A Widow’s Thoughts on Father’s Day … and Star Trek

I’ve written and discarded more than a handful of pre-Father’s Day posts this year.* Early attempts gushed, dripping with enough emotion to make the Enterprise‘s empathic Counselor Deanna Troi  seem unfeeling. Later drafts evoked so little sentiment they could have been dictated by the most stoic members of the Vulcan High Command.

You might be asking, why the Star Trek references on a grief website about Father’s Day?

My three daughters — my next generation — grew up with the sounds and culture of Star Trek in our home. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com.)

I introduced my late husband to Gene Roddenberry’s world(s), and over the years he learned to love Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation as much as I did. (Well, almost, anyway.) The Next Generation debuted weeks before the birth of our first child, and he watched (at first) only to placate his very pregnant wife. It’s the series I most associate with him becoming a new father.

A few years (read: show seasons) later, I went into labor with our second child (during the first commercial break) while watching a new episode. I hid my increasing discomfort (read: pain and silent attempts at Lamaze breathing) until the end of that hour. I knew he and my mother (who’d come to help with the baby) would insist I hurry to the hospital the second they realized I was having contractions — but first, I had to see how The Next Generation episode ended! (Besides, the contractions started at twelve minutes apart. When they soon skipped to five, I couldn’t exactly call the doctor as instructed at seven minutes apart, could I?) Better to wait until the end of the show …

In early grief, I wished I could click a magic device and say, “Beam me up.” (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

In these days of DVDs and streaming, its easy to binge-watch not just one installment but all the Star Trek spin-off series. Yet, in the nearly seven years since my husband died, I’ve probably seen fewer than seven episodes of the seven hundred-some spanning six series not to mention the movies. It took time to win my husband over to the sci fi shows, and it has taken time to win me back to that shared interest.

Grief takes time. Lots and lots of time. Moving forward with everyday life while mourning happens only one step — sometimes one inch — at a time. (So, please, be patient with your grieving friends.)

During the first couple of years after my husband died, sometimes I wanted to say, “Beam me up, please,” but I knew my children, my dad, and my dog needed me (not always in that order).

As it was, grief stresses kept me on 24-7 red alert: single parenting, mourning, shifted family resources, altered finances, revamped career moves, overturned short- and long-term plans, sleeping, eating, paying bills, doing home maintenance … Those around me may not have seen the red strobes flashing behind my eyelids, and they may not have heard the sirens blaring in my ears, but my body and brain could not turn them off. Relentless fight-or-flight feelings brought on by bereavement drained my reserves at warp speed.

The future — the unplanned-for future without my husband — seemed vast, cold, and dark as I explored the “strange, new world” of widowhood.

I feel more upbeat about this Father’s Day than I have in years. Maybe it’s just easier this seventh year. More likely, it’s because I’m about to enter a new frontier of my own as the cast and crew of my family expands to include our next generation — my first grandchild.

The original crew of the Enterprise expanded into multiple series — not counting the red-shirted extras. (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

Do I still miss my husband and grieve over him? Yes. Will there be moments of sadness in Father’s Days to come when his grandchild grows up without ever meeting him? Doubly yes. Will I fall apart at church on Sunday when the children sing to their fathers? Yes, yes, and yes.

But I think (and hope) I’ll shed fewer tears this year.  Even as I “boldly go where no” husband of mine has gone before … from widowhood into grandparenthood.
___

* For specific things to do for and say to someone grieving this Father’s Day, please see Another Father’s Day — DANG IT!

(A few years ago I also wrote Father’s Day Non-Scents for the Segullah.org blog.)

First Anniversary of Grief after Pulse Shootings

One year ago, June 12, 2016, a man with evil, hateful intent entered Pulse nightclub in my Orlando hometown and shot into the crowd of innocent friends and family members enjoying a night of dancing. Of the many he struck down that night, 49 never rose again.

In the weeks and months following that cowardly assault, local manifestations of support showed humankind at its best: Donations poured into the OneOrlando Fund for the shooting victims and their families. Murals, T-shirts, and business markees displayed messages of encouragement and unity. Scholarships honored the memories of the fallen. Neighbors stood alongside strangers in solidarity while acknowledging differences.

Painting outside Orlando’s Zebra Coalition honors the 49 who died in the Pulse shooting (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Media coverage — initially 24-7 — ebbed over the year but has resurged as we’ve approached the first anniversary.  Much has been tasteful and sensitive, though I observed one broadcaster recently say something that revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about grief: “As the anniversary approaches,” the person said, “it may even be possible some Pulse families and survivors will feel upset again.”  (I’ve written that in quotes, but I paraphrased the actual words to avoid embarrassing the speaker.)

One fallacy of that statement is the implication that mourners might be upset again about their loved ones’ deaths — as if they’d had ample time to no longer be upset about it. But grieving, adjusting, and building new lives takes much, much longer than a mere 12 months. Even when, eventually, surviving loved ones manage to move forward in life without the deceased present in their lives, the absence will remain present and painful in survivors’ hearts.

The other fallacy in that well-meaning newscaster’s statement assumed that some Pulse families (and therefore not all) will find the first anniversary difficult.  From the thousands of mourners I’ve interacted with, all expressed increased anxiety, sorrow, anger, irritability, and longing for their deceased loved ones in the days leading toward the first anniversary after death. All. Even among those whose deaths were peaceful and anticipated, the first anniversary brought with it more pain than resolution. Where death occurred via such senseless, hate-infused violence as was inflicted at Pulse, mourners’ minds and bodies especially rebel at reliving the date when their loved ones died.

With rare exceptions, grieving individuals and families find reaching the first anniversary of a loved one’s death offers an elusive, hoped-for, impossible, unfulfilled promise of relief from the bitter agony of bereavement. The hope is that if one makes it through that horrendous first year, one will be okay from then on. 

The reality comes as an aftershock when the bereaved realize the beginning of the second year often brings renewed heartache and struggles in coping. Compounding the difficulty is the perception — and assertion — by friends and coworkers that mourners should be better by now or get on with their lives already. (If you hear such thoughts trying to work themselves into your words, erase them!)

For soul mates and partners, parents and siblings, cousins and other kin (by blood or law or choice), when it comes to the first year, grieving will never be one and done. Neither should the support and encouragement we offer, which should remain ongoing for as long as the loved ones are missed.

In other words, it’s never too late to let survivors know you are aware of their loss, and it’s never too late to show you care.

Full width of painting outside Zebra Coalition (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Easter Mourning — Grief and Belief

What should you say to a grieving friend at Easter*?

Here’s how to support grieving friends at Easter — or any time: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” This simple expression of caring is always appropriate.
  • Send something (a card or another tangible token) expressing your awareness.
  • Bring edibles (snacks, groceries or ready meals).
  • Invite them to eat with you (at home or out).
  • Listen. Let them reminisce, rage, and roar their grief. Laugh along at great memories. Mourners need to share their feelings.

If you wish to share Easter-related (or other religious-themed) thoughts of comfort with your mourning friends, think carefully before and while speaking. Their grief is valid, and your words should acknowledge that.

Never make assumptions — or admonitions — about what the bereaved should do, feel, or believe. If you express how you feel about your own faith, only speak in relation to your feelings — not in relation to their loss.

How can you express your own belief near religious holidays without diminishing the loss your friends feel?

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as I celebrate Easter this year.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. But it’s hard to not have her with us. Thinking of you during my Easter commemoration.”
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I realize this is your first Easter season alone.”

If your beliefs are vastly different from your grieving friends, you might say something like:

  • “Even though I don’t celebrate Easter, I know it’s been important to you, and I know you’re mourning. I’m thinking of you.”

I hope you’ll adapt such positive statements in reaching out to your mourning friends.

Now, having said all this, please let me delve a bit deeper.

I continue feeling conflicted about Easter. It still brings me blister and balm, solace and sorrow. Community and isolation. Heartache. Hope. (I wrote more on this in Easter Grief:  Life and Death and Loss and Hope.)

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I miss my own (and my daughters’) childhood Easter observations — chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, children with parents at church.

I dislike dwelling on the graphic horrors of what Good Friday inflicted, but I daily ponder my gratitude for the empty grave Easter morning revealed. I believe that because Jesus Christ was resurrected from that grave,  I’ll therefore be reunited in the hereafter with the loved ones I’ve lost.

And I take comfort in knowing — within the perspective of eternity — our till-death-did-us-part separation is temporary.

But I didn’t, I don’t (and I perhaps never will) take comfort from others telling me to feel that same hope I already embrace.

  • Don’t admonish mourners to remember the reason for the season. (You might think you’re saying something positive, but what they hear is that you’d rather preach to them than acknowledge the depth of their sorrow.)
  • Don’t tell the bereaved they should be “happy” for the faraway, future fulfillment of their faith. (They’re grieving lost loved ones now — and throughout the rest of what they foresee as long, lonely lifetimes. Future hope doesn’t restore or negate ongoing absence.)
  • Don’t assert or assume that devotion to Deity makes grief go away. (It can lighten the weight of mourning — it did/does for me! — but grief and love are connected. Let mourners mourn as they will, and let them also worship as they will — or won’t.)

When a mourning friend asks what comforts you in your faith, by all means, share the beliefs which offer you consolation. If a bereaved coworker asks what speaks peace to your heart, testify to that source of solace. When one who has lost loved ones worries over their own soul, witness what strengthens yours.

Six-plus years after my husband’s death, I still feel ambivalent about hearing “happy Easter.” But it always feels good to hear someone say, “I’m thinking of you.”

___

*Many of your faith traditions differ from mine. Please understand, I mean no disrespect or disregard toward yours. Please adapt and apply these suggestions to the religious holiday observations and practices sacred to you and to your grieving friends.

I try to make this site relevant to helping everyone learn ways to support their mourning friends — regardless of their faith traditions. Belief doesn’t banish bereavement. 

But because my faith plays such a formative role in my life and worldview, it sometimes features in what I write about, including topics like this Easter-inspired post.

For those of you who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter — and beyond — I hope you will enjoy this brief Easter video: #PrinceOfPeace

Confused by Grief

If your friends grieve lost loved ones, they may show confusion. Some writers have compared the memory loss of bereavement to symptoms of dementia. (In the months after my husband’s death, I got lost within my own neighborhood more times than I counted.) Why does deep sorrow cause such confusion?

Grief tips things sideways and turns them upside down. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When a loved one dies, survivors’ lives tilt, tumble, spin. Familiar routes bewilder, and expectations swirl away. Long-term plans shift, dreams evaporate, and unforeseen obstacles loom. Is it any wonder mourners might act muddled?

Don’t blame the bereaved for being baffled. Rather, summon your empathy and extend compassion toward their confusion.

Before you berate a disheveled, bereaved widow for getting her children to school late or forgetting to bring cupcakes to the XYZ fundraiser at work, stop. Instead, acknowledge what she has done right: She got herself (and children) out of bed and took the children to school before showing up at work. (That may sound simple, but in the middle of mourning, it’s not.)

Next, consider the upheaval in her life: Suddenly, she’s a single parent, and she’s exhausted not only from caring for her children’s needs but from grieving, which drains a person in every way. Her deceased partner’s income no longer contributes to the family budget (maybe the cost of cupcakes is too much now), and she may be facing massive funeral, medical, and legal expenses you can’t begin to imagine (unless you’ve had to do the same). But her loss is about far more than finances, although that alone is often significant. She’s also lost her surest source of physical and emotional support. Friends and even family may stand near her, but she’s alone while crying through the night’s insomnia. In the morning, she can’t stand the emptiness in her swollen eyes, so she avoids the mirror while running a hand over her head to smack down the worst of her toss-and-turn hair.

If, after walking a metaphorical mile in her mourning slippers, you still feel judgmental toward that widowed mom, you’re the one who’s confused.

Before you condemn a grieving colleague for collapsing in the middle of a conference call or pleading for a personal day, stop. Instead, remember that people matter more than products, and acknowledge that beneath his position, he’s a person. Whether he and his partner have lost a child or whether he’s just learned his parent’s condition is terminal, his grief will continue beyond the funeral or that phone call.

Grief triggers — dates, events, songs, situations — don’t fit into an after-hours locker to release when convenient. They can’t be scheduled for the off season. They seldom give advance notice, and they can take you down — overwhelm you fully — before you can so much as say, “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?” (Note: Never, ever, ever say that — not even to yourself if you’re mourning. It won’t help. Trust me on this.)

The Grief Monster attacks without advance notice, sending its triggers when and where and how it will.

Imagine working with efficiency, expecting the promotion and raise you’ve always dreamed of. And then, a slight twinge in your gut warns that something you ate disagreed with you. The next moment, you’re running for the bathroom. Besides gastrointestinal distress of every kind, you’re sweating from a fever, shaking with chills, and erupting in boils across exposed skin. Several bones and organs must be trading places.

Meanwhile a supervisor followed you into the restroom, not to dial 911 but to demand, “How soon will you return to your desk? What time will you be in tomorrow? And why haven’t you finished today’s work yet? I expected better of you.”

That’s (a little) like working through grief.

Grieving wreaks havoc with concentration. Given time, understanding, and compassion, mourners’ confusion will clear. They will learn to function again, and will learn — eventually — how to move forward with altered lives.

Meanwhile, ask yourself this: Will you support your friends and coworkers through the rough, confusing process of mourning? Or do you remain too confused by grief to show you care?

 

 

 

Thanksgiving after Death

I threw out the post I penned for this Thanksgiving week.

I’d written about how giving thanks while grieving helped me heal, but those thankful acknowledgments came from within me — not from others’ admonitions to be grateful for X, Y, or Z. And I wrote about ways the post-Thanksgiving frenzy of Black Friday shopping can be a grief trigger for many.

But two events nudged me to change this post: the death of an elderly friend and the news of the school bus crash in Chattanooga.

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My octogenarian friend fell, had surgery, and began recovering. After all accounts reported she was healing, Emily took ill and died within days. Two common thoughts predominated this week as I met members of the family she delighted in, as I listened to neighbors who interacted with her daily, as I spoke with others who knew her through her writing (as I did):

  • We all loved and will miss her, though in different ways.
  • In spite of her age and recent health challenges, we all felt varying degrees of shock and disbelief.

I recognized the expression of acute grief in Emily’s family members’ faces, remembering (a little too clearly) how I felt when my mother and grandmother died. My friend’s passing saddens me, and I will continue to miss her. But her family and closer friends will actively mourn her for as long as they have loved her.

Which returns me to the second event prompting this altered post.

Many hearts in Chattanooga and elsewhere will be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend as they rejoice in their little ones’ safety, but even that gratitude will be overshadowed by the knowledge of others’ suffering. My heartfelt condolences and prayers and thoughts go out to the families whose children were so abruptly taken from them.

I cannot fathom the weight of grief and mourning in that community and within the walls of those homes. I have witnessed my friends’ acute pain in mourning their  children, but I have not worn the soul-searing loss of a child, so I cannot truly understand it. I can only try, knowing nothing I do will make them feel better because nothing I do will restore their dear ones. I can’t fix their pain, but I can — I must — acknowledge it.

After any loved one’s death, Thanksgiving as a holiday and thanksgiving as a practice are never the same. The holiday — with all its traditions — now carries the dark smear of absence. The practice — though healing — may seem impossible for a time likely to stretch beyond a single season (or year).

Every life is precious. All souls deserve to be sung out of this world with love and tenderness as the sun sets on their presence. Heart-songs of mourning include gratitude for the good they did, the lives they touched, and the connections they shared. But those sweet overtones ring truest when honestly accompanied by the bitter, background disharmony of bereavement.

If your friends are mourning this holiday season, listen as they share their gratitude for their loved ones. Openly share the reasons you thank heaven for their loved ones’ influence in your life.

(But please, do not lecture or admonish grieving friends on why or whether or how they should be grateful.)

 

Mourning, Elections, and Choosing to Be Kind

After you study the issues and candidates, cast your vote, and learn the election results, please remember this:

Be kind.

Regardless of the outcome — win or lose, rout or run-off — the individual people in your life are more important than the people elected into community, state, and national political offices.

(You might be asking, “What does this have to do with grief and the bereaved?” Keep reading. We’ll get there.)

voted

(This sticker was from an earlier local and primary election. I’m going to the polls on Election Day. Will there be lines? Probably. But that’s okay — people-watching is always instructional.)

I don’t mean to imply that politics don’t matter. I take the opportunity to vote seriously. When I was a child, I watched my mom research the issues, attend rallies, and question candidates. This was long before the Internet allowed Google-speed searches. She invested her time — lots of it! — and her intellect in making informed choices to better our neighborhood, city, state, and nation, all the while instilling in me the responsibility to do the same.

Over some election results, Mom rejoiced; over others, she mourned — though never to extremes. No gloating, no berating. No in-your-face chanting or ranting.

I emulated her example with my children as they grew up, dragging them with me to pick up and turn in petitions, voting before or after school (so they came with me into polling places), explaining my choices beforehand and while awaiting election results.

After Mom died, when questions of politics arose, her overwhelming absence overshadowed my interest in doing as she’d taught me. I still went through the motions of researching, but the process felt hollow — as did much else without her.

However, it wasn’t until after her death that I learned how much farther her influence spread beyond what she taught me. In the first half dozen years after she died, I received phone calls — more than I counted — from people she’d met and networked with. For years, they’d sought her out during every election cycle, asking, “What do you think of so-and-so?” or “How do you interpret the meaning of such-and-such?”

She’d never told them how to vote, but she freely shared the information she had gathered and let them make up their own minds. So after she died, they called me, (rightly) assuming I did the same kind of research.

Over time, elections triggered fewer painful reminders of her absence and offered more opportunities to reflect on what a great woman she was. That became my secondary focus as I researched.

When my husband died, everything political blurred. I still cared on some level, but it was a level so far below the surface level of mourning — where I tried to survive — I may as well have been reading campaign signs without my glasses. (Reading anything without my glasses means I see only colorful, impressionistic, wordless blurs.)

Raw with shock and grief, I scarcely remembered to pay the same bills I’d managed before. I couldn’t pick out a box of cereal or loaf of bread in the grocery store without bursting into tears. Political research became a low priority. Campaign calls to my late husband’s phone, which I couldn’t yet make myself turn off, felt like daggers to my already torn heart. Contribution solicitations addressed to him made me want to stop checking the mail.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

What hurt the most as a newly grieving widow was the bitterness, rancor, mudslinging, and nastiness of political arguments. I didn’t mind honest, open-minded debate and discussion — still don’t — but I couldn’t stand the unkindness — still can’t.

Strangers attacking strangers — on social media, at rallies, over the radio. Family members fighting over philosophical disputes. Candidates calling names and contending.

Ick. Yuck. Eew.

When you’re grieving, the worst thing in the world — the death of your loved one — has already happened. Your world is upside down. The last thing you need is arguing and animosity over politics.

When you’re mourning — immersed in the hurt and anger of loss — you can’t abide meanness. You’ve been forced to acknowledge that life is too short for such negativity.

When you’re not bereaved yourself, it’s easy to forget that all around you — in person and online — there are folks in various degrees of mourning loved ones. People you know and people you don’t know, all facing their own grief over death or divorce or health …

So, please, please …

Please keep politics in perspective. There will be future elections. But many are mourning loved ones who won’t be with them in that future; they’ve got enough to handle without being surrounded by more negativity.

No matter the outcome of this election (or others), be kind.

___

For more about mourning and politics, see Taboo Topics When Someone Dies — Part 1, Politics

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.