Mother’s Day Grief

 

I’ve put off writing about Mother’s Day this year, even though many folks now face this arguably difficult holiday for the first time while grieving loved ones. Within my own community, too many families carry on the best they can while bereaved over children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends who’ve died in the last year.  

If someone you care about — or even someone you know only as a casual acquaintance — has endured the death of a loved one, please let them know you’re thinking of them. Whether they respond to your outreach or not, they will know they were offered your kindness, which those who mourn sorely need.

Sometimes grieving hearts stand shriveled alongside bright, cheery ones. Please take some time to look around you and see whose sorrowing soul you can help. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I hope these posts I’ve already written about Mother’s Day topics will encourage you with ways you can show tangible support to grieving friends:

While commercials may tout bright, fancy ways to commemorate Mother’s Day, please remember that comfort in grief often comes in the simplest ways. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference, but please do something.

 

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.)

Children’s Grief Awareness Day

I wear teal every day. Most days it’s obvious by my shirt or scarf (or both).

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children's Grief Awareness Day

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children’s Grief Awareness Day

When I’m walking my dog (in old jeans and older T-shirts), it’s not as easy to see. It takes searching to note that my eyeglasses frames are a dark teal, my sneakers are a brighter shade of teal, and my key chain carabiner is — you guessed it — another shade of teal. (Even my hair scrunchies alternate between patterns of flowers and Winnie the Pooh figures — against teal backgrounds.)

Children, like adults, wear their grief every day, and for them it’s also obvious to see on some days. The hues of their grieving show brightly as they’re crying when a children’s movie protagonist loses a parent (or a beloved animal) — Bambi, Mufasa, Cinderella, Nemo, Charlotte, Old Yeller … (Anyone else see a trend here?) You may see them drawing pictures of deceased loved ones. Or you may see them “acting out” in behaviors you’d rather not witness.

Children’s grief — just like their drawings and the size of their clothes and their experience in every area of life — does not always look the same as adult grief. They at times play and study and go about their daily routines (almost) as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, adults may see those healthy behaviors as signs bereaved children are “all better” and expect them henceforth to behave that way.

But love, loss, and grief weave their way into children’s lives as deeply as into adults. And where children’s lives and personalities and outlooks are still in development, those threads should not be overlooked.

For specifics on what to say (and not say) to grieving children and for helpful resources, visit this earlier post.

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother's hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother’s hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When my mother died, her hospice nurses gave this book to my grieving children, because they wanted my girls to have something just for them in that difficult time. We’ve purged many kids’ books in the 21 years since, but this one will always have a home with us.

 

 

Good Grief, Halloween! (It’s Not All Good)

For anyone mourning recent losses, Halloween can be painful. Good, clean, costumed, candy-consuming fun too often fades behind gruesome, in-your-face depictions of morbid, glorified, sinister portrayals.

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Pumpkin (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Halloween was the first store-pushed celebration after my husband’s death. With newly widowed eyes, my gut clenched at the fake tombstones, skeleton parts, and decayed zombie costumes shouting from store shelves and “decorating” — but certainly not enhancing — my neighborhood.

Don’t these people know my husband died?

Of course they didn’t know (except when I blurted it to store clerks who’d made the mistake of greeting me with rushed variations of “how’re-you-today” which they’d not really meant to ask). The whole world, it seemed, went back to normal after his funeral — the whole world except for me and my grieving household.

If your friends have just buried a loved one, they aren’t likely to nominate your plastic cemetery and zombie yard decorations for lawn-of-the-month. If they’re mourning loved ones who died by violent means, they will not thank or applaud you for costumes and makeup which call injuries to mind.

I once met a couple whose entire home — outside and inside, every room — could have furnished the gift shop inventory for a haunted house, spook alley, or nightmare on any street. From my new, widowed perspective, I couldn’t help wondering what one of them will someday think when surviving the other and walking through their once-shared front door. What will their prominently displayed tombstones and bones and coffins and skeletons mean then? Perhaps they will offer continuity and connection to items once loved by their departed beloved. But perhaps not …

Everyone reacts differently to bereavement. Children, for example, often cling to continuity after a loved one dies. The same activity, such as trick-or-treating, which agonizes one family member may act as a bridge between bereaved upheaval and tradition’s normalcy for another.

Instead of wishing your grieving friends a “happy Halloween,” invite them into your life. Invite their children to go trick-or-treating along with yours (especially if the adults aren’t up to it). Invite teenagers to costume parties. Invite the adults, too.

If  they turn you down, don’t take it personally. They may not be able to abide socializing or celebrating in any way for a while yet. But they’ll appreciate that you wanted to include and acknowledge them. Try asking them again next time. And the next.

But please, at Halloween, be thoughtful about your costume and decor. And the car you park outside your door.

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. (Although I can't imagine what those good reasons may be ... I snapped this photo in August, long before Halloween's approach.)

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. Although I can’t imagine what those good reasons may be … I snapped this in August, long before Halloween’s approach. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

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Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

Halloween Grief

Belated Halloween Reprise (including a link to Megan Divine’s HuffPost Healthy Living “Halloween and Grief: When the Nightmare Is Real“)

 

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.

 

Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting
http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

Are we there yet? — one of the most annoying questions parents hear. Invariably, no matter how long remained was too long for our children. When they were young,  we sometimes answered that if they asked one more time, we’d turn the car around and go back home.

clock with fallen numbers

“who cares?” clock face created and photographed by Teresa TL Bruce (TealAshes.com)

On a few occasions, we circled back to where we started, postponing the excursion for another day.

Their petition came regardless of our destination — rare, days-long, out-of-state road trips; frequent, up-to-an-hour-long, crosstown errands; or thrice-weekly, around-the-corner church meetings . All drives were apt to include variations on the dreaded question.

In hindsight, I realize our kids were eager for the fun to begin (or at least for the end of being strapped into car seats and belts while motion sickness churned their tummies). But while we were behind the wheel, our focus was to convey everyone safely from point A to point B. (If I could manage not getting lost when I was driving — ha! — so much the better.*)

Maybe askingWhen will we get there? reflected part of our kids’ intellectual development, too. They were still learning the basics of how time flows and is measured. They were learning to anticipate upcoming landmarks on familiar routes and weren’t yet able to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach the next location they could relate to during their journey.

And at that point in their lives, they lacked the experience to realize (or in some cases to care) how annoying it was to be asked.

We were more worried about reaching our destination intact than in time. If the Bruces were late, we were late … as long as we didn’t become the late Bruces in our attempt to arrive.

Sometimes detours or road conditions made our best estimates to How long is it gonna take? woefully wrong. (And, oh, did we hear about it!)

Then life’s day-to-day travels crashed into the worst kind of unplanned detour. My husband died.

My estimated arrival times died with him.

Are you better yet? — one of the most annoying questions mourners hear. With precious and dear exceptions, no matter how recent my bereavement felt, it seemed to take too long for those around me. When my grief was still young, I first answered bluntly, “No, of course not.”

If the same person asked more than once, I soon learned my frank answers disappointed them; disapproval showed in their expressions, voices, and words. I turned myself around when I saw them (or their phone numbers). That I was “still” not “better” (meaning not yet my former, pre-widowed self again) shamed me into silence about my real feelings. (Grieving was hard enough without being made to feel I was doing it the wrong way.) I put on my plastic smile and said, “Mm-hmm” — and got away from them as fast as I could.

In hindsight, I realize my friends were still learning the basics of what it meant to be around someone who’d lost a loved one. And they were eager for my sadness to end (as evidenced when I cried my way through conversations). But while I fumbled my  way through learning to cope with life-altering loss, my focus was simply to endure a single day from one moment to the next.

Any planning, any  estimation, any sense of the “when” of things was beyond my capacity. Death detoured my timing in every way. It slowed me down. (I know others who fell into fast-paced flurries of keep-busy actions to try to keep their grief from catching up with them; it sometimes worked — temporarily.)

It took me twice as long to do the dishes (when I remembered to cook — or to eat — and the two didn’t necessarily happen together anymore). It took me twice as long (or more) to get dressed in the morning. Four times as long to pay the bills and attend necessary business transactions. And getting to sleep or staying asleep … (sigh). Let’s just say my internal sleep clock has been at the repair shop for several years now …

I had a trouble estimating how I’d fare on the other side of the next five or ten minutes. Figuring out what would happen another day was tougher. What would the next week hold? (Thinking that far ahead made my head hurt almost as much as my heart.) The following month? Ha! (In case the italicized “Ha” with an exclamation point didn’t convey it clearly the first time, let me repeat. Ha!)

Questions about my five- or ten-year plans were as impossible to answer as “When are you going to act like normal again?

Maybe askingWhen will you be done with grieving? reflected part of my acquaintances’ empathetic development. They were still learning the basics of how grief flowed and ebbed around time-warped detours on an unfamiliar journey they couldn’t relate to. Yet because of what they observed in how I grieved my husband, they were awakened to an uncomfortable realization: they would someday lose a loved one, too.

Their need to ask, So, is everything okay now? stemmed as much from their lack of experience with grieving as it did from their genuine concern for me. And at that point in their lives, they had no way to realize how annoying it was to be asked. 

Instead of asking your grieving friends how long it will take them to “get over” their bereavement, assure them you accept them and support them no matter where (and when) they are in their grief.

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*I’ve been known to get lost even when following GPS directions. In a future post I’ll share more about getting lost in other ways while finding my way through grief.

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