When Will Things Be Back to Normal for My Grieving Friend?

When will life get back to normal for a grieving friend? The short answer is simple: never. It won’t ever be the same.

The long-term answer is more complex. The reality is that when their loved ones died, so did the “old” life they knew. Almost as soon as the funerals end, friends of the bereaved settle back into “normal” routines. For them, “life goes on,” but for the bereaved it does not. (Please see my earlier post: Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On”.)

A couple of month after my husband died, I came across an old copy of a Life Change Index Scale.* It was a chart listing the “points” attributed to various stressful life changes. (Not life pauses or hiccups or bubbles. Changes.) For each pertinent event I’d experienced within a year, I was to add up the associated numerical ratings. At the bottom of the page, the scoring caution went something like this:

  • under 150 meant 30% chance of illness in the near future
  • 150 – 299 meant 50% chance of illness in the near future
  • 300+ meant 80% chance of developing illness in the near future

I actually laughed at my result. My score was over 750.

The reason I bring up this scale is that in every version I’ve seen since, the highest stress point value (100) is attributed to the death of a spouse. The deaths of other close family members are also highly ranked (63). For me, seeing those numbers on a black and white chart validated how off-kilter I felt. The first two words of the title — Life Change — acknowledged the irrevocable shift from my “old normal.”

Eventually, your grieving friends will forge a “new normal” path through life. This will likely take years. Yes, I said years. The minute by hour by day by week by month by year adjustments are huge, and the human mind and body can only handle so much at a time. Be patient with your friend, who probably won’t seem like himself or herself for a long time.

Early in my raw grief, I wondered when I would feel like myself again. Most people who’d been widowed much longer than me assured me that it would happen, but they alerted me not to expect it too soon. At first, I felt despair when they cautioned it took about three years for most of them. Three years?!? I didn’t know if I could make it feeling so horrible for three more days — how could I fathom feeling this way for three years?!?

The first year was difficult beyond description. My mind and body were so overloaded I have huge gaps in my memory. I look back over the things I wrote for myself in journals and in correspondence with other widows and widowers and, until I read my own words, I have no recollection of how I got through some months.

The second year was also brutal. During the second year I no longer felt the numbing effects of “widowed fog.” I’d thought the Year of Firsts was hard as I went through the first of every holiday and family commemoration without my husband. I’d experienced the same every-event renewal of loss the first year after Mom died, too. But during my second year as a widow, I was more aware of the increased responsibilities on my shoulders. I was more aware of how their father’s death impacted our children’s lives. I was beginning to learn to process the emotions I’d tried to ignore for the sake of getting through year one.

For me, the shift into “new normal” clicked into gear a couple of months before the third anniversary of his death. I’d known all along that — eventually — I’d be okay again. My faith had been at the core of that understanding, but it was an ethereal assurance. It took 34 months for me to begin to feel I was actually becoming okay again. That doesn’t mean I no longer dissolve into a puddle of tears from time to time, nor does it mean I don’t miss him anymore. I do both. Sometimes I still slip back into non-functioning hours when mustering the strength to hide in the pages of a good book is my best self-preservation tool. But even as I turn each page, I know when I reach the end of the chapter I’ll be able to step back into my life, my different life.

Please understand this about your grieving friends. They need time. They need your patience. They need your acceptance of how their grief impacts their lives.

I will always be grateful for those who didn’t rush me that I “should” feel or do what they thought appropriate. I will always appreciate those who did not shame me by inflicting “by now” or “already” assumptions upon me. I will always be indebted to them for listening to me without judgement. Please, do the same for your friends who’ve lost someone they love.

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*One such scale is available at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf

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.

 

Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.

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*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]

Worldwide Candle Lighting Honors Deceased Children

Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting 2013This Sunday, December 8, join families across the globe in lighting a candle at 7 p.m. to support those creating “a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone, ” honoring the memories of beloved children whose lives ended too soon.”*

This will be the 17th Worldwide Candle Lighting sponsored by The Compassionate Friends, an organization whose purpose is to support families grieving the loss of a child.

I cannot imagine how mourning parents, siblings, and grandparents feel. I cannot fathom the levels of pain they experience year after year as unfulfilled birthdays, holidays, and milestones echo within empty places in their hearts.

But all through the year I can acknowledge their pain. I can listen to their feelings and memories. I can share my love through kindness and concern through my actions. I can offer my tears along with my prayers.

And this Sunday, I can light a candle. To show your support, you can, too.


*quoted from  http://www.compassionatefriends.org/News_Events/Special-Events/Worldwide_Candle_Lighting.aspx