Christmas Joy, Christmas Grief

It’s been (early) Christmas at my house for more than a week now; we’re wrapping up (or should I say we’ve already unwrapped?) our holiday celebrations — all but the church service — before December 25. It’s been wonderful having my kids here and celebrating together — this has been a lovely holiday season, our seventh without my husband, their father.

During a few moments, though, “old” grief barged in, casting its shadow across the glow of today’s Christmas lights and shoving me back toward the way I felt when grief was raw:

Mom's Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Mom’s Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Glimpsing maroon-and-red hanging from a store display and thinking — just for a second — Ooh, I think he’d like those colors — before I remembered it’s been seven Christmases since I got him a new shirt …
  • Looking up from the yogurt aisle at Walmart to see one of the three paramedics who came to our house the night my husband died … I backed up, turned away, fled to another aisle, and doubled over in the holding-a-shopping-cart equivalent of putting my head between my knees … (My brain knew I was okay, that it was in the past, but my body didn’t. I shook and trembled on and off for hours after, and had to talk myself into sleeping that night for fear of nightmares returning — as they sometimes do.)
  • Placing the star atop the tree and flashing back to my husband lifting our daughters over his head when they were small so they could set the star or an angel at the top …
  • Setting the felt angel my mother made decades ago into the Christmas tree branches and missing her all over again …
  • Realizing with gratitude that my wonderful son-in-law brings our holiday household back to five members … and wishing my husband could be here to get to know and love him too …
  • Relishing the new Star Wars movie with my firstborn daughter beside me and recognizing my hand reached for his at my other side, darn it

For the most part, in day-to-day life, I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve adjusted to living without him at my side. As I’ve shared above, sometimes it “still” hurts, but not as sharply as in the traumatic first and second years after his death.

Much felt hazy in widowed fog back then. Yet I remember the numerous people who attempted to console and comfort me during those difficult, raw years — especially during the holidays. I appreciated them for speaking and reaching out — for not ignoring me — even when some of their efforts were less comforting.

  • Some told me not to cry, that he wouldn’t want me (or our kids) to be sad. I couldn’t help thinking, would he want me to be happy he’s not here? 
  • Others said in time I’d “get used to” living without him (and several years later I have), but that didn’t help me feel better then — it made it worse; it felt like they wanted me to forget about him by discounting the painful grief that was (is) interwoven with my love for him.
  • A few admonished me to “keep it together” for my kids’ sakes. “Don’t let them see you cry,” they said. “You’ll spoil their Christmas and make them afraid to go back to school” (my older daughters attended college out of state during those first few years). But my kids and I were still learning our way through grieving, and suppressing grief is far more harmful than expressing it. I wasn’t crying every minute of every day (though it sometimes felt almost that much), but I didn’t benefit when others told me to hide my tears.

I also remember the many kind, supportive words and gestures that lightened my emotional (and physical) burdens while acknowledging my bereavement during those earliest grief-filled holiday seasons.

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “You’re in my prayers.”
  • “I know you’re grieving her during this season.”
  • “I know it’s not the same without him.”
  • “Would you like to talk about him? About his favorite parts of Christmas?” (Sometimes I did want to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. But it felt like I mattered whenever they asked.)
  • One woman called to ask what kind of cookies my youngest daughter liked. A few hours later, she texted to say she was on her way to drop off a plateful.
  • Unexpected gift cards (and cash) helped offset expenses and made me feel less alone in providing for my family’s needs.
  • Cards, letters, emails, and texts offered tangible, visual evidence of others’ awareness.
  • Phone calls offered the same, even when I let it go to voicemail to listen later. (Sometimes I could not summon the emotional effort to answer or reply, but I did appreciate them.)
  • Invitations to join others in holiday gatherings proved I hadn’t been forgotten. Even though I couldn’t muster the strength or will to accept them (and I may not have even responded to some of them, I’m sorry to say now), it meant a lot to be asked.
  • A few of the men from our congregation — my husband’s church brothers — stopped by with a Christmas tree a couple of months after he died, when I’d all but forgotten about readying myself, let alone my house, for the holidays.*

Think back over your year. Did any of your friends lose loved ones? If so, please reach out to them. The holidays can be especially lonely and difficult while mourning. It’s not too late — it’s never too late — to say, “I’m thinking of you” — unless you never say it at all.

Wishing you and yours moments of peace and joy in your holidays. If’ you’re mourning this season, I hope those around you will reach out and show you they care. 

___

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church. The “bushes” behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time.) Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

*The day our church brothers brought the Christmas tree, they did more than that. They opened their eyes and looked around as they hefted the pine out of a pickup truck and into the house. While setting it up in the stand, they asked, “Sister Bruce, do you have anyone helping you out with your yard?” (By what they’d seen, the answer was obvious, but to their credit they asked anyway.) To read about the amazing service they gave my family soon after, please see Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking.

 

Grieving through the Holidays — A Personal Message to Mourners

Several friends and acquaintances have contacted me in recent weeks because someone they know has lost a loved one. They’re worried about how grieving friends will endure the holiday season. The purpose of my website has always focused on educating people — like my friends — in how to support the newly (and not-so-newly) bereaved.

I’ve spoken indirectly to mourners rather than addressing them here — until now:

Dear Mourning Friend of My Friend,

I’m sorry.

As a widow whose life partner perished — and as a daughter who yet mourns her mother — I share my grief with you. Not in comparison with yours but as an offering to open communication. I do not know the exact pain of your bereavement — I have not experienced it. But from within the pain of my own, I recognize your guttural groans of grief as the same life-altered language of loss I’ve learned.*

I’m so sorry.

My Friend’s Friend, if I could sit down beside you, I’d listen to you cry (and maybe probably drop a tear or two of my own) while handing you one thick, lotion-infused tissue after another. (I’d bring a new box for you each time I arrived.)

I’d nod my head (and bite my tongue) while you ranted and raved about anything and everything remotely responsible for the death of your loved one.

If you said out loud all the things you’re going to miss about your dear one, I’d listen to every one — and I’d write them if you’d like me to. If you chose to tell me funny stories about your deceased darling, I’d laugh along with you (again handing you tissues if when laughter crossed the line back to tears).

I’d hear you out — without judgement or interruption — if you chose to tell me of your faith and how it helps you cope — or how it does not. If you asked me — and only if you asked — I’d relay how my faith sustained me through the earliest days of my own grieving (and — if you asked — how, six years later, it keeps me afloat through the occasional blindsiding waves of renewed grief).

If you wanted someone at your side to attend a worship service, I’d go with you, and you wouldn’t have to explain yourself or feel like hiding your tears when the familiarity of place and ritual clashed against the unfamiliar absence of your dearly departed. I wouldn’t judge you if you needed to flee mid-hymn or mid-prayer.

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I’m so sorry for the devastating loss of your loved one.

If I could sit down beside you in your grieving, I’d bring you a glass of water, I’d suggest you drink it, and I’d tell you to breathe. Yes, breathe.**

(Really. Before you read further, take a long, deep breath.) 

I would not say, “Call me if you need anything,” because I remember how confused I was while newly grieving. I didn’t know what I needed — but I knew I was as physically as emotionally incapable of picking up the phone to ask anyone for help — no matter how sincere I believed their offer.

Nor would I ask, “How are you?” because I remember how impossible it was to answer that question when half my heart felt ripped away.

But I would reassure you that, no, you’re not crazy, and yes, your grieving body is likely doing all sorts of weird things to your appetite, skin, digestion, sleep cycle, immune system, memory … I’d encourage you that — in time — much of that will resettle, but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt — and might help — to check in with your doctor.

I’d write things down for you, because you’re going to forget. I’d bring you an obnoxious, look-at-me-bright neon notebook for recording and storing all the death-related red tape and paperwork — everything from jotting the names, phone extensions, and times of day you speak with employees over cancelling accounts, to listing the kind ways friends and neighbors reach out, to stockpiling the government forms you have yet to fill out.

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation's annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn't make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation’s annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn’t make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If I sat with you side by side, and you asked how I made it through the first (and second) holiday season after my mother died, and then after my husband died, I’d lower my eyes, thinking, Not well. Then I’d answer as positively as honesty allows, “I don’t really know. Much is a merciful blur …”

I’d pause before speaking the rest: “… but the parts I remember — hurt.”

I’d add assurances that it’s okay — even necessary — to be flexible about Christmas parties and Hanukkah traditions and holiday gatherings. I’d acknowledge they will never be the same. Only you will know which customary activities might bring you peace through their connection to your deceased loved one; only you will know which might grind salted vinegar into the raw recesses of your grieving heart. I’d give you my permission — which you don’t need — to change your mind at any time about any and all of whatever celebrations you desire to join in on. And I’d remind you that when traditions no longer bring joy, it’s okay to exchange them.

I’d ask if you’d welcome a hug, and if not, I’d graciously accept your refusal. When you’re the one grieving, you’re allowed to say what you need and want.

___

*My friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford‘s On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them beautifully speaks that language. Reading her poignant portrayal of working through her son’s death and studying the passages she shared from other voices helped me when I needed it.

**For specifics on why I urge you to breathe, see this post on the taboo topic of appearance.

New Year after Death

Illustration of running the gauntlet from "Spiessgasse" (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525. (This image is in the public domain.) Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

Illustration of running the gauntlet from “Spiessgasse” (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525.
(This image is in the public domain.)
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

‘Twas the week after Christmas and ‘fore the New Year,
When partyers gathered to prolong good cheer.
But for mourners it marked yet another milestone
(without absent loved ones) of being alone.
— Teresa  TL Bruce

The holidays are hard for the newly bereaved. (They’re not so easy for the not-so-newly bereaved, either.) Since early fall (in the U.S.), we’ve run the grieving gauntlet of celebrations — Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas — and now we’re facing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. [Please see New Year, New Grief for specifics on grief, the end of one year, and the beginning of the next.]

Sometimes, the cumulative effects of getting through event after event without deceased loved ones can seem like too much to bear. Sometimes mourners become overwhelmed with breathing — with being — in a world whose traditions and commemorations keep going while their lost loves do not.

For weeks now I’ve been reflecting on something I saw on the news the week before Thanksgiving. Former NFL New England Patriot quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents died of natural causes within hours of one another. His father had a fatal heart attack, and then his mother did, too.

It’s been said she died of a broken heart. I believe it.

My sympathies and condolences go to the Fluties’ children, grandchildren, and other extended family this holiday season and as they begin the new year without them. Losing a parent is agonizing. (I know how I felt when my mother died.) Losing a grandparent is painful and life-changing, too. (I miss all of my grandparents.)

I cannot imagine the sorrow and ache of losing both parents (or two grandparents) in a single day.

For their immediate and extended family’s sake, I am sorry. Their pain and mourning will last beyond the initial swells of sympathy and kindness they no doubt received from their friends (and from the public).

But for the sake of the couple themselves, who died within hours of each other …

Losing a spouse is heart-breaking. Literally. It wasn’t until my husband’s death that I understood how physically broken a heart could feel. But it wasn’t just my heart. I had grafted my life to my husband’s — joined in mind, heart, body, and soul. His death ripped, tore at, axed, smashed, and severed our joined mind, heart, body, and soul — my mind, my heart, my body, my soul.

We were one. And when one is halved, the fraction remaining is not whole. The surviving spouse is an off-kilter, walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human.

I remember how awful the first days felt. (First weeks, months, years …) I resented rare couples, like the Fluties, who passed from this life into the next together by peaceful, natural causes.

For the sakes of that late husband and his briefly widowed wife (whose family now doubly grieves their dual absence), I reluctantly admit I held a sliver of envy. (Amid the widowed community, I know I’m not alone in this.)

I’m not the only widowed one who, on hearing of one spouse shortly following the other into death, feels … (I don’t like admitting this) … jealous.

Now, lest any of my friends, family, or readers misunderstand me, let me be very, very clear before we go on from here:  I did not ever, I do not now, and I will not ever contemplate taking any action to hasten “joining” my late husband. No. NOT gonna happen.*

But there were times I would have welcomed a passive exit of my own. There were times when grief was so ever-present, so debilitating, so excruciating, so overwhelming, so lonely … I went to bed hoping not to wake up. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live, because I had three amazing daughters who needed me. I had other family and friends I needed and loved, too. But I didn’t know how to keep going One. More. Hour. — let alone another DAY — in that much pain.

Waking up to a new day was as awful as going to bed alone. (Sometimes.)

Among the newly widowed, dying together can seem preferable to surviving a spouse. (At least for a while.) Over and over I heard others say, “Why did I have to stay behind? Why do I have to keep going? How can I endure hurting this badly?”

There’s nothing you can do to remove their pain, but you can make sure they don’t endure it alone. Include them. Be with them. Validate their loss by acknowledging and accepting their sorrow.

Let them know you’ll be by their side — and not just on New Year’s Eve, but in the unbearably long 365 days that follow.

___

*If you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that “not living” seems like an option, please, please seek professional help. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for the sakes of those around you, get help now.
Visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

 

Thanksgiving and Thanks-Grieving — Serving Mashed Gratitude with a Side of Grief

In previous years I wrote about grief and gratitude intermingling during Thanksgiving.* Whether someone died recently or long ago, the holiday season is forever altered for surviving family and friends.

For families who have lost loved ones within a few days, weeks, or even months, the shock of new grief might mask the sharpest pain of the first holiday season — or not.

The pain can be overwhelming. Getting through my first widowed Thanksgiving (only a couple of months after my husband’s unexpected death) was like waking up in a surgical recovery room. I was groggy with grief, unable to focus on anything but the faces of my family, too aware of the open wound where half my heart had been removed without my consent.

Our post-death holiday menu abstained from all things traditional. Instead of cooking favorite dishes, we went out to eat. Instead of verbalizing what we were grateful for as a family, I privately listed my many blessings in a notebook. Instead of putting up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving for the 25th year in a row, I forgot. (I even forgot we’d bought an artificial tree two years before he died.)  I forgot Christmas was coming.

Seasoning my every acknowledgement of personal gratitude was the GAPING HOLE of his absence. My husband — my children’s father — WAS NOT THERE … and would NEVER return.

Sometimes the pain of loss can be motivating; not every loss means all tradition must be avoided. Mom died two months before Thanksgiving a decade and a half earlier. (Yes, my husband’s death was the same time of year as my mother’s.) Our family did everything we could that first Thanksgiving and Christmas to serve up “sameness” — as much as was possible without her presence. (Though we did have her presents, sort of. She left behind — or more accurately purchased ahead — ornaments for her grandchildren.) Thanksgiving and Christmas were bittersweet commemorations (not exactly celebrations) that year; her sweet reminders and attitude of gratitude surrounded us, tempered by our distress and longing for her, softened and lightened by everyone’s anticipation of her third grandchild’s birth between the two holidays.

These examples from my household illustrate one of the most important things to remember if you want to support a bereaved friend or if you are yourself grieving: There is no “right” way to grieve, and (short of recklessly dangerous behaviors) there’s no “wrong” way to grieve, either.

Every loss is unique. Everyone’s journey of adjustment after a death takes its own time. Like people attending an all-day Thanksgiving buffet, no two plates of grief will hold identical quantities, and few will eat all their items in the same order or at the same time.

Let your friends know you’re aware of their losses. If you haven’t said it lately, say it again. (Grief is ongoing; your concern should be, too.) Invite them to share your table. Reassure them they’re going about it the best they can.

___

*Here are links to my other posts on this topic:

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Holiday grief–LISTEN up!

Holidays are hard when you’re mourning. Like performing your own root canal with only elevator Muzak for anesthesia. Blindfolded. While wearing oven mitts and running down the middle of Alligator Alley with hungry gators sunning nearby.

I wish I were exaggerating, but that ridiculous example far understates it.

I’m doing well this year, my fifth widowed Christmas.  Last year, my fourth, I was doing “meh.” Okay.

But the first three? (I just shuddered as I typed those four words.I no longer feel that agonizing, raw pain of new grief, but even its memory kept me from posting earlier this month, when it might have helped someone going through the indescribable anticipation of the first holiday season without their parent, child, sibling, spouse, or other dear one.

I couldn’t revisit those feelings — that pain — while heading into my own “doing better” holiday season. Not this year. Not yet.

So if I — a person in every way “moving forward” with my life — shied away from addressing the agonies of “new” grief during the holidays, imagine how much harder it is for your friends who have lost someone within the last year (or two).

Here are some ways you can show you care:

  • Acknowledge the loss. The best condolence doesn’t attempt to “cheer up” the mourner. Rather, it validates the survivors’ feelings of grief. “I know this is/was your first [second, etc.] Christmas [Hanukkah, New Year’s…] without your husband [father, daughter, sister, friend…]. You’ve been in and will continue to be in my thoughts.”
  • Ask, and then listen. This isn’t a time to tell about you and yours (unless the mourner asks). This is a time to offer your bereaved friends the chance to speak of what their aching hearts need to share.
    “Would you like to tell me about how you and ____ celebrated ____ together?”
    “What were _____’s favorite holiday traditions?”
  • Do something. For those who are grieving, even small gestures — a handwritten note, a quick text, a dropped off candy bar or flower, an act of service (like shoveling sidewalks or, for those of us in warmer climates, pulling weeds) — can mean the difference between despair and hope during one of the hardest times of year.
  • Repeat. Once you’ve checked in and done one (or all) of the above, start over. Unlike the holidays, which hit the calendar once in the year and cycle away for a year, grief is ever-present. Moments of sorrow can yield to moments of joy and acceptance in the kindnesses shown by friends, but they are temporary.

It takes time — LOTS of time — before the excruciating fog of new grief lifts, and after the holidays, when the rest of the world seemingly goes back to normal, the contrast between “peace on earth” and the sorrow of the mourning heart can seem even greater. Your ongoing thoughtfulness will help your friends through.