Easter Mourning — Grief and Belief

What should you say to a grieving friend at Easter*?

Here’s how to support grieving friends at Easter — or any time: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” This simple expression of caring is always appropriate.
  • Send something (a card or another tangible token) expressing your awareness.
  • Bring edibles (snacks, groceries or ready meals).
  • Invite them to eat with you (at home or out).
  • Listen. Let them reminisce, rage, and roar their grief. Laugh along at great memories. Mourners need to share their feelings.

If you wish to share Easter-related (or other religious-themed) thoughts of comfort with your mourning friends, think carefully before and while speaking. Their grief is valid, and your words should acknowledge that.

Never make assumptions — or admonitions — about what the bereaved should do, feel, or believe. If you express how you feel about your own faith, only speak in relation to your feelings — not in relation to their loss.

How can you express your own belief near religious holidays without diminishing the loss your friends feel?

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as I celebrate Easter this year.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. But it’s hard to not have her with us. Thinking of you during my Easter commemoration.”
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I realize this is your first Easter season alone.”

If your beliefs are vastly different from your grieving friends, you might say something like:

  • “Even though I don’t celebrate Easter, I know it’s been important to you, and I know you’re mourning. I’m thinking of you.”

I hope you’ll adapt such positive statements in reaching out to your mourning friends.

Now, having said all this, please let me delve a bit deeper.

I continue feeling conflicted about Easter. It still brings me blister and balm, solace and sorrow. Community and isolation. Heartache. Hope. (I wrote more on this in Easter Grief:  Life and Death and Loss and Hope.)

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I miss my own (and my daughters’) childhood Easter observations — chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, children with parents at church.

I dislike dwelling on the graphic horrors of what Good Friday inflicted, but I daily ponder my gratitude for the empty grave Easter morning revealed. I believe that because Jesus Christ was resurrected from that grave,  I’ll therefore be reunited in the hereafter with the loved ones I’ve lost.

And I take comfort in knowing — within the perspective of eternity — our till-death-did-us-part separation is temporary.

But I didn’t, I don’t (and I perhaps never will) take comfort from others telling me to feel that same hope I already embrace.

  • Don’t admonish mourners to remember the reason for the season. (You might think you’re saying something positive, but what they hear is that you’d rather preach to them than acknowledge the depth of their sorrow.)
  • Don’t tell the bereaved they should be “happy” for the faraway, future fulfillment of their faith. (They’re grieving lost loved ones now — and throughout the rest of what they foresee as long, lonely lifetimes. Future hope doesn’t restore or negate ongoing absence.)
  • Don’t assert or assume that devotion to Deity makes grief go away. (It can lighten the weight of mourning — it did/does for me! — but grief and love are connected. Let mourners mourn as they will, and let them also worship as they will — or won’t.)

When a mourning friend asks what comforts you in your faith, by all means, share the beliefs which offer you consolation. If a bereaved coworker asks what speaks peace to your heart, testify to that source of solace. When one who has lost loved ones worries over their own soul, witness what strengthens yours.

Six-plus years after my husband’s death, I still feel ambivalent about hearing “happy Easter.” But it always feels good to hear someone say, “I’m thinking of you.”

___

*Many of your faith traditions differ from mine. Please understand, I mean no disrespect or disregard toward yours. Please adapt and apply these suggestions to the religious holiday observations and practices sacred to you and to your grieving friends.

I try to make this site relevant to helping everyone learn ways to support their mourning friends — regardless of their faith traditions. Belief doesn’t banish bereavement. 

But because my faith plays such a formative role in my life and worldview, it sometimes features in what I write about, including topics like this Easter-inspired post.

For those of you who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter — and beyond — I hope you will enjoy this brief Easter video: #PrinceOfPeace

Grief, PTSD, and Empathy

It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me … I chanted aloud when alone, silently while surrounded. The reasoning side of myself knew this grief wasn’t about my grief — no matter how much it felt like it was.

I didn’t know the man who died as last year ended and this one began, but his brother and sister-in-law are my friends.

Shortly after I heard the news, I spoke with my friend. With her was a woman I’d never met before, but my soul recognized her expression, an affect exuding the shock of sudden loss. Just a day and a half earlier, her beloved life partner had collapsed — without warning — in their bathroom. Died without reviving. (As did mine, six years earlier.)

I knew nothing I could say would make it better. How could words — any words — alleviate the agony of their loss?

They couldn’t.

But say something to this newly bereaved woman I must. Must. MUST. MUST. MUST! Must approach — even in her in her unapproachable grief. Must extend sincere condolences — even in her inconsolable situation. Must … say … something …

Yet I — after facing my own similar loss; after networking, conversing with, being befriended by multitudes of widowed and differently bereaved souls; after writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words on the subject of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say) —

I struggled for what to say (and what not to say).

So, I said very little.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, then listened.

After a while, when it seemed appropriate, I said, “My husband also died suddenly.” Remembering the widows who spoke similar words to me, I added, “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know it hurts. I’m here to listen.”

She held herself — and her grief — with a quiet dignity. She spoke of her faith in God and how she’s trying to rely upon Him. I admired her attitude even in her anguish.

I remembered similarly drawing strength from my faith during raw, early mourning. My absolute knowledge of God’s love kept (keeps) me functioning. Yet I felt unconsoled and discomforted by those who tried to preach away my sorrow, as if they implied Godly love should negate — rather than enhance — my love-grief for my husband.

I nodded and listened. When she asked me to pray for her, I did. Promised to continue. I still do.

When she apologized for crying, I reassured her she need not. I acknowledged that tears of grief are tears of love. That as she mourned, she need not be ashamed of showing her love in that way.

When we parted, she knew another person outside her family cared about her bereavement.

When I got into my car, I cried for her and all the pain I know she has yet to face. (And I cried for myself as my body and soul felt again the raw pain and shock that enveloped my life six years earlier.)

A few days later, the Saturday morning skies loomed gray the day of the funeral. (As they were for my husband’s, six years earlier.)

Three steps inside the church hallway, my feet slowed. My hands shook. Lungs shrank.

PTSD threatened to do worse if I continued. Empathy insisted I proceed.

I could have turned around. Left the building. Driven away.

The funeral setting felt too familiar.

Like six years ago.

Again.

But it felt like few attended my husband’s funeral.

And I’d gained emotional strength from those who did show up.

And I’d gained physical strength from those who provided food for our family after the burial.

So, I stayed to offer what little support I could.

Despite the uplifting, sometimes hilarious anecdotes shared in the public celebration of this man’s life, and despite the beautiful, spirit-soothing music, my body recognized this was a family’s final, physical farewell to one they cherished.

During the service, I sometimes shook so hard I wrapped my wide scarf around my arms to hide them. My body insisted these traumatic triggers were mine to feel again now (and seemingly forever), but I didn’t wan’t to draw attention to myself.

It’s not about me, not this time. It’s not about me.

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

After the funeral, while the family and closest friends attended the graveside service, several women from two congregations prepared and set out platters of donated food. Sometimes I worked alongside the others in the kitchen. Sometimes I stepped away, seeking solace in solitude.

In the multipurpose cultural hall, empty chairs waited around linen-covered tables. On each stood a vase of cut flowers, also lovingly donated.

I thought about the exhausted relief and despair and closure and uncertainty I felt after my own husband’s funeral. How feeding myself had felt irrelevant until then, but feeding my extended, gathered family after this event became both impossible and essential — and I couldn’t have done it without my church sisters stepping in and caring for us all …

… as my church sisters and I were now doing. When this grieving family returned, we had a buffet large enough to feed the extensive group.

I watched their expressions — grief, relief, exhaustion, hunger, shock, sorrow, fatigue, appreciation — and remembered seeing the same on the faces of my family six years earlier. Many expressed heartfelt gratitude.

Did I thank the women who served my family following my husband’s burial? I’d like to think I did, but much of that day blurs in memory — it’s possible I didn’t. (If so, I’m sorry. Belated thanks to you all, whoever you were that day.)

It would have been easier — emotionally and physically — to leave before the service or not show up at all. But empathy, as painful as it can be, is a wise leader when interacting with the bereaved.

When you have the chance to step forward to comfort your grieving friend, listen. Listen to your friend. Even if it hurts, because it’s not about you.

Easter Grief: Life and Death and Loss and Hope

At Easter time, what should you say to a grieving friend whose loved one has died? My perspective may surprise you.*

I love Easter, but I don’t like it. I’m grateful for Easter, but it’s painful. I take comfort in Easter, but it’s not comforting.

Confusing enough?

When I was little, reading of Good Friday made me sad. My great-aunt Sarah used to say, “What’s so good about Good Friday? It’s horrible” revisiting the crucifixion story. As I grew older and learned more about the physical afflictions inflicted by that practice when Jesus Christ walked the earth among men, it became harder to sit through sermons about that day.

And yet …

For those of us who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ (and future resurrection of all mankind), the message and reason for Easter celebrations offers hope for eventual reunions with long-gone (or recently departed) loved ones. My earliest memory of that hope centers on my mother’s reverence toward Easter, especially in the years following her mother’s death. Mom knew she would see Grandma again someday, and she acknowledged her gratitude that God, in his mercy, provided for that gift.

But she wouldn’t buy (or make) Easter dresses. She wanted our focus on why we were there rather than on what we wore. For similar reasons, she gently steered my friends and me from including “pretend Sacrament” (our name for Communion) when we “played church.” I was five or six years old, but I still remember Mom bending down to our eye level. She was glad we enjoyed church enough to include it in our playtime, but that part, she said, was “about Jesus dying for us, so it’s too sacred” to play about.

Coloring eggs, hiding and finding them, and nibbling chocolate bunnies figured into my family’s annual Easter traditions, but my parents made it clear those were merely fun, shiny wrappings around the real Gift of the season. My husband and I tried to do the same with our kids.

sun-blooms-in-snow-TLBRUCE-20150415

Sun Blooms in Snow (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My appreciation for the significance of Easter deepened after the deaths of my mother, cousin, remaining grandparents, and my husband.  I knew then, as I know now, that our separation is temporary — at least where eternity is concerned. I took (and still do take) solace in that.

However …

It’s one thing for me to say, “I’m grateful I’ll see Mom again. I’m grateful that, because of Jesus Christ, we’ll be reunited.” It’s uplifting when friends agree with me. It’s even nurturing when friends whose views differ acknowledge they’re glad for my sake that my stated beliefs give me comfort (even though they disagree).

It’s entirely different when others tell me to “take comfort” in similar statements. How dare they tell me what I “should” feel about my losses? How dare they tell me what “should” lessen my bereavement? For those already experiencing anger (with God in particular or the universe in general) over loved ones’ deaths, such assertions increase mourners’ feelings of isolation.

When my losses were new, I did NOT want people reminding me of the hope I “should” feel for the future. I did NOT take comfort in platitudes about eventual reunions. I did NOT feel uplifted by efforts to “make” me feel better by reminding me of “the reason for the season.” Such expressions ignored the sorrow of my grief. 

I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) want to be told “Happy Easter.” I wasn’t happy about my mother’s death, or my husband’s (or my Savior’s either, for that matter). Yes, I rejoice that I will see them again. But looking forward to anticipated reunions makes mourning in the here-and-now all the more painful. Future hope doesn’t erase current absence.

Here are ways to support your grieving friends this Easter, no matter what their faith (or yours) may be:

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” Period. No matter the mourner’s faith (or yours), this will always show that you are aware. You can’t go wrong with this, and you can repeat it often.
  • Drop off a card (or some other tangible sign of your concern) they will see long after your visit.
  • Bring them a treat, a snack, or a bag of groceries. Better yet, invite them over to eat with you.

I also feel comfort when friends acknowledge my faith and my loss together:

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as we celebrate Easter.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. Thinking of you and your family at Easter.” (This states the person’s faith and hopes, without imposing them on the mourner.)
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I know you’re missing your husband this Easter season.” (Again, this expression of a friend’s faith acknowledges the current sorrow without imposing that faith on the bereaved.)

If you haven’t yet known what to say to a grieving friend, now’s a great time to reach out.

___

*Please note: My intention isn’t to preach here, but due to the nature of the Easter holiday, I can’t express what I think you should (or shouldn’t) say to mourners at this time of year without referencing elements of my faith. Although faith colors my perspective and shapes my day-to-day life, I respect others’ beliefs. (I’ve never intended to make this a “religious” blog. There are many, many writers who do a beautiful job of that.) My goal has always been to make this a place where people can learn to help grieving friends from any (or no) faith tradition. In most posts, references to my faith and/or my church family do appear, not because I’m trying to proselytize but because they’re as much a part of my life as being a widow with three daughters who has worn bifocals since seventh grade.

Having said that, for those who do share my faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

#BecauseHeLives

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 2, Religion

If you know me in person (or through my writing) I hope you’ll find this post title disconcerting. I hope you’ll think it seems downright odd for me to discourage would-be comforters from referring to religion as they console the bereaved, because I hope I’ve conveyed (in clear, though never in-your-face ways) how integral religion is to who I am.*

So in part 2 of Taboo Topics**, WHY in the heck do I insist you should not invoke religious topics when speaking to the bereaved?

Too many people spurt inconsiderate spiritual platitudes at mourners, reaching for the first handy sayings that come to mind.

Spraying spiritual platitudes on the bereaved is as effective in helping them as when inexperienced cooks spray water on grease fires — flames spread, burning a larger area.

Consider these brimstone-scattering thoughts as you approach your grieving friends:

  • Not all family members have the same religious views or attitudes. What offers comfort to one may deeply wound (or even offend) another.
  • Unresolved familial disagreements about faith-related matters may leave the bereaved feeling anxious or guilty. Pointing out those differences does not help.
  • No one fully knows any heart or soul but their own. Assumptions about the deceased’s “heavenward” status can cause mourners more pain than condolence.
    • Sometimes “outsiders” (even within a family) aren’t privy to all the circumstances of the departed one’s life (or death, or both). The deceased may have lived a praiseworthy public facade but presented an altogether different reality behind closed doors.Grief can be complicated for these survivors.
    • In cases where the deceased secretly (or openly) abused family members, feelings of relief may overshadow (or battle alongside) grief.
  • Survivors of suicide face offensive outbursts from people whose words can’t possibly be intended to console (“Suicide’s a sin, so your loved one’s going to hell”). Survivors also hear too many insensitive assumptions by those who may mean to console but who instead inflict more injury (“Don’t worry. God will forgive your loved one”). Never assume you know what prompted the suicide, and never make spiritual assumptions about it or about the survivors.
  • Avoid using these religious platitudes (and others like them):
    • “She’s gone home to God.”
    • “He’s in a better place.”
    • “You just have to trust in God’s will.”
    • “God needed him more than you do.”
    • “It was her time.”
    • “You’ll see him again.”
    • “It won’t be long before you see her again.”
    • “Heaven needed another angel.”
    • “Now you’ve got an angel in heaven watching over you.”

Remember, I’m not anti-religion. On the contrary. My faith has remained the one constant, the one source of comfort and sanity and security when the box of my life felt soaked in mud, ripped open, overturned, shaken out, and run over. Often I agreed with the sentiments of the platitudes (that he was in a better place, that I did trust in God’s will, that I knew I’d see him again…).

However, hearing them thrust upon me did not help. It felt like the people who said them wanted to cover up or erase my pain, as if it were a thing to be lightly brushed aside. What I needed was to have my loss acknowledged.

If you have an already established pastoral relationship with the bereaved, it may (as in it might possibly, but it might not necessarily) be appropriate to offer spiritual counsel, scriptural comfort, or doctrinal comments. But before you preach at your congregant, listen.

For everyone else who wishes to console a grieving friend, don’t bring religion into your condolences unless your grieving friend first invites you into the topic.

As in all aspects of grieving, LISTEN to the bereaved and follow their lead. IF your grieving friends express an interest in speaking of spiritual matters, by all means share your thoughts, but do so carefully and from your heart, not from the first trite words that come to mind.

___

*I don’t say this to be preachy but to acknowledge the core of my survival during the most difficult part of my life. My reliance on God’s unwavering love and my faith in His absolute awareness of me (and my grieving children) is what kept me going when my soul was flayed raw with grief.

___

**I talk about other taboo topics — politics, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in other posts.