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.)

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at soon after your friends’ loved ones died, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends may need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months.

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did not know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For friends approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

___

(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)

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.

 

Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.

stopinlotbyteresatlbruce

___

*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.

Wedding Anniversary and Grief

When my husband died, our wedding anniversary was forever changed. The looked-forward-to date that used to celebrate the joining of our two lives became a date I dreaded. It was another sharp reminder that the man I’d shared my life with would no longer be part of our future plans, that the father of my children — the only person who knew and loved them as much (and as well) as I did — was gone.

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Wedding anniversaries have been on my mind a lot lately. One of my daughters recently married — a joyous occasion!– and my own 30th anniversary is approaching.

So when Shellie posted this comment (see Anniversary after Death) …

My father-in-law passed away March 31 and this June would have been my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary. I want to acknowledge the day, but I am unsure what would bring my mother-in-law any peace or happiness on this difficult day (I feel I should have some kind of idea since my husband and I have lost two children but a wedding anniversary is completely different, and I am at a loss), any advice would be greatly appreciated.

… I had to give more than a brief reply.

Shellie, I hope you’ll forgive my turning your request into a public post. (Everyone else, I hope you’ll forgive me for addressing the rest of this post directly to her.)

I’m sorry for the loss of your father-in-law. I remember how it felt to me (and still feels) after my father-in-law passed, but I can only begin to imagine how much harder it must be for you while also feeling for your husband in his grief. (My late husband passed before his father.)  And I’m deeply sorry to learn that two of your children have died. That’s a degree of loss I cannot fathom.

But I can speak as a widow. Thank you for already looking for ways to reach out to your mother-in-law as her anniversary approaches. You are right that “a wedding anniversary is completely different,” but loss is loss.

Chances are, the kinds of things your friends and family say or do that have brought you peace after your children’s deaths (as much semblance of peace as is possible) are the same kinds of things your mother-in-law needs from you.

Keep in mind, though, that whereas you and your husband share the devastating loss of your two children, your mother-in-law now shares her wedding anniversary with no one.

love is the richness people find as they share in each other's lives

It’s possible the days leading up to the date may be as difficult for her as the day itself. With her loss so recent, “peace or happiness” may or may not be yet within her ability to appreciate while shock is still ever-present.

You’ve already expressed your desire to acknowledge the day, and that’s one of the best things you can do. Let her know ahead that you’re aware the anniversary is coming. Let her know you realize it will be a difficult, emotional day. If you live near enough to be with her in person, be there. Regardless of your distance or proximity, send her a card or handwritten note that will arrive on (or before) the anniversary. (“Thinking of you on your anniversary” is a better greeting choice than “Happy anniversary.”)

Above all, listen to her.

If she says she needs space or solitude, respect whatever boundaries she expresses, but keep communication open. (So far, solitude is what I’ve most wanted on my widowed anniversaries, but not everyone feels as I do.) If your mother-in-law says she wants to spend the day by herself, be sure you call to let her know you’re still available if she changes her mind.

Ask if she has ways she’d like to remember or reminisce on that day — IF she wants to discuss them. For some newly widowed, sharing memories is a comforting, healing process. For others, it’s too painful for a while. Again, listen to what she says.

Your mother-in-law might be too overwhelmed by grief to initiate suggestions, so consider offering ideas. Suggest a favorite (or new) restaurant with a friend, a quiet dinner with family, an afternoon involved in a favorite hobby, looking through old photo albums, reminiscing … The options will vary based on what you know of her and her late husband.

Some widows and widowers spend their anniversaries doing service activities in their late spouses’ memories or visiting places they once enjoyed together for old times’ sakes. I know others who spend their wedding anniversaries trying something new, just for themselves.

If your mother- and father-in-law made plans for how they would commemorate their golden anniversary, find out whether she wants to fulfill them (in whole or in part). Doing so might give her a sense of carrying his memory forward with her — or it may be too painful without him. (Again, listening to her is essential.)

Unless she requests it, a party is probably not something she will be up to this soon after his death. (I had difficulty mingling in public for most of the first year after my husband died — and at times it is still hard five and a half years later.) Avoid surprise parties. Emotions are too on the surface. Of the thousands of widows and widowers I’ve networked with, I have yet to hear of any appreciating surprise parties of any kind.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to help your mother-in-law through her 50th anniversary, Shellie, but you were already on the right track before you posted your comment. You already knew she needs acknowledgment that she and her husband spent half a century together.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

 

Grief Therapy and a Friend’s Counsel

A  few weeks after my husband’s death, a woman I hadn’t seen in years suggested I meet with a grief therapist. “My mom went to counseling after her husband died,” my friend told me, “and it made a world of difference for her. Counseling helped her cope.”

My friend’s sincere concern (and attempted consolation) touched me. I felt the kindness of her intention, but her words scraped at already raw emotions. I balked.

I may have nodded as she spoke, but I stepped back, putting a wider space between us while my inner voice screamed over her advice:

I don’t need a therapist, thank you very much, and this sadness isn’t something I need to fix. I don’t want counseling — I want my husband back. I want my kids’ father back! How dare you — who still have your husband — tell me someone can fix my mental health? He’s only been dead a month — am I supposed to be okay with that?

My husband was dead. Talking it out with a stranger wouldn’t return him to life. It wouldn’t return me from my new, unwelcome status as a single parent to my familiar role as a married, stay-at-home mom.

But before I could put words to that inner indignation, another old acquaintance approached who’d not yet heard THE news. “Hi, Teresa. How’s your husband doing? Where is he today?”

I opened my mouth to answer, not knowing what I’d say.

Sometimes, back then, when grief was new and raw and all-consuming, I couldn’t allow myself to utter the horrible words, “He’s dead.”

Other times, I couldn’t stop myself from blurting, “My husband died.” (Looking back, I pity the poor store clerks, fellow shoppers, and service professionals I encountered.)

So how did I answer the second woman’s innocent, caring question that day — on the heels of hearing another’s advice?

A wordless sob.  I spun and — sobbing louder — ran as fast as I could.*

I ran from the idea of counseling as much as I ran from the need to escape before really making a scene.

For more than a year after that day, my friend’s suggestion rattled around in the back of my mind, usually associated with feelings of flight. Meanwhile, I met and networked with many, many fellow widows and widowers and began networking with others who’d lost loved ones as well. From time to time, these peers mentioned grief counseling, and how glad they were they’d participated.  I always thought, “Good for them … but not for me.”

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn't remove it.

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn’t remove it. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Yet my friend’s words echoed: Counseling helped her cope … Counseling helped her … Counseling helped …

When I was ready, I realized it might do me some good. Even then, it took a couple of months more (and several dialed hang ups) to schedule myself an appointment.

It did help. It didn’t take away or diminish my loss, but it empowered me with tools to reframe my life’s “new normal.”

(Thank you again, my friend, for the gentle suggestion you gave me that day more than five years ago. I remain grateful for it!)

Before you gently suggest grief counseling or therapy for bereaved friends, keep in mind:

  • Grieving is harder than it looks, so avoid criticism or commentary that implies your friends are mourning and/or coping the “wrong” way. (Of course, if they are doing or about to do something harmful to themselves or others, stepping in is essential — just as it would be for any of your friends who aren’t grieving!)
  • Grieving takes much, much longer than you think. (Hint: Year two is often more difficult than the first 365 days after a death.) Please, remember they are still in mourning long after the funeral — and reach out to them.
  • Sometimes it helps to enlist a professional, but until mourners are ready, counseling won’t help.**  If you think it would benefit your friends, gently mention the idea once. Wait a couple of months before you bring it up again. Then wait another couple of months.
  • Remember: Grief is an emotional state born of love and triggered by loss, but it has real, physical components, too. Grief can’t be cured or fixed or treated any more than you can cure or fix the love at its roots. But coping tools can (eventually) assist in adjusting to it.
  • Like anything new, it takes time to become proficient. Never, ever, ever imply to a griever they should be (or get) “over it by now.” Don’t say that. Ever. No, never. (Can you tell how strongly I feel about this?)

In the meantime, let your friends know that whether or not they seek a professional’s help in learning to manage their grief, you’ll stand by them — no matter what.

___

*I ran as fast as a woman with nerve damage in her ankle could “run” away while clomping along with a cane. (But that’s a whole different story of life back then…)

**See the Mayo Clinic’s page on Complicated Grief for information on warning signs that your friend may need professional help adjusting after a loss. The symptoms listed are normal for grievers (and even to be expected) during the first six months, according to that website, but may also last much longer. However, if they do not diminish of if they intensify over time, enlisting professional help may be necessary.

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.

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

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude