How to Help after a Death

The death of a loved one shocks those left behind. Whether the loss is anticipated after long illness or utterly unexpected, the bereaved are seldom emotionally prepared. Even those who knew death was coming (and already made final arrangements) have no idea of the overwhelming tasks to be done after a loved one’s passing. Many can’t be delegated, but friends, neighbors, and coworkers can — and should — offer help where possible.

Within minutes or hours, new mourners must answer overwhelming questions and make difficult decisions:

  • Will organs (or the body) be donated for transplants and/or study?
  • What were the circumstances of the death? The day(s) leading up to it? (If death wasn’t expected, police and/or the medical examiner’s office may demand ones far-reaching, deeply personal answers.)
  • Who will move the person’s remains — and to where?
  • Who should make such decisions? (Does anyone know if there’s a will and/or an appointed executor?)

The deceased might have expressed clear, final wishes before his or her death. Those left behind must deal with implementing — or ignoring — such requests.

Within hours or days, survivors must create or enact plans: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Will the loved one’s body be buried or cremated? Where? When?
  • Will there be a private or public memorial service before the body’s disposal? After?
  • If so, will there be an open-casket viewing?
  • Will survivors hold a formal service in a church, synagogue, or mortuary? Or will they gather informally inside a private home (whether that of the deceased or of survivors or friends)? Or will they meet at a park, restaurant, beach, roadside …?
  • Who will arrange — and pay for — all this?
  • Who needs to be notified for personal reasons? How can they be reached? Who will tell them, and how much (or how little) will be shared about the circumstances of the death?
  • Who needs to be notified for financial and/or legal reasons (partners, employers, employees, suppliers, customers …)?

Please note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or the timing or the manner of their choices, I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to say so. (The adage “least said, soonest mended” fits.)

Within hours or days, loved ones must also address legal matters: 

  • custody and care of surviving dependents (children, disabled adults, elderly relatives, pets)
  • payments of debts (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, medical bills yet to arrive …)
  • payment of and transferal of ongoing accounts including rent, utilities, health insurance for survivors …
  • notification of life insurance companies, if applicable
  • notification of banks or credit unions
  • notification of federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service)
  • notification of credit bureaus (to prevent scumbags from accessing the deceased person’s credit, etc.)

And who knows where such information is? If bills were paid electronically, does the family know how to access the accounts? Will linked accounts for auto-pay bills contain enough to meet immediate, ongoing needs?

Meanwhile, while the loved one’s life has ended, survivors’ lives must go on. But don’t say that. I repeat — DO NOT say “life goes on” to the survivors. Instead, help them. You can:

  • Pick up and drop off
    • meals and snacks
    • groceries
    • prescriptions
    • kids in carpool
    • relatives flying in and out
    • dry cleaning
    • paper goods (tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, disposable plates …)
    • gift cards and/or cash
    • notes of love and awareness
  • Pitch in
    • wash clothes* and bedding* (PLEASE see note at bottom!)
    • do dishes*
    • bathe pets
    • clean the car
    • take the trash out
    • clean and shine the family’s shoes*
    • rake, water, or weed the yard
    • sweep the front porch or wash the windows
    • read to, play with, and offer to babysit children
    • listen
    • house-sit during publicly advertised services
  • Make a list — a notebook with pockets and dividers might be helpful
    • local funeral homes, services, prices (It will be easier for you to make such calls and create a comparison list than for your friends while they’re newly grieving.)
    • contact information (phone, website, and physical addresses) for tending to
      • motor vehicle title(s)
      • house deed/rental agreement(s)
      • bank and credit card accounts
      • utilities (electricity, water, gas, phone, internet …)
      • subscriptions (newspaper, magazines, movie services …)
      • insurance companies (auto, health, life …)
      • credit bureaus (to prevent identity theft)

Please note: Only the closest, most trusted individuals — if any — should help in any way that involves actual account numbers. Keep an eye out for anyone who may take advantage of mourners’ vulnerable, distracted states of mind.

    • due dates and amounts of recurrent bills to be paid (monthly, quarterly, annually)
    • local grief support services and resources for now or for later (Check with area hospices and faith-based groups for starting points.)
    • names, contact information, and offers of people who say, “Let me know if I can help with …”

Please note: If you offer, follow up. Don’t wait for the grieving person to call you, because most can’t muster the energy no matter how badly they need to.

    • the kindnesses done by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers …
    • things remembered about the deceased — stories, anecdotes, personality quirks …
  • Return to the top of this list and repeat.

As much as grieving friends need your support in the hours, days, and weeks immediately after a death, mourners also need loving, practical support in the long, lonely months (and years) that follow.

*Before washing any items worn or used by the person who died, PLEASE ask to make sure that will be welcome. If in doubt, don’t. (Many survivors take comfort from holding and smelling items which remind them of their loved one.)

New Year, New Grief after Death

As the world counts down the end of this year and anticipates the beginning of the next, news outlets will no doubt remind us of 2016 celebrity deaths: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, John Glenn, Florence Henderson, Janet Reno, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Christina Grimmie, Prince, Chyna, Patty Duke, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Alan Rickman … Many famous people left behind sorrowful fans who regret their absence — and grieving families who lament and mourn them.

If you haven’t recently buried a loved one, you might think the new year promises solace — a fresh start — to grieving friends. For some, replacing a calendar marked by death’s heavy hand offers healing.

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

But getting through holidays without deceased loved ones can feel disloyal, pointless, or any other strong emotion, and when the calendar changes, years shared with dear ones are forever left behind. For many mourners, the new year symbolizes further isolation from beloved ones.

New Year’s Eve/Day celebrations often trigger renewed grief. Traditions like listing resolutions, counting down to midnight, swapping ball-drop-watching stories, serving New Year’s Day black-eyed peas) — all can provoke painful reminders of bereavement in those who may have begun adjusting to earlier losses.

Anticipatory grief also rises at year end. For those facing a terminal diagnosis (their own or a loved one’s), realizing the coming year might — or will — be their last can be devastating.

In marriage, I’d grafted myself — mind, heart, body, and soul — to my husband; we’d been one. His death ripped apart that grafting, leaving me an incomplete fraction of myself — not whole — a walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human. It shattered me.*

I wasn’t the only widow (or other mourner) who lamented, “Why am I still here? Why couldn’t it have been me?” During restless nights when waking alone felt almost as awful as going to bed alone, I’d have welcomed a passive exit in my scant sleep. Lest you misunderstand, please note: I didn’t, I don’t, and I won’t consider hastening to join my late husband.* (No way — I have daughters, other family, and friends who need me and whom I love and need, too.) But sometimes the brokenhearted agony of raw grief exceeded bearability.*

You can’t lessen the pain of grieving a loved one’s death at New Year’s (and beyond), but you can make sure your friends don’t have to endure it alone. How?

  • Acknowledge it’s a difficult time of year, whether the loss is recent and raw or even years ago. New Year’s Eve and Day can reopen grief’s wounds. Friends validated my loss by acknowledging and accepting my sorrow (rather than ignoring or trying to “fix” it).
  • Invite grieving friends to join in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Tell them you’d like them with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“Please join me so you won’t be alone”). If they decline (as I often did), assure them the invitation remains open if their circumstances or feelings change.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer bereaved friends the choice, but respect them to know best whether solitude or socializing will help. For some widowed peers, going to friends’ homes to ring in the new year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters; other years I’ve gone out dancing with friends. (I’ve yet to decide which I’ll do this year.)
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes mourners happily engage with friends (and strangers) one moment but feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can find a few moments to themselves — sometimes crying in private helps channel emotions — but assure them it’s okay if they cry right there beside you and other guests, too.

If mourning friends choose not to join you, continue offering an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern.

If your friends lost loved ones this year, please reach out to them during this rough week. Even if the loss doesn’t seem recent to you, it still is to them. (For many mourners, the second year after a death can be as hard, if not harder, than the first.)

Express that you’re aware this year is different for your grieving friends when life moves on for the rest of the world January 1. (Don’t, however, tell mourners “life goes on” — for their loved one it didn’t.) Be there for them — not only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day but in the 365 (and more) days to follow.

___

* PLEASE seek professional help if you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that suicide seems like an option. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for those around you, get help now. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources at this  list of international suicide hotlines.

(Forgive my overuse of single asterisks above. I wanted to call as much attention as possible to this notice.)

Elements of this post may seem familiar; parts are adapted from my earlier New Year, New Grief and New Year after Death posts.

For more on what to say (and what NOT to say) to the newly bereaved heading into the new year, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

___

Within hours of posting this the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, I learned that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died. I’ve edited the above text to include her name as well. I sincerely offer my condolences to their family as they grieve this heartbreaking double loss.

Christmas Joy, Christmas Grief

It’s been (early) Christmas at my house for more than a week now; we’re wrapping up (or should I say we’ve already unwrapped?) our holiday celebrations — all but the church service — before December 25. It’s been wonderful having my kids here and celebrating together — this has been a lovely holiday season, our seventh without my husband, their father.

During a few moments, though, “old” grief barged in, casting its shadow across the glow of today’s Christmas lights and shoving me back toward the way I felt when grief was raw:

Mom's Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Mom’s Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Glimpsing maroon-and-red hanging from a store display and thinking — just for a second — Ooh, I think he’d like those colors — before I remembered it’s been seven Christmases since I got him a new shirt …
  • Looking up from the yogurt aisle at Walmart to see one of the three paramedics who came to our house the night my husband died … I backed up, turned away, fled to another aisle, and doubled over in the holding-a-shopping-cart equivalent of putting my head between my knees … (My brain knew I was okay, that it was in the past, but my body didn’t. I shook and trembled on and off for hours after, and had to talk myself into sleeping that night for fear of nightmares returning — as they sometimes do.)
  • Placing the star atop the tree and flashing back to my husband lifting our daughters over his head when they were small so they could set the star or an angel at the top …
  • Setting the felt angel my mother made decades ago into the Christmas tree branches and missing her all over again …
  • Realizing with gratitude that my wonderful son-in-law brings our holiday household back to five members … and wishing my husband could be here to get to know and love him too …
  • Relishing the new Star Wars movie with my firstborn daughter beside me and recognizing my hand reached for his at my other side, darn it

For the most part, in day-to-day life, I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve adjusted to living without him at my side. As I’ve shared above, sometimes it “still” hurts, but not as sharply as in the traumatic first and second years after his death.

Much felt hazy in widowed fog back then. Yet I remember the numerous people who attempted to console and comfort me during those difficult, raw years — especially during the holidays. I appreciated them for speaking and reaching out — for not ignoring me — even when some of their efforts were less comforting.

  • Some told me not to cry, that he wouldn’t want me (or our kids) to be sad. I couldn’t help thinking, would he want me to be happy he’s not here? 
  • Others said in time I’d “get used to” living without him (and several years later I have), but that didn’t help me feel better then — it made it worse; it felt like they wanted me to forget about him by discounting the painful grief that was (is) interwoven with my love for him.
  • A few admonished me to “keep it together” for my kids’ sakes. “Don’t let them see you cry,” they said. “You’ll spoil their Christmas and make them afraid to go back to school” (my older daughters attended college out of state during those first few years). But my kids and I were still learning our way through grieving, and suppressing grief is far more harmful than expressing it. I wasn’t crying every minute of every day (though it sometimes felt almost that much), but I didn’t benefit when others told me to hide my tears.

I also remember the many kind, supportive words and gestures that lightened my emotional (and physical) burdens while acknowledging my bereavement during those earliest grief-filled holiday seasons.

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “You’re in my prayers.”
  • “I know you’re grieving her during this season.”
  • “I know it’s not the same without him.”
  • “Would you like to talk about him? About his favorite parts of Christmas?” (Sometimes I did want to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. But it felt like I mattered whenever they asked.)
  • One woman called to ask what kind of cookies my youngest daughter liked. A few hours later, she texted to say she was on her way to drop off a plateful.
  • Unexpected gift cards (and cash) helped offset expenses and made me feel less alone in providing for my family’s needs.
  • Cards, letters, emails, and texts offered tangible, visual evidence of others’ awareness.
  • Phone calls offered the same, even when I let it go to voicemail to listen later. (Sometimes I could not summon the emotional effort to answer or reply, but I did appreciate them.)
  • Invitations to join others in holiday gatherings proved I hadn’t been forgotten. Even though I couldn’t muster the strength or will to accept them (and I may not have even responded to some of them, I’m sorry to say now), it meant a lot to be asked.
  • A few of the men from our congregation — my husband’s church brothers — stopped by with a Christmas tree a couple of months after he died, when I’d all but forgotten about readying myself, let alone my house, for the holidays.*

Think back over your year. Did any of your friends lose loved ones? If so, please reach out to them. The holidays can be especially lonely and difficult while mourning. It’s not too late — it’s never too late — to say, “I’m thinking of you” — unless you never say it at all.

Wishing you and yours moments of peace and joy in your holidays. If’ you’re mourning this season, I hope those around you will reach out and show you they care. 

___

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. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church. The “bushes” behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time.) Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

*The day our church brothers brought the Christmas tree, they did more than that. They opened their eyes and looked around as they hefted the pine out of a pickup truck and into the house. While setting it up in the stand, they asked, “Sister Bruce, do you have anyone helping you out with your yard?” (By what they’d seen, the answer was obvious, but to their credit they asked anyway.) To read about the amazing service they gave my family soon after, please see Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking.

 

Your Grief and My Grief Might (or Might Not) Become Friends

From the earliest days of my widowhood, I found it surprising how few widows said, “I know exactly how you feel.” Instead, they acknowledged the unique individuality of my loss. They said, “I can’t imagine how it would be to have lost my husband without warning,” or “My kids were already raised when my husband died. I don’t know what you’re going through.”

The irony is they did know — at least to the degree of understanding the upended world of mourning a spouse — but instead of comparing our losses in a way that placed them on the same level, they emphasized what made my newly raw, current loss their focus.

Their acknowledgment offered comfort in a comfortless condition.

Last weekend at the Florida Writers Association annual conference, among the hundreds of attendees writing in every genre imaginable, I met several authors whose own grief deepens the portrayal of their characters. As we visited, I again recalled the differences in how people I know and love process their grief — and their nearly universal reactions too.

Hurricane Meets Hibiscus (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When Hurricane Matthew barreled through Central Florida, my neighborhood was nearly unscathed. (My prayers continue for those whose homes were damaged and destroyed.) Before that storm, two hibiscus plants grew in my yard. The winds and tropical rains stripped all but a few leaves from one and shoved it almost to the ground with its root ball loosened from the soil.

The other hibiscus, though less sheltered by the shape of my house, kept all but a few leaves, and although it no longer stands quite straight, its roots hold so firmly I haven’t been able to push it fully upright again.

The winds of grief blow some of us sideways and sometimes uproot us altogether. Stripped of our loved ones, we gasp in the vacuum of mourning. We flail in sorrow’s storm surge, and we recognize that — whether by downed tree or lifted roof or flooded foundation — our individual and collective lives will never be the same.

We learn to bond, repair, and rebuild by what we share — the bereavement of severance from dear ones or homes or livelihoods or health — and we mourn with one another even in those different conditions.

Rebuild we do, but in ways we’d never planned and in time frames only we can determine. Meanwhile, we appreciate those who are willing to sit with us in silence, hearing us wail and mourn and cry. And we appreciate those who keep checking in with us (even when we are “moody”) and who step in to help us lift and mop and hammer and bandage our lives back together.

April Fool’s Day, Grief, and Humor — To Joke or Not to Joke

A woman gets into a car and snaps her fingers as she says to the driver, “I hear your husband died — just like that. Are you kidding me?”

As if I were the kind of person who would joke or kid about a loved one’s death.

The punchline in this true tale is that I didn’t punch her. (I tend to keep both hands on the wheel at 55 mph.) “Umm … no, I’m not kidding, and I really don’t want to talk about it right now” (what with concentrating on the doings of other I-4 drivers and not wanting to obscure my vision by crying).

She honored my wishes — sort of — for a full mile (which, at highway speed, wasn’t long enough) before opening her mouth to address the sudden death of someone else. “I had a friend whose husband keeled over without warning,” she said, sounding more thoughtful than she was being. “It really tore her up for a long time. She was never the same after that.”

Compared to her conversation, I-4 traffic seemed calming. My heart pounded as I gripped the wheel tighter and said, “I really, really don’t want to talk about this right now.” All of a month into widowhood, my very nerve endings were raw with emotion.

This time she stayed quiet nearly half a mile before opening her mouth again. “Your poor girls must be devastated. Weren’t they close to their father?”

“Be quiet,” I said too quietly. 

She continued, asking how on earth I was going to handle being a single mom.

“Stop. Talking!” I said. Louder.

She returned to the topic of how awful it was for her friend who never recovered after her husband’s death.

“BE QUIET!” I bellowed as loud as I could, far too loud for the confines of my car. “I DON’T WANT YOU TO SAY ANOTHER WORD — NO! NOT! ANOTHER! WORD!” The last part came as she began protesting. “DO NOT SPEAK AGAIN unless you want me so upset I drive this thing RIGHT OFF THE ROAD because I can’t see!” (Whether from rage or tears, I didn’t clarify.)

I’m not a screamer or a yeller. Never have been (except when cheering for my children and their teammates). But that day … I don’t think I’d ever been so angry at another human being , not counting the hospital orderly who asked, “How’re ya doin’?” while handing me the phone with the medical examiner’s office on the other end … But, no, he was at least doing his job — albeit horribly — while this woman just prattled on and on and on against my repeated requests otherwise.

I pulled off the highway and found our destination, bristling even at inane comments about the weather and the route.  I parked, found the hostess who’d invited us, and, car keys still in hand, pulled her aside. Without explanation, I said, “I’m sorry, but you need to find someone else to take her home.” I inclined my head toward the woman I’d given a ride. “I’m leaving.”

I had to take back roads to my house, not trusting myself to the interstate again.

To this day, the phrase “are you kidding me” screeches like sound system feedback against my psyche.

There really is no time or place or circumstance for anyone but the bereaved to be “kidding” or “joking around” about whether a loved one is dead or dying.

___

A sense of humor in a grieving heart is a beautiful but delicate thing. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

A sense of humor in a grieving heart is, like a spiderweb, a beautiful but delicate thing. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Gentle, harmless April Fool’s Day pranks can be fun, but think twice — and then think twice again — before planning pranks on someone who is grieving. Humor is important and essential, but weaving humor into mourning requires intricate knowledge of the bereaved and delicate application. New, raw grief can make a person’s beautiful sense of humor into a fragile construction, as easily damaged as a spider’s web.

Before my husband died, I pulled April Fool’s Day pranks on my family every year. We’d also invite young missionaries from church to our house for dinner every April 1 and feed them foods that weren’t what they seemed. It was a fun tradition we all looked forward to.

I’ve only done it once as a widow. It seemed like too much trouble for a few laughs over a meal. This year, work deadlines and other projects mean I’m not likely inviting anyone over, but I may arrange a couple of small surprises for a few close people … (Shh … don’t tell …) 😉

___

Grief hurts. It’s sad and sorrowful and all-consuming. It’s easy to be swallowed by it, so when the bereaved have a chance to laugh and breathe the healing air of humor, it usually helps.

Laughter over funny things the deceased said or did can be especially healing. Most mourners yearn for a connection between their loved ones and those around them. If laughter turns to tears, that’s not a bad thing. When bereaved emotions are all-consuming, releasing one often releases another.

Mad Libs became a part of our family's humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Mad Libs became a part of our family’s humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Don’t be afraid to laugh with your grieving friends. Invite them to a funny movie or to play together a ridiculous party game at your house like Curses or  Mad Libs.*

Do tread lightly with grief-related humor. It’s one thing for a pair of widows to share a joke about the “joy” of not waking to anyone’s snores; it’s altogether different for someone outside that degree of grief to make light of what is yet another aspect of forced change.

Above all, LISTEN to what your friends say and honor their requests.

___

*Mad Libs are a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. (As of this writing, I have no affiliation with Penguin Random House.) I’ve enjoyed these fill-in stories since I was a kid (and often wrote up my own versions); my husband and I introduced them to our kids when they were little, and they remain a family staple of road trips. And I have to say, my kids and I treasure the pages of our Mad Libs books with my late husband’s handwriting.

Regarding the game Curses, I’m not sure who came up with it, but the times I’ve played, I’ve laughed hard enough to cry — in a good way.

Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character.

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character#sthash.jNiDqsod.dpuf%5D

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at http://www.ywam-fmi.org/tl_files/ywam-fmi/images/articles/2015/Stages_of_Grief.jpg)

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.

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.