A Widow’s Thoughts on Father’s Day … and Star Trek

I’ve written and discarded more than a handful of pre-Father’s Day posts this year.* Early attempts gushed, dripping with enough emotion to make the Enterprise‘s empathic Counselor Deanna Troi  seem unfeeling. Later drafts evoked so little sentiment they could have been dictated by the most stoic members of the Vulcan High Command.

You might be asking, why the Star Trek references on a grief website about Father’s Day?

My three daughters — my next generation — grew up with the sounds and culture of Star Trek in our home. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com.)

I introduced my late husband to Gene Roddenberry’s world(s), and over the years he learned to love Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation as much as I did. (Well, almost, anyway.) The Next Generation debuted weeks before the birth of our first child, and he watched (at first) only to placate his very pregnant wife. It’s the series I most associate with him becoming a new father.

A few years (read: show seasons) later, I went into labor with our second child (during the first commercial break) while watching a new episode. I hid my increasing discomfort (read: pain and silent attempts at Lamaze breathing) until the end of that hour. I knew he and my mother (who’d come to help with the baby) would insist I hurry to the hospital the second they realized I was having contractions — but first, I had to see how The Next Generation episode ended! (Besides, the contractions started at twelve minutes apart. When they soon skipped to five, I couldn’t exactly call the doctor as instructed at seven minutes apart, could I?) Better to wait until the end of the show …

In early grief, I wished I could click a magic device and say, “Beam me up.” (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

In these days of DVDs and streaming, its easy to binge-watch not just one installment but all the Star Trek spin-off series. Yet, in the nearly seven years since my husband died, I’ve probably seen fewer than seven episodes of the seven hundred-some spanning six series not to mention the movies. It took time to win my husband over to the sci fi shows, and it has taken time to win me back to that shared interest.

Grief takes time. Lots and lots of time. Moving forward with everyday life while mourning happens only one step — sometimes one inch — at a time. (So, please, be patient with your grieving friends.)

During the first couple of years after my husband died, sometimes I wanted to say, “Beam me up, please,” but I knew my children, my dad, and my dog needed me (not always in that order).

As it was, grief stresses kept me on 24-7 red alert: single parenting, mourning, shifted family resources, altered finances, revamped career moves, overturned short- and long-term plans, sleeping, eating, paying bills, doing home maintenance … Those around me may not have seen the red strobes flashing behind my eyelids, and they may not have heard the sirens blaring in my ears, but my body and brain could not turn them off. Relentless fight-or-flight feelings brought on by bereavement drained my reserves at warp speed.

The future — the unplanned-for future without my husband — seemed vast, cold, and dark as I explored the “strange, new world” of widowhood.

I feel more upbeat about this Father’s Day than I have in years. Maybe it’s just easier this seventh year. More likely, it’s because I’m about to enter a new frontier of my own as the cast and crew of my family expands to include our next generation — my first grandchild.

The original crew of the Enterprise expanded into multiple series — not counting the red-shirted extras. (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

Do I still miss my husband and grieve over him? Yes. Will there be moments of sadness in Father’s Days to come when his grandchild grows up without ever meeting him? Doubly yes. Will I fall apart at church on Sunday when the children sing to their fathers? Yes, yes, and yes.

But I think (and hope) I’ll shed fewer tears this year.  Even as I “boldly go where no” husband of mine has gone before … from widowhood into grandparenthood.
___

* For specific things to do for and say to someone grieving this Father’s Day, please see Another Father’s Day — DANG IT!

(A few years ago I also wrote Father’s Day Non-Scents for the Segullah.org blog.)

Thanksgiving after Death

I threw out the post I penned for this Thanksgiving week.

I’d written about how giving thanks while grieving helped me heal, but those thankful acknowledgments came from within me — not from others’ admonitions to be grateful for X, Y, or Z. And I wrote about ways the post-Thanksgiving frenzy of Black Friday shopping can be a grief trigger for many.

But two events nudged me to change this post: the death of an elderly friend and the news of the school bus crash in Chattanooga.

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My octogenarian friend fell, had surgery, and began recovering. After all accounts reported she was healing, Emily took ill and died within days. Two common thoughts predominated this week as I met members of the family she delighted in, as I listened to neighbors who interacted with her daily, as I spoke with others who knew her through her writing (as I did):

  • We all loved and will miss her, though in different ways.
  • In spite of her age and recent health challenges, we all felt varying degrees of shock and disbelief.

I recognized the expression of acute grief in Emily’s family members’ faces, remembering (a little too clearly) how I felt when my mother and grandmother died. My friend’s passing saddens me, and I will continue to miss her. But her family and closer friends will actively mourn her for as long as they have loved her.

Which returns me to the second event prompting this altered post.

Many hearts in Chattanooga and elsewhere will be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend as they rejoice in their little ones’ safety, but even that gratitude will be overshadowed by the knowledge of others’ suffering. My heartfelt condolences and prayers and thoughts go out to the families whose children were so abruptly taken from them.

I cannot fathom the weight of grief and mourning in that community and within the walls of those homes. I have witnessed my friends’ acute pain in mourning their  children, but I have not worn the soul-searing loss of a child, so I cannot truly understand it. I can only try, knowing nothing I do will make them feel better because nothing I do will restore their dear ones. I can’t fix their pain, but I can — I must — acknowledge it.

After any loved one’s death, Thanksgiving as a holiday and thanksgiving as a practice are never the same. The holiday — with all its traditions — now carries the dark smear of absence. The practice — though healing — may seem impossible for a time likely to stretch beyond a single season (or year).

Every life is precious. All souls deserve to be sung out of this world with love and tenderness as the sun sets on their presence. Heart-songs of mourning include gratitude for the good they did, the lives they touched, and the connections they shared. But those sweet overtones ring truest when honestly accompanied by the bitter, background disharmony of bereavement.

If your friends are mourning this holiday season, listen as they share their gratitude for their loved ones. Openly share the reasons you thank heaven for their loved ones’ influence in your life.

(But please, do not lecture or admonish grieving friends on why or whether or how they should be grateful.)

 

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.

 

 

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 

Silence. 

She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.

___

(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)

Grief–it’s all in the family

Everyone’s grief is unique. With no two people grieving in the same ways, misunderstandings can fester among family members mourning the same lost loved one.

Consider the case of adult siblings mourning the passing of their parent (or cousins mourning a grandparent). One may need time and space for quiet contemplation while another tries to talk over feelings of loss. A third sibling may seek to reminisce over memories of shared experiences with their deceased parent, or a fourth may grapple with feelings of denial by wielding humor and laughter or derision and sarcasm as a shield against more raw discussion. When such conflicting methods of coping collide, bereaved brothers and sorrowing sisters may feel their siblings’ aren’t grieving the “right” way.

Further complicating the misunderstandings between grieving family members are the unique differences in every relationship, even the “same” relationship. Each sibling’s relationship with a deceased parent was unique, as was the parent-child bond between each of a pair of grieving parents and their lost child. A mother’s loss of her adult son and her daughter-in-law’s loss of her husband are two different losses of the same person.)

One-upmanship over whose loss hurts worse never helps, and it can be difficult to repair families torn by hasty reactions of grief. Nobody wins when in-laws cut off ties or when siblings stop speaking. I’ve been grateful for in-laws who consider me and my children as much a part of the family as when my husband was alive, but I know many, many widows and widowers for whom that isn’t the case. Their children lost not only a parent but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, compounding the tragedy in their lives.

In an ideal world, everyone who ever loved (or was loved by) someone who died should be able to reach out to give and get support from everyone else who ever loved (or was loved by) that person.