Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

___

*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas Mourning (Death Changes Holidays)

I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)

But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m  shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.

THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)

THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)

THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.

Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.

This year Old Doggie Dear's stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box -- alongside my late husband's stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This year Old Doggie Dear’s stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box — alongside my late husband’s stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.

And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)

Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband,  our 21st without Mom.

At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.

For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)

I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.

This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).

If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.

If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.

___

*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.

They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.

I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!

Avoid Saying “At Least” When Consoling the Bereaved

If you begin forming the words “at least” — STOP!

Do not, do not, do NOT let that phrase pass your lips (or fingertips)! If you think uttering (or writing) “at least” to console anyone who is grieving, I advise this:

Bite a hole in your tongue (or slam your fingers in a door) to  prevent yourself from saying “at least.”
(Can you tell I feel strongly about this?)

Here’s why:

“At least,” by definition, shrinks and plays down a thing, reducing it to its smallest component. It minimizes. It downplays and lessens importance. It diminishes and disparages, and when applied to grief it belittles the perceived importance of the loss.

Any intended consolation beginning with “At least you …” will not console. Instead, it isolates mourners, proclaiming their devastating loss to be less calamitous to others than if feels to them.

Examples of “at least” statements (and how they come across to the bereaved) and why they’re so hurtful:

  • “At least you didn’t have any children” (so you won’t have to “deal with” them or their grief and you can just pick up and go on).
    What if the couple privately, desperately wanted children? What if they planned to conceive or adopt within the next year or two? What if one was already pregnant at the time of (her own or her partner’s) death?
  • “At least you (can) have more children” (so you shouldn’t be upset over losing this one).
    One child’s presence cannot “replace” another. The loss of a child (at any age) is a grief unlike any other. Never diminish it. Never assume “replacement fertility” is possible, either — because it may not be, and even if it were, “replacing” one who is lost is not possible.
  • “At least the children are young enough they won’t miss their [parent, grandparent, sibling…]” (so it really won’t be that hard on them).
    Grieving families need to know loved ones won’t be forgotten. Children who’ve lost loved ones, even at very young ages, are impacted in ways only families in similar situations can comprehend.
  • “At least your kids are all grown up” (so you won’t have to raise them alone; also implies adult kids will be “okay” with the loss).
    The surviving parent is now left alone to weather the years-long, unrelenting upheavals of grief by him- or herself. The adult children are burdened with their own grief as well as their concerns for their surviving parent.
  • “At least you weren’t married very long” (so you can’t miss your spouse that much).
    The loss of future, anticipated experiences runs as deep as the loss of familiar comfort and companionship. Those widowed after fewer years together often feel deeply “cheated” by the timing.
  • “At least you had [however many] years together” (so you had more than your share and shouldn’t complain it came to an end).
    A lifetime shared is irrevocably altered by the shearing of one’s “better half.” In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis compared the loss of a spouse to the loss of a limb which, even when healed, leaves the amputee forever changed.

If you’re cringing now because you remember saying “at least” in past attempts to console, remember that you meant well — at least you tried. (Now that you know, you’ll do better next time.)