ignore them or their loss, either. Please, please enter their grieving space, but tread lightly and bring appropriate resources as you walk with your mourning friends through their emotional eggshells of grieving.

(Before I take this analogy further, let me be the first to admit where it breaks down: You can completely clean and disinfect a floor, making it good as new, like nothing ever spilled there; you CANNOT straighten or sanitize grief. The bereaved who mourn their spouse, child, sibling, parent, cousin — anyone dear to them — will NEVER be the same. Given abundant time and support, they’ll someday learn to function well again and may no longer display the sharp, messy, slimy aftereffects of grieving — but only after they’ve woven and worn-in an all-new carpet to cover the permanently stained, scratched, and scorched surface beneath.)

  • Acknowledge you’re aware your friend is hurting — and that you know you can’t fix their grief. Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women can fix the breaks of bereavement.
  • Lament the loss and LISTEN. (“I’m so sorry your friends died. I’m here to listen. Would you like to tell me more about her/him/them?”) If your friend says something you disagree with, this is NOT the time to argue. Your role is to be a safe sounding board. Don’t take their short temper or lack of attention personally — it’s not about you when their world has shattered.
  • Pick up the practical pieces you can.* Offer to do specific, tangible tasks (drive carpool, bring groceries or meals, wash laundry or dishes or the dog, mow the lawn, tend the kids, make phone calls …).
  • Wipe up the mess — without judgement. Grief can cause torrential tears, erratic emotions, disrupted digestion,  sickly sleep, distressing distraction … in short, mourning is messy. Bring the softest tissues you can find, offer assistance with upcoming deadlines, invite the bereaved into your circle and activities (without reproach if you’re turned down), and reassure your friends that it’s okay for them to grieve in their own way**.
  • Return often. Grief’s relentlessness is as certain as gravity. Eggs will fall, crack, and roll all over a cleaned kitchen floor. Mourning will hit without warning, cracking life into a fragmented shell of what it once was. As your grieving friend begins to adjust, shock wears away, allowing new waves of grief to resurge as they confront the ongoing realities of living without their loved one.

Tread lightly while stepping alongside your mourning friends, but DO walk with them. And don’t be afraid of the mess as you clean up crushed eggshells with them along the way.

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*Exercise CAUTION when helping with physical things within the deceased person’s home or office. Do not rush a bereaved person into any decisions, but ALWAYS ASK before throwing away or laundering items. What you may see as an old newspaper to be thrown out, your grieving friend may see as the last crossword puzzle their loved one finished. The pillowcase you wish to strip in order to provide your friend with fresh bedding may contain the last scent of their loved one.

**Everyone grieves differently. Avoid telling your friends they “should” (or shouldn’t) anything. The only exception is if their actions or (inaction) cause immediate or imminent harm to themselves or others.

Getting Lost in Grief

Navigating life while dealing with death can be like finding your way to an urgent appointment — in a new country …

Where you don’t understand the culture — or the language …

While operating a vehicle you’ve never driven, flown, or sailed before — and while responsible for a dozen kids, their gear, and their pets …

All yelling, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”*

And you were supposed to be there yesterday.

You could pull over to ask for directions — if you could find a passerby with whom you can communicate.

You could call someone who has been there before — if you hadn’t just unknowingly crossed a border not included in your phone plan. If you had any service bars available. If you had your charger with you.

Getting lost in grief

Getting lost in grief, photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

“The grief journey” is one description for the process of learning to live again after a loss. It’s not like vacationing to experience new scenery or to reconnect with family origins. It’s more like traveling through J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor, but without a noble quest. There’s no loyal Samwise Gamgee for unwavering companionship — those on the journey are there because a beloved one has been forever left behind.

Travelers on the grief journey constantly ask themselves, “Where am I? What am I doing here?”

Have you ever forgotten where you were going (while halfway there)? Ever been so lost you had to approach a stranger for directions,  or call a friend to talk you through your route, or pull out a map — even while using GPS?

There was no map to show me the way from life with my husband to life without him.

I’ve always been prone to “creative” navigation from Point A to Point B via unintended alternative routes. My husband and kids found it amusing, though sometimes annoying, that I could find my way through any area — once I’d already been lost there.

After he died, when the shock of grief was new and raw, I couldn’t locate familiar, close-by places; less familiar, more distant destinations were all but impossible.

The interstate was easy to reach, just two turns from my street. But I can’t begin to count how many times I found my widowed self turning too many blocks before I got there. Or half a mile past it. Or not remembering where I’d meant to go. (In hindsight, that was a good thing. I had no business driving at highway speeds when I couldn’t even figure out how to reach it.)

Physically, I was lost all the time. Emotionally, I was just as lost.

In the early months, I was so lost I even blurted my grief whenever I approached strangers. (Most of my widowed friends have said they did the same.) It was as if telling the grocery store clerk, the librarian, and the receptionist “My husband died” was a compulsory password to activate my grief processing symptoms — my distressing, personal GPS.

In time I learned to call on others who’d been there; they’d also lost their spouses. They talked me through how they survived the upending of all they’d known.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, I began drafting my own mourning map.

It took more time than I would have expected to be able to find my way again. It took more time than many of my friends expected, too.**

Be patient with your grieving friends as they relearn how to navigate their altered lives … and offer them rides whenever possible.

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*See my earlier post called Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

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**Speaking of my friends … I’d like to thank Bettie Wailes, Doug Grossman, Nylda Dieppa, and Liz Collard for their feedback — and patience.

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.

 

To Comfort the Bereaved, Give Hugs–But Ask First!

Offer hugs, but ASK before embracing.

In the first year after my husband died, sometimes I needed — but sometimes I couldn’t stand — hugs. The one person I most wanted to hug me was no longer around — and never would be again. I didn’t want “substitutes.”

There were times our daughters didn’t “feel like” hugs, either, and although my arms ached to offer them a mother’s comforting embrace, I learned they each needed to grieve their father on their own terms and in their own ways.

Most days, though, I accepted and found strength in other women’s hugs, especially from widows. (Their silent squeezes conveyed I understand better than words.) I found solace in my male relatives’ hugs, too. We’ve always been a “huggy” family on both sides, so sharing their (often wordless, occasionally bear-like) embraces felt familiar and comforting.

However, I did not, repeat, did not enjoy hugs from male friends and acquaintances, not even a little bit in the first year … or two. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe not. For me, when I made my marriage vows 24 years earlier, I took the “forsake all others” portion to heart, hands, and arms. My husband was the man I hugged — the only man I hugged — other than kin (and a very few close-as-kin-to-us-both friends), because that was what I chose. That was one way I honored him — and our vows.

I wasn’t in the habit of hugging other men when my husband stepped from the room or went away on a trip. Why, after death took him “away,” would I suddenly do so? I still felt the same connection and commitment to him — and to our vows. To me, hugging other men after he died felt as “wrong”  as it would have felt while he lived.

However, for many widowed friends, hugs from friends of the opposite sex helped! Such hugs made them feel better connected to their late spouses. The hugs that disconcerted me brought them a semblance of peace.

These days, three years into widowhood, I’m no longer raw with the shock and newness of my loss. I willingly accept and return (almost all) embraces.

I even initiate hugs — but I ask first, unless I’m offering virtual (((hugs))) like these.

(((Hugs))) to you for reaching out to your grieving friends, coworkers, and family members.

Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking

After the initial shock of my loss lessened, I began adjusting to life as a widow. Far from being “over” my grief, I faced ongoing challenges.

These are questions I found particularly helpful as time went by.

  • How are you sleeping?
    Grief wreaks havoc with sleep cycles, causing some to sleep much longer than “normal” and others — like me — much, much, much less. (Would another “much” be too repetitive?) Asking won’t restore the mourner’s pre-grief sleep, but it will show you’re aware of the struggle. In grieving families with young children, ask if you can take the kids for a few hours so the parent(s) can rest.
  • Do you need help with [be specific in naming possible errands] that you’ve been afraid or reluctant to ask for?
    This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (Sorry for the poor lighting!)

    This is a portion of debris cleared by the men from church that day. “Bushes” behind the yard bags are actually piles of limbs they hauled to the street. The poor photo quality reflects my scattered state of mind at the time! (photo — such as it is — by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

    I had trouble figuring out what I’d left undone until friends offered help with specific tasks. I needed (but too seldom sought) help transporting my daughter, remembering car maintenance, washing doggie (an ordeal requiring a minimum of five human hands), cleaning …

    One Saturday, men and boys from church gathered in my yard and hauled more than 15 Hefty bags of debris — and a huge pile of limbs — out to to the curb. I was flabbergasted. Until I saw the tremendous difference their efforts made, I hadn’t noticed the overgrown undergrowth!  (I still get teary-eyed over their labors — and the thoughtfulness behind them.)

  • What sounds appetizing? Which day can I bring you [the “appetizing” dish or another item of your suggestion], or would you rather to come to my place?
    Grief scrambles appetite as ferociously as sleep. On “bad” days, pouring cereal and milk into the same bowl felt like an accomplishment. On “good days,” removing plastic wrap from frozen pizza before heating (or not burning boxed macaroni and cheese) felt like I’d done “real” cooking again.
  • Will you come [for a walk, to the store, to the mall, to a movie, to lunch, etc.] with me [name a specific day and time]?
    Again, invitations to specific activities and times are less threatening to the bereaved than general ones.  When well-meaning friends and acquaintances invited me to “do something” in the earliest weeks after the funeral, I wasn’t ready. Overwhelmed, I asked them to check back later. (Two actually did.) I needed time and space to grieve and to focus on my daughters before I worked up courage to return to “social” activities.

Questions (and actions!) such as these acknowledge you haven’t forgotten that your friend is still grieving — “even” after months have passed.