Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.


*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.

Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.


*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

In Support of a Grieving Family

My friend’s son died yesterday morning.

In the final days of his life, his name became well-known beyond the circle of his immediate family and their friends. I hope there will be an equally widespread outpouring of support for his family. Please forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, but I’d like to reiterate principles to remember for anyone who may be reaching out to his grieving family.

[Note: Right now I’m too close to the emotions of the topic, so I’m modifying excerpts from two previous posts. (*For links to the original blog entries, see the end of this one.)]

Grieving the death of a loved one — especially a child — defies description.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins face. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called “6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/).

I’ve summarized her main points below, but please, please see her full article!

  1. Do NOT say Time heals all wounds.
  2. Do NOT say Let go … Move on.
  3. Do NOT say Have faith.
  4. Do NOT say Everything happens for a reason.
  5. Do NOT say At least…
  6. Do NOT say Be thankful.

I’ve not experienced the death of a child or sibling, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be.


Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child–of any age:

  • “You need to take care of your [surviving family members] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older ones) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children (and to many adults), no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do.
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of the loss, this and every other “at least” statement demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child–of any age:

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief.
  • Children need “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of how kids process difficult feelings.
  • “Would you like to talk about your [sibling, cousin, friend, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways.
  • The bereaved — including children — should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read what is and isn’t helpful to mourning families. While nothing you can do or say will make things “better,” you can make an uplifting difference by showing that you care.


*See the full original post texts here: https://tealashes.com/2014/01/28/do-not-say-these-to-a-bereaved-parent-or-any-other-mourner/

and here: https://tealashes.com/2013/11/20/for-grieving-children-wear-blue-on-childrens-grief-awareness-day/

What to Say When Someone Is Dying at Christmas–or Anytime

A few days ago I was asked what to say to a friend whose boyfriend is dying.

My first thought was, “No!” My second was, “Not at Christmas. Not during the holidays,” as if any time is a “better” time to face the death of a loved one.

I responded as well as I could (not knowing her friends) from my experiences and from what others have shared with me about theirs. I cried as I typed, aching for families I know also facing the holidays with their own heart-breaking questions this year: parents, children, cousins, spouses, friends.

Here’s an adaptation of what I answered:

I’m so, so sorry for what you’re going through right now. Yes, it is about your dying friend and about your other friend, the already bereaved partner about to be left behind, but — oh, you’re going through the pain of grief, too!

For you to best help your friend, the first thing to understand is you can’t “fix” anything — for either of them. They’re both experiencing unbearable, inexplicable pain. This may sound awful, but the sorrow of your dying friend will be short-lived. [And no, I don’t mean that as a pun. As inappropriate as it seems, it’s the only word that feels right to convey what I mean.Be available to hear his feelings and share his memories — while you can.

For the loved ones he leaves behind, sorrow will linger and stretch into a festering mist that surrounds, drenches, and permeates their beings. You can no more “cheer them up” than you can point to the sky at midnight and command a noonday sunshine to dissipate early morning fog. Acute grief must wait for the earth to turn before “sunlight” dispels its “fog.” You can’t change the weather of your friend’s grief, but you can sit alongside her in the dark and the damp.

You will be hurting along with her, but yours will be an awful, salt-rubbed, vinegar-spritzed laceration; your surviving friend’s will be an unskilled, dull-bladed, un-anesthetized amputation. In time — much, much, much time — her skin and bone and other tissues will heal — but that limb will always be missing. Acknowledge her life is forever altered. Even when it “looks” better, your friend is going to have “phantom limb” pain that returns. This time of year (the time of “knowing” and the time of “losing”) will ache for years — years — to come. (Jot the dates in next year’s calendar. Ink in a reminder during the month leading up to it, too. Plan now to “be there” for the long term!)

For now, what your surviving friend needs is your presence and your willingness to listen to whatever feelings need airing. No judgement, no filter.  Just acceptance, hugs, and tears.

A practical suggestion: Show up with a box of lotion-infused tissues. They really are softer, and when you’re using them over and over and over and over again all day and night, they chafe less. (Crying is normal. In private and in public. Anytime. Everywhere.)

Know that your friend’s emotions may — scratch that — will run all over the place. Survivors may feel the need for “permission” to laugh again. Or to feel very, very angry. Your friend may become despondent and depressed. These and other contradictory emotions may cycle within a matter of minutes and repeat relentlessly, or any of them may “settle” upon your grieving friend for long periods. Validate and honor the intensity of their emotions by acknowledging them. Never tell grieving friends not to feel what they are feeling. (I’m not a physically aggressive person, but sometimes I thought I’d slap the next person to tell me “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “Don’t cry.”)

Your friend will probably become woefully forgetful and distracted.* This may mean forgetting to eat — or becoming unable to stop eating. The same all-or-nothing  reaction may apply to sleep. Extremes of emotion and body are “normal.” Reassure your friend that it’s okay to experience whatever reactions are surfacing.

It will help your friend for you to verbalize how horrible the loss is. “Ugh. This is so awful. It stinks. It sucks.” [I never, ever use that last phrase, except relating to loss and grief.Survivors need frequent validation of their feelings.

It is painful watching a friend grieve when you carry your own grief over their loss, too. There may be times your friend will want to talk about the lost loved one and about their time together. Or, doing so may be too painful at first. Make sure your bereaved friend knows that if (and when) ready to talk about the departed loved one, you are willing to share those memories.That you also miss the deceased can only help your friend, but be sure you let her know you are there for her, not the other way around. Approaching the bereaved widow or parent or child with how terrible the loss is for you does not show your support for them.

When a couple of weeks or more have elapsed after the death, you may wish to tell your friend about local or online support groups. [One such site was among the first places I felt “understood.” I can’t put words to how “embraced” I felt when I read of others experiencing the onslaught of physical and emotional symptoms of my grief.] Often, viewers can browse postings without having to join.

My heart goes out to you. It hurts, mourning your friend and mourning for your surviving friend’s bereavement. It is hard. It is exhausting. It is important.


*How distracted was I in the first few months after my husband died? Although I’ve lived — and driven — in the same neighborhood most of my life, I got lost four times on the way from my house to the interstate!  (The route takes only two turns — at the correct intersections — once I’ve left my driveway.) In hindsight, it’s probably better I couldn’t find my way to the highway on any of those occasions.