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.

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

Mourning in the Holidays — How to Help Grieving Friends

What do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friends’ loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

grief, help friend, holiday, mourn, candle, TealAshes.com, smoke, wisp, teal,

Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joys of the season (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Saying something is better than saying nothing. Here are ways to tell your friends you’re thinking of them and aware of their grief during the holidays:

  • “I’m thinking of you. I know this is your first Thanksgiving without [say the name of the person who died].”
  • “I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts this second Hanukkah after [say the name]’s death. I realize you’re still adjusting to [his/her] absence.”
  • “Will you join us for Christmas Eve services? We realize you might not want to sit alone.”
  • “I’ve brought you this token as a symbol of [one of the seven principles] to share with you this first week of Kwanzaa without [say the name].”
  • “I know this New Year’s Eve will be hard without [say the name of the deceased] here with you.”
  • “Will you please join me for this holiday?”
  • “May I come visit with you during this holiday?”
  • “I’d love to hear stories about [say the name of the lost loved one].”

Did it seem odd that I repeated the admonition to say the name of the deceased? Most mourners need to process their losses by talking of their departed loved ones. Too often, well-meaning friends think they’ll “make” their friends sad if they mention the names of the ones being mourned. The reality is they’re already sad and would rather have others acknowledge their loss instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Remember, grief is a natural outgrowth of love.

Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.) When talking about the holidays with the newly bereaved, be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices of words:

  • Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate.
  • Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party.
  • Acknowledge awareness of your friends’ ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others.
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

There’s no good time of year to grieve, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Whether death takes place in the middle of the busiest holidays or in the least-scheduled month of a family (or corporate) calendar, it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt not just now, when the loss is new, but also in the weeks and months and years to come. (Yes, I said years.)

Holiday traditions and expectations sometimes fan the embers of grief back into flames. You can’t restore what grief’s flames damage, but you can offer the balm of kindness and understanding as your mourning friends’ adapt to their altered lives.

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

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*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

The Seven-Year Glitch: When Grieving Gets Easier

It — That Day — snuck up on me this year. Granted, I’ve had a lot on my mind the last month:

Teresa TL Bruce, newborn, baby hat, teal glasses, TealAshes.com, teal blanket with flowers

My New Granddaughter and Her Teal-Wearing Grandma (family photo, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Waiting for the birth of my first grandchild in another state
  • Helping my daughter recover from the birth of her daughter
  • Rushing home to prepare my house for Hurricane Irma’s attack on my state
  • Cleaning up after Irma smacked Florida up one side, across the middle, and up the other side as well
  • Juggling the usual stuff — editing, writing, paying bills, tending to family needs …

    Free Irma Souvenirs sign, branches, hurricane Irma, TealAshes.com

    Some residents displayed humor in the aftermath of massive cleanup following Hurricane Irma. In worse-hit areas, there’s not much to laugh about as residents try to reassemble their lives. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So it makes sense that I felt distracted while attempting to work last week. I missed my precious baby granddaughter (and her parents) while I dealt with Irma issues. Even so, I’m usually better able to tune out distractions while polishing prose — whether my clients’ or my own.

As that long, long week drew to an end, realization hit me. All at once, I understood what kept my attention blowing aside, why my mind felt muddled, where the eye of my inner storm hit a wall:

In a handful of days I would complete my seventh year as a widow. I once again faced the anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death.

Odd and disrespectful as it sounds to admit this, I laughed when I recognized how few days remained before this year’s deathiversary. (Yes, I know that sounds awful!)

But I couldn’t help it. In fact, I felt almost giddy. (That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?)

That the date snuck up on me felt like a victory of sorts. This year, I’d finally functioned (reasonably well) through the early days of September. Mild distraction — easily attributed to gratitude and gladness over becoming a grandmother as well as the harried hurry of hurricane hassles — proved a gazillion times better than the overarching, insurmountable, emotional maelstroms of previous Septembers.

I remember the acute pain of new, raw grief: Loss hollowed my gut and battered my brain. Sleep channeled nightmares instead of rest, and waking meant the worst nightmare was real. Simple, familiar tasks required impossible concentration and dexterity. Memory melted. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think. Didn’t want to exist.

People tried to rush me through the grief. “Don’t worry. You’ll feel better in time.” But in that new grief I didn’t need to be told my life-changing loss didn’t matter. The best consolation came from those whose honesty acknowledged my life would never be the same. I needed to hear that the devastation I felt made sense.

But I also heard hope — hope I couldn’t yet believe but needed anyway — from other widows (and widowers) who’d lost their spouses longer ago than I had. I felt validated when they said things like, “It’s okay that you’re falling apart” — and I really had fallen apart at the time — “because this is the worst thing that could have happened.”

Or they’d caution me by saying, “Sometimes it might feel even worse than it does right now, but it won’t always feel this bad.”

Then I asked the naive question only someone desperate not to feel so awful will plead: How long? How long will this grief tear me up? How long until I feel like myself again?

Their experienced, widowed answers varied, but they ran along similar, appalling, prophetic lines: Three years. Five years. Seven years.

It seemed impossible to survive with grief’s ache for three hours at at time, much less three years. But their frankness assured me it was okay that I didn’t “bounce back” right away (despite other folks’ well-meaning, ill-informed attempts to urge me to “get over” my mourning).

Time and experience certified their counsel as reliable. Starting over takes time — emotionally, physically, financially, socially — and learning to live onward after the death of a loved one requires starting over. At my husband’s three- and five-year angelversaries, I knew I still had a long way to go, but I could see how much progress I’d also made.

Now, heading into the completion of year seven and the beginning of year eight, I more than see that progress — I feel it.

No doubt there will be setbacks. Life and love and grief are built that way.

And I might yet want need to dive into a carton of Publix Chocolate Trinity on the day before and the day of his death, if any of the local stores have started receiving ice cream in their post-Irma shipments again, that is. (See Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle for more about this yummy flavor.)

But today … today I’m feeling fine. And that’s a good sign.

I laughed again while I typed the lines just above. In the background, I heard this song by The Piano Guys with Sir Cliff Richard. A  few years ago, maybe even last year, I wouldn’t have believed the words these great artists sang. Back then, I couldn’t, but now, I do believe “It’s Gonna Be Okay.” 

 

 

 

Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.