After Castro’s Death — Grief or Relief?

When you heard the news of Fidel Castro’s death, did you feel relief or grief?

For many on the island nation, the news ushered in a state of mourning for their longtime leader.teal-thespian-faces-tealashes

For Cuban expatriates in the United States and other countries, however, in  some quarters the news ushered in celebrations at most, relief at least.

My first, widowed thought was, How sad for his family and friends who mourn him.  My second thought was, How deeply relieved his opponents and enemies must be.

Because of Fidel, many in Cuba lost their livelihood, home, country, family members, friends, and lives. Were it possible to have tried him for human rights crimes committed against his own countrymen, many I know would have signed up for jury duty.

And yet … that aged dictator’s demise cannot undo the years of separation (by sea and borders if not by death) through which those injured families have grieved.

November 26, one of my friends wrote on his personal Facebook wall (and gave me permission to quote):

Fidel Castro.

A frail old man died. No joy in that. As a Cuban who grew up listening to stories from my father about how Castro rounded up many of my dad’s friends and had them lined up in a firing squad, I am thankful for the end of this dark chapter in the history of my country and pray for better days ahead for the Cuban people.  — Manuel Fernandez*, author of the Wolf Battle series and other books

“Pray for better days ahead.” That’s good advice in the aftermath of every death — not just of public officials but of private citizens too.

Like Manuel, I hope and pray healing and reunion will step in where exile forced out.

___

*I’ve known Manuel and his family for more than twenty years — long before my youngest, now-adult child gave theirs an unauthorized haircut. 

Merry Christmas Mourning (Death Changes Holidays)

I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)

But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m  shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.

THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)

THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)

THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.

Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.

This year Old Doggie Dear's stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box -- alongside my late husband's stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This year Old Doggie Dear’s stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box — alongside my late husband’s stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.

And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)

Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband,  our 21st without Mom.

At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.

For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)

I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.

This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).

If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.

If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.

___

*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.

They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.

I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!

Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting
http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

Anniversary after Death

Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.

My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)

Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:

  1. It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
  2. It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.

The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).

If you’re wondering whether (or how) to mention your friends’ wedding anniversaries after they’ve lost their spouses, here are some tips:

  • Say something before the anniversary if you can. For many bereaved, the days leading up to are as hard as (if not harder than) the day of. Even a belated acknowledgment is better than none.
  • Avoid cheery, cliché greeting-card greetings.
    Don’t say, “Happy Anniversary” as if this year is no different (even though you do wish them happiness).
    Don’t say, “Have a wonderful anniversary” (because without their beloved spouse that’s not likely).
  • Acknowledge the loss. Anniversaries after death are inextricably interwoven with that loss. Phrases like these are helpful:
    • I’m thinking of you as your anniversary approaches.”
    • You’re on my mind this week. I know this anniversary will be different.”
    •  “I know you’re missing your sweetheart.”
    • You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

At the start of the post, I mentioned there are more anniversaries after a death than there were before. Death marks a family’s calendar with its own darkly circled dates.

All the “typical” commemorations are there — holidays and birthdays and, yes, wedding anniversaries.

But for anyone who has lost a loved one (parent, child, spouse, sibling, best friend …) the death-added days are there, too — the death date, the funeral date, the day the death certificate finally arrived, the day the cemetery marker was installed, and (in cases where death was expected due to illness) the dates of first symptoms, first diagnosis, hospice care, etc.  All are anniversaries of their own sorts.

Even when death was expected (and perhaps welcomed) at the end of a long, productive life (ultimately impeded by a painful, protracted illness), such “sadiversaries” or “angelversaries” carry pain for the survivors as much as they bring remembered relief for the release of the sufferers.

(A quick side note here: As “happy” as I was for my 54-year-old mother’s release from the cancer that entrapped her body, and as “grateful” as I was that my 47-year-old husband was no longer imprisoned by the premature deterioration of his mind, I was — and still am — neither happy nor grateful that either of them died so young. I’d have much preferred decades more together. So, please. Please don’t tell me — or anyone mourning — why we should be glad or thankful for our loved ones’ deaths. Grieving is not compatible with Pollyanna’s “glad game.”)

I’d say all such dates are difficult to get through during the first year, but that would do a disservice to everyone who has lost someone close to them. Love has no time limits. Neither does grief. I mentioned not remembering much about my first widowed anniversary, but I don’t remember the second one, either. The shock of widowed fog (and other grief) can — and often does — blur more than a single year’s worth of seasons. 

We will always mourn those we’ve loved, but we won’t always be consumed by that bereavement. Given time and encouragement, we learn to live with the grief. We learn to live in spite of it. We learn to live forward again.

But as anniversaries approach — even years later — we can always use expressions of loving help and caring encouragement from our friends.

"The language of love is expressed in countless caring ways."

Snapshot taken by Mom, tucked in a Hallmark card from my late husband. Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

 

 

 

 

Wear Blue for Children’s Grief Awareness Day the 3rd Thursday of November

The Children's Grief Awareness Day Hope Butterfly http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/

The Children’s Grief Awareness Day Hope Butterfly http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/

Thursday, November 20, 2014 is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. (It’s held every 3rd Thursday of November, the week before Thanksgiving’s 4th Thursday.) To learn more about the event, check out http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

I wear teal 364 days a year, but on Children’s Grief Awareness Day you’ll find me in blue, and I hope you’ll join me. Even professionals who work with children daily need to better understand and be aware of the unique needs of grieving children.

I’ve networked with many, many souls who have lost loved ones. I’d like to share one example of why #CGADHope is so important. I do so with permission, but with key identifying factors altered. In honor of CGAD, I’ll call this widow “Mrs. Blue.”

Mrs. Blue’s husband died early one school year. Understandably, Child Blue’s academic year held many challenges and adjustments. As the first anniversary of Daddy Blue’s death approached, Child Blue faced greater academic and emotional struggles. The fog of new grief was gone, and the real work of grieving was in full swing.

Before school began, Mrs. Blue contacted school officials, attempting to put into place strategies and awareness to help Child Blue weather that grief-strewn time of year. Sadly, the school wouldn’t allow a meeting with all necessary parties until November (ironically, near Children’s Grief Awareness Day), months after the start of the academic year and the first anniversary of Child Blue’s father’s death.

At the meeting, Dr. Clueless, one of the most necessary of the necessary parties, sat down and brusquely said, “I see Child Blue’s grades and attendance started slipping last fall. What happened?”

Mrs. Blue’s jaw dropped. She’d included the “what happened” reason and background information in all the emails and phone calls she’d made since before the school year began. Even the other necessary parties in the room stared at Dr. Clueless. One of them, Ms. Aware, finally answered, saying, “Child Blue’s father died last fall.” (Mrs. Blue still couldn’t speak.)

Without even a perfunctory “sorry-for-your-loss” or “this-must-be-difficult” acknowledgement to Child Blue (whose attendance was required for the school to finally hold the meeting), Dr. Clueless displayed even worse ignorance. Dr. Clueless responded to Ms. Aware’s statement by saying, “Yes, but that was last year. What’s Child’s problem this year?”

True story.

At a follow-up meeting, Mrs. Blue and Dr. Clueless were the only ones in the room before the others arrived. Because of Dr. Clueless’s comments at their prior encounter, Mrs. Blue asked, “Dr. Clueless, have you ever worked with any other children who’ve lost a parent?” She was stunned to learn that Dr. Clueless had, in fact, worked with many, many grieving students over a 20-year period.

How sad that in all those years, Dr. Clueless had not developed an awareness of children’s grief and grieving. How fortunate that Ms. Aware, in far less than half that time, had developed such an awareness.

For more information on ways you can help bereaved children, see my Helpful Resources page or check out last year’s post on the subject, For Grieving Children …

A Widow’s Thoughts about Mother’s Day

What should you say to a widow or widower on Mother’s Day? In my last post*, I shared reasons the day can be difficult for many people. I told how my Mom’s death “still” impacts the way I feel about Mother’s Day, but I avoided expressing how I feel about it as a widow.

To be blunt, most widows and widowers don’t look forward to Mother’s Day — we dread it.** And yet, we still want it acknowledged.

I became a wife before I became a mother, so Mother’s Day was — for me — as much about being my husband’s wife as it was about being my children’s mother. My no-longer-little girls were in their teens and twenties when their dad died. For 24 years he’d honored me as his wife every Mother’s Day, over and above the way he honored me as the mother of his children. Suddenly, half the “wife and mother” adulation was wrenched from that day’s annual pampering.

Mother’s Day is confusing now — and painful. I’m still my husband’s wife, but as a widow — his widow — I have no husband. I’m still our children’s mother, but with their father deceased I’m no longer the “wife and mother” I was for more than half my life. Honoring my motherhood is interwoven with recognizing my severed wife-hood. Mother’s Day reminds me of what I had … and of what I’ve lost … and of what I still have. As I said, it’s confusing.

Handmade Mother's Day Card

My husband made this Mother’s Day card for me just a few months before his unexpected death.

How can you help a widow or widower through Mother’s Day? Here are a few practical tips:

  • If the loss is recent, saying “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day” shows more sensitivity than saying “Happy Mother’s Day.”
  • For a widow with children: Let her know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without her spouse. Ask her if you can take the kids shopping or create an art project or craft or make a card with them. It’s not about the gift. It’s about having someone show her children that she’s appreciated — and that her kids should also express appreciation for her — without her having to prompt it. She’s no longer “just” their mother; she’s got to handle all the responsibilities that were once shouldered by both parents.
  • For a widower with children: Let him know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without his spouse. Offer to help him in the same way you might help a widow with kids. He’s now handling all the responsibilities of both father and mother. Remember: He’s still grieving the loss of the mother of his children and he’s facing the lifelong pain of helping his children (no matter their ages) as they grieve their mom’s absence.
  • For widows and widowers without children: Let them know you’re aware of them, and, if it’s appropriate, let them know you realize that Mother’s Day may be more difficult without their spouses. Exercise discretion. Some may have wanted children but been unable to have them. Others may have chosen to remain childless. Don’t base your interaction on assumptions.
  • It’s better to say something than to say nothing. You won’t “make” your friends feel sadder by speaking of their lost loved ones or “remind” them of their pain. (The sadness always exists, simmering below calm exteriors even when time and “healing” have taken place.) Even hearing “I don’t know what to say” can comfort and uplift a mourning heart.

___

*Mother’s Day Mourning

**I recognize that everyone reacts differently. Some widows and widowers may still look forward to the day. More of the ones I’ve spoken with, though,  view days like this the way I do.

Here’s one fantastic alternate (but overlapping) view by my widowed friend Julie Toone: Appreciation for Mother’s Day…

If you have other suggestions that might be helpful, please share them in the comments below.

To Comfort the Bereaved, Give Hugs–But Ask First!

Offer hugs, but ASK before embracing.

In the first year after my husband died, sometimes I needed — but sometimes I couldn’t stand — hugs. The one person I most wanted to hug me was no longer around — and never would be again. I didn’t want “substitutes.”

There were times our daughters didn’t “feel like” hugs, either, and although my arms ached to offer them a mother’s comforting embrace, I learned they each needed to grieve their father on their own terms and in their own ways.

Most days, though, I accepted and found strength in other women’s hugs, especially from widows. (Their silent squeezes conveyed I understand better than words.) I found solace in my male relatives’ hugs, too. We’ve always been a “huggy” family on both sides, so sharing their (often wordless, occasionally bear-like) embraces felt familiar and comforting.

However, I did not, repeat, did not enjoy hugs from male friends and acquaintances, not even a little bit in the first year … or two. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe not. For me, when I made my marriage vows 24 years earlier, I took the “forsake all others” portion to heart, hands, and arms. My husband was the man I hugged — the only man I hugged — other than kin (and a very few close-as-kin-to-us-both friends), because that was what I chose. That was one way I honored him — and our vows.

I wasn’t in the habit of hugging other men when my husband stepped from the room or went away on a trip. Why, after death took him “away,” would I suddenly do so? I still felt the same connection and commitment to him — and to our vows. To me, hugging other men after he died felt as “wrong”  as it would have felt while he lived.

However, for many widowed friends, hugs from friends of the opposite sex helped! Such hugs made them feel better connected to their late spouses. The hugs that disconcerted me brought them a semblance of peace.

These days, three years into widowhood, I’m no longer raw with the shock and newness of my loss. I willingly accept and return (almost all) embraces.

I even initiate hugs — but I ask first, unless I’m offering virtual (((hugs))) like these.

(((Hugs))) to you for reaching out to your grieving friends, coworkers, and family members.