Another Father’s Day–DANG IT!

Father’s Day, like so many special events, is “still” nearly as hard to face this fifth year as it was in the first years after my husband died. His absence (especially on days like these) still hurts me, but it cuts doubly for my children’s pain as they miss him, too.

I’m a person who draws great strength from my faith, but I’ve learned that on Father’s Day Sunday my worship is more focused from within the privacy of my home. (As much as I love the camaraderie of fellow worshipers, I cannot abide hearing the little kids’ adorable annual rendition of “I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home” and other sweet songs my children used to sing to their dad.)

What to Say When Someone Dies

Father’s Day. For three weeks I’ve written, revised, and discarded post after post, trying to decide what to say. It’s the night before, and I still don’t know …

I’m blessed and grateful that my dad is still here. He lives nearby and continues to be a rock of solid reliability. I can’t remember him ever directing an unkind gesture or a loud word my way (though when he spoke my full name in a certain tone I knew I’d crossed the line).

When I was a young, naive newlywed I remember my mother once telling me she hoped I appreciated how lucky we both were to have such good, kind men in our lives. I thought at the time that I did fully appreciate it.

Looking back now, I see how clueless I was, how little I understood. Since then I’ve seen glimpses, peeks at the hardships inflicted on many women and children because…

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Mourning on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day hurts. I don’t like dwelling on the downside of death (although that may seem like a strange thing from someone who writes about grief), but the best way for me to get through every second Sunday in May is to close the blinds and hunker down in solitude.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

It wasn’t always like that. As a kid I picked flowers, drew cards, and poured adulation on Mom. As a young adult, then a new bride, and eventually a mother myself I appreciated her (and my grandmas and aunts) more deeply than before. My cards and gestures of appreciation (which once seemed so grand) paled next to Mom’s lifetime of service — though my daughters’ creative endeavors for me melted my heart.

After Mom died, Mother’s Day went dark. I still went to church that day, but mostly for my children’s sakes. (I wanted them to see me attending weekly even if I didn’t feel like it, and I knew they and their peers had practiced a song for all the moms.) I enjoyed their lovely hugs (and songs) and cards and “interesting” breakfasts in bed that one day of the year.

But the moment memories of Mom meandered into the day, renewed mourning overtook me.

Over the years I’ve learned to live with my mother’s loss, but there were always certain days per year — like Mother’s Day — wherein the pain of being a daughter without a mother hit me again. Hard.

Those hits became all-out assaults after my husband died. The pain of being a wife without a husband knocked the breath out of me.

This is my fifth widowed Mother’s Day. It’s easier … and yet it’s not. (My plastic smile will be a little more convincing as I smile at the children singing at church this year, but I know better than to bother wearing eye makeup.)

If you know someone grieving this Mother’s Day, let them know you’re mindful of their loss. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Let them know you know this year is different than it was.

Don’t say you know how they feel, because you don’t — especially if you’ve never suffered a similar loss. Only bereaved mothers, for instance, can nearly understand the raw feelings of other mothers who have buried a child. Acknowledge the unique, personal, presence of their grief.

Some people need interaction with others to distract them from tender days like this. Reach out and invite them!

But if they ignore or decline your invitation or phone calls, don’t take it personally. They might be like I am, needing to hunker down this year, but also appreciating messages of support. (I’m keeping the “Please do NOT disturb” sign on my door all day.)

Whether they take you up on your offers or don’t bother responding, let them know you’re aware and you care.

When a Friend Is Grieving

What should you say to someone who is grieving the anniversary of a death that happened a year ago? What about two years? There’s never really a “good” time of year for someone to die, but the timing of any death can be hard on those left behind. Not just in the immediate days and months after the loss, but in the years ahead as well. Anniversaries of death (and other occasions) can make “old” grief feel newly raw again. There’s no time limit on how long a friend will grieve.

For the last week I’ve heard lyrics proclaiming “death and darkness gather all around me.(*See below.) I’m not living my life in gloomy obsession, but I can’t help but feel compassionate awareness. Too many friends (and family) have lost loved ones around this pre-Valentine’s Day time of year. These couple of weeks in my calendar mark days of deep significance — and mourning — to friends and family: Death and/or funeral dates of friends’ children, friends’ friends, and friend’s spouses. Wedding anniversaries of now-widowed half-couples. The day a friend’s beloved pet died.

It’s not only my friends whose grief is reinforced during this part of the calendar. These same weeks include the “angelversary” dates for my father-in-law and for one great-aunt.

At nearly 95 last last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

At nearly 95 last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

Now for two.

Last night, when I drafted this post and went to bed to sleep on it, the next line I wrote described that great-aunt’s sister, “another beloved great-aunt whose nearly ten decades appear to be … slowing.” When I woke up I learned my sweet Aunt Ginny passed in the early hours this morning. Part of me rejoices for the reunion she’s having with her parents and siblings and my mom and my husband! For her sake, I’m relieved her fragile, increasingly confused, and recently fractured nearly 96-year-old body isn’t hurting. But for me and for all of our family, and for all who knew her, having her gone — actually gone — leaves a painful, gaping hole of mourning.

The next words I wrote last night (immediately below) seem even more appropriate in the light of today’s sadness.

Three, four years — or however long — after a death, many of the right (and wrong) ways to support a grieving friend are the same things that apply in brand new bereavement:

1. Remember that grief is a by-product of love. Mourners have the right to grieve in their own ways and times. Grief doesn’t just “go away,” nor is it to be “gotten over.” Rather, it must be worked through, often over the course of a lifetime. Be patient and accepting of your friend’s grief.

2. Acknowledge the loss. Speaking the loved one’s name shows they aren’t forgotten. Their survivors need to know they aren’t the only ones who miss the deceased.

3. Listen — without curtailing or dismissing emotional outbursts or nostalgic reflections about dead loved ones. Ask if the bereaved would like to share stories of their loved ones. Ask if they’d like to hear your stories of their loved ones.

4. Do something. A kind gesture as simple as a text message or a handwritten note or a dropped off casserole or a quick run to the store…

5. Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid any statements including the words “at least” — they do not offer consolation when uttered to the bereaved. (If they say it themselves, that’s fine. Consoling mourners isn’t about you. It’s about them.)

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*Because I’ve had this phrase on my mind all week, and because of the beautiful lives I wish to honor by actively remembering them, I’m adding this excerpt from a YouTube video featuring Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell.” (The lyrics at 2:00 and 2:45 have been especially on my mind.) [Added this morning: Aunt Ginny, “you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell…”]

New Year, New Grief

You might assume the New Year’s arrival will bring healing relief to friends whose loved ones died during the last year. You might think, “Now that it’s a new year, not the year of their loss, things will be better, right?”

Not necessarily.

For some mourners, replacing their calendar from the year of a significant loss might feel like it offers a “fresh start.” For many of the recently bereaved, though, the New Year marks another level of removal from beloved ones, another severing of increasingly tenuous connections to them and/or their memories. In previous years their loved ones lived; in all the years to come, they won’t. Once that calendar changes, shared years are forever left behind.

New Year’s Eve (just like other holidays) can trigger renewed feelings of loss in those who have already begun the long, long, long process of learning to live while grieving loved ones. From traditions like setting New Year’s resolutions (a.k.a. “goals”), to swapping “Who were you with when the ball dropped?” stories, to serving special New Year’s Day foods (like black-eyed peas), the day — and day after — can be full of painful reminders of grief.

The end of one year and the beginning of another can be difficult for those mourning with anticipated grief, too. If your friends are facing a terminal illness or condition for themselves or their loved one, the imminence of knowing the coming year might — or will — be their last together can be overwhelming.

How can you help your grieving friends through the New Year?

  • Acknowledge that you know this holiday, like others, marks a difficult time of year.  Whether the loss is recently raw or it has been years, with the ending/beginning nature of this worldwide change from one year to the next, New Year’s Eve and Day have the potential to reopen grief’s partly- or not-yet-healed wounds.
  • Invite your grieving friends to join you in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Let them know you’d like them to be with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“I’d like y’all to join me so you won’t have to be alone or plan anything yourselves”). If they decline at once, let them know the invitation remains open in case circumstances change or they change their minds.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer your grieving friends the choice, but respect that they will know best for themselves whether solitude or socializing will help. For some of my widowed friends, 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 and other years I’ve preferred to go out dancing with friends.
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes the bereaved can happily engage with others one moment and feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let your grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can go if they need a few moments to themselves. (Sometimes a private cry is priceless for channeling emotions.)

If your mourning friends choose not to join you, you can still offer an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern. When “life moves on” for the rest of the world on January 1st (and by the way, do NOT ever tell mourners “life moves on”), let your friends know that you know that this year will be different and that you will still be there for them.

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For more on this topic, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

 

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

This is my fifth widowed Thanksgiving, and it’s the first year I’ve been up to preparing a traditional meal for our family. Extended family circumstances meant we had our celebration on Sunday, half a week before “real” Thanksgiving Day. It was a wonderful gathering of family and friends, and in almost every moment I basked in watching loved ones laughing, talking, teasing … almost like the years B.G. — Before Grief. Even so, I don’t think I could have mustered the energy — or the will for it — had we met on “real” Thanksgiving Day. 

From the earliest hours after my husband’s death I’ve been grateful for many tender mercies that blessed me through my darkest hours. That doesn’t mean I’ve walked around like Pollyanna playing “the glad game” over the pains and practical problems of grieving. There are many, many aspects of my husband’s never-diagnosed mental and neurological deterioration and his sudden, unexpected death that I cannot  honestly say I’m grateful for. (Perhaps not “yet.” Perhaps not ever.) But I’ve seen sparkles of sunlight (loving gestures from family and friends, personal and professional growth, life lessons learned, and multiple mini-miracles of circumstance) while stepping through otherwise impenetrable days. I continue to appreciate each pinprick glint of goodness as it comes.

HOWEVER, I had to see those glimmers of gratitude for myself. Hearing others say, “You should be grateful that…” or “Aren’t you thankful for…” did not help when grief was a raw, festering sore in every step I took. It didn’t help while I began learning to live with grief’s limp, moving forward but with faltering, often errant steps. It still doesn’t help now that I walk (and sometimes run — though briefly) with my grief-acquired gait.

What did help, and what still helps, is when people reach out to me, when they acknowledge their awareness that grief has altered my path. When grieving souls (like mine) are ready and able to lift their eyes to see the beauty or the genius in the surrounding landscape, they will. They will know when they are ready to look up. You will not. Do not tell your grieving friends where they “should” look — you’ll distract them from placing their wounded feet on safe terrain.

Instead, let them know you’re nearby with your arms outstretched, ready for them to grab hold if they need somewhere to lean. Instead of wishing them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” especially if the loss is as recent as two years, say, “I’m thinking of you on this Thanksgiving Day. I know it’s different. I know it’s hard. I’m here for you.”

UPDATE:

I’m amending this post to include the words of my friend, Andrea Rediske. She and her family have experienced their own battles with love and loss as they grieved their oldest son’s years of medical crises and as they now grieve his still recent passing in February 2014*. I asked Andrea’s permission to share her poignant, clear, insightful perspective to help better educate those who wish to support grieving friends, whether they grieve impending or final losses.

From Andrea:
I wrote this blog post about 4 years ago, after Ethan had had a particularly difficult year. I wish I could summon the same anguished serenity that I felt when I wrote this. I DO have many things to be grateful for: my husband, children, family, friends, my health, the opportunity to pursue my PhD, and many more. But am I grateful for nearly 12 years of witnessing my son fight every day for his life? Am I grateful to have sat at his bedside when he died? Am I grateful for the grief that regularly blindsides me? Nope, nope, nope, nope…
http://segullah.org/daily-special/give-thanks-for-this/

When grief “regularly blindsides” your bereaved friends (as it does with the regularity of a clock ticking off every second of every day), be sure you offer them your outstretched arm in that darkness. Bite your tongue if tempted to preach Pollyanna practices. Instead of telling mourners what to be grateful for, listen to what they have to say — without judging them for saying it.

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* Please see https://tealashes.com/2014/02/21/ethan-rediske-act-supports-my-grieving-friend-and-many-other-families/ to learn more about Ethan Rediske.